valley of hope

In the East of Sicily, a big eco-community works towards the protection and preservation of a big valley.

I am on my way from Marina di Ragusa towards Catania. The small silver rental car is struggeling with the steep mountains. Only 30 minutes after I've left South Sicily, I stop on the side of the road, puzzled. Do I really see what I think I am seeing?

The mountain is calling

 

Never before have I seen Europe's biggest vulcano from such a far distance. After all, I am still more than 100 kilometers away from it. Mystically, Etna keeps appearing and disappearing throughout my journey, it's white tip luring me to get closer. Sometimes I wonder if I can see smoke ascending. Nearly every year, the more than 3300 meters high vulcano errupts. No matter how peaceful the scene appears, the Etna never sleeps. On my approach, the landscape around me changes: less greenhouses, more plantations, less unfinished construction sites, better roads, less rubbish on the side of the road. As the big city Catania unfolds in front of me, I turn left. To the countryside, to Paternó.

I meet Vincenzo at 2pm - as agreed - on a bridge. Another man with glasses joins us. Vincenzo presents him as the president of 'Biodistretto'. They seem to know each other very well. Together, they proudly point at our surroundings, the reason why I am here. Their valley. Their river. And hence, the foundations of their plan.

Two old friends

The Simeto river murmurs below us. Other than most rivers in Sicily, it does not run dry during the summer, which explains the proud glow in the men's eyes when their gaze wanders across the water. They can rely on their river, he won't let them down. His floods brought the fertile lava soil to the valley. Etna and Simeto, they are both worshipped here - and for a reason. This place has something magical. The seemingly quiet mountain and the gentle river remind me of two old friends, which have been here longer than humans.

Through a rusty gateway, we drive to Vincenzo's little farm and I hope that my rental car won't mind the dirt road. My surroundings are as beautiful as I could have wished for. Lush and flowery, the air is filled with humming and buzzling. Thank you Simeto, thank you Etna.

We take a seat in front of Vincenzo's tiny farmhouse. The golden March sun shines on us and the two men start talking. I am highly concentrated, I take notes and I pray that my Italian (which consists mainly of French grammar and Spanish vocabulary mixed up in a nice melody) will be good enough to follow their story. It is, I am captivated in no time.

Together against decay and chemicals

The Simeto valley comprises 113 kilometers and is too precious to fall to decay and chemicals. In many other parts of Sicily, the landscape is shaped by abandoned farms and kilometers of greenhouses. Half of the greenhouses are intact but closed off. Of the other half, only the carcasses remain, with bits of transparent foil blowing melancholically in the wind. The little available water is being poisoned by herbicides and pesticides of conventional farming.

 

Together with local farmers, the non-profit assiciation 'Biodistretto' has been tries to protect the valley from this development. The aim is to preserve the area's originality, biodiversity and natural wealth. Organic farming is the key: many of the 45 local farms are already certified, some of them thinking about going further and converting to permaculture. A nework of producers, communes, educational institutions and volunteers stands behind the project, the EU has promised fundings.

  

To make sure that the project succeeds even when fundings are exhausted, it has to become economically selfsustaining as quickly as possible. Eco-tourism and local sales are as important as international markets. The target markets are especially in Northern Europe, where organic, demeter and permaculture are on the rise. But which products will be most successfull abroad? Who can help to provide orientation in the jungle of organic criteria? Who will buy permaculture products from Sicily? Unfortunately and even though I am quite experienced in the organic sector, I cannot guarantee success recipees or sign supply contracts. But I can write about something, that should never be destroyed.

 

After one hour, I close my notebook and we take a stroll through Vincenzo's 1.5 hectares. And I love what I see.

Vincenzo's paradise

The farm is located on a hillside, and the further up we climb, the more stunning becomes the view across the valley. Me and my camera can hardly keep up with Vincenzo, who talks about his trees and plants like about family members. Every couple of minutes he plucks a fruit and makes me try it. All fruits are different - some juicy and sweet, some tingly and sour, but all of them taste so intense like those sweets that, as a child, you could only buy once a year on the village fair. Between orange and mandarine trees I spot small pomegranate saplings. The soil is covered with grass, flowers and herbs. A fish pond reflects the scenery, a small canal flows in between the terraces. On the upper end of the farm, a fresh water well splatters lively. From here we overlook the valley for a while without saying a word. We are all lost in our own thoughts, but we share a peaceful look in our eyes. We like, what we see, what we scent, what we hear. A last piece of blood orange tingles on the tip of my tongue and I don't want this moment to pass. But of course it passes...

 

Silently I follow the two men back down to the farm house. I wished I could do more to make the idea of these people come true and on my way home I feel slightly melancholic.

 

What will this place look like in 50 years time?