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Turks unite to save olive culture

Citizens of a small olive-producing town played a key role in defeating a government proposal to allow industrial development among Turkey's olive groves.

Beginning in early May, thousands of Turks signed petitions, participated in demonstrations and posted to social media in support of the campaign “Olives Are Life!” (Zeytin Hayattir!) The name and slogan belonged to the leading campaign, one of many, against a government proposal to amend a 1930s “olive law” and protect olive groves in the country. Faced with stiff opposition, the government withdrew the amendment on June 13. Turkey's olive lobby seems to have won the battle, at least for the time being.

Both political opposition and olive sector players considered the proposed bill, which would have allowed the construction of non-olive oil-related industrial facilities in olive groves to the possibly significant detriment of the groves and olive growers and their enterprises. Opponents had feared that the bill's passage would lead to the destruction and replacement of the groves with mines, industrial projects and housing schemes if they were deemed to be in the “public interest” despite causing serious damage to Turkey's olive oil production.

The strongest voices in opposition came from Ayvalik, a picturesque Aegean town that is included on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage centers. The town’s recent addition to the list is almost entirely based on its olive culture. The organization calls the town's olive groves a “component of the natural character of Ayvalik.”

Yalin Tuzmen, a city planner and conservation expert from the Ayvalik municipality, told Al-Monitor that there are some 2 million olive trees in and around Ayvalik. In Ayvalik itself, a well-preserved 19th-century industrial port town, the main thoroughfares have an almost natural, stream-like flow from olive groves to the harbor, from which oil and olive oil soap were once shipped. This is perhaps one reason for UNESCO's recognition of the Ayvalik Industrial Landscape.

Today, olive oil transport is mainly via advanced road connections, and the processing plants are situated outside the town and olive groves. Olive oil production remains the major economic drive of Ayvalik's economy. The architectural heritage of old plants and the harbor remain the town's landmarks.

Ayvalik's high-quality olive oil is considered the finest in the country. Mayor Rahmi Gencer was instrumental in obtaining the geographical indication for Ayvalik olive oil in 2007, when he served as director of the Ayvalik Chamber of Commerce. Gencer told Al-Monitor, “The olive tree is an integral part of life in Ayvalik. As a municipality, we are now restoring the 19th-century industrial buildings, converting them into culture hubs. As the olive industry had been the basis of our cultural identity, we need to preserve this heritage in the best way possible, as well as our olive trees and the landscape surrounding us. This is the core of our very being!”

Gencer’s passion is echoed by regional producers, who lobbied the government and parliament against the proposed bill. Zeynep Kursat Alumur, who hails from an olive-oil-producing family, said she and other producers had been well-received in Ankara by all the political parties, including the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had sponsored the bill.

“All the parliamentarians treated us with hospitality and respect,” Alumur told Al-Monitor. “I think we succeeded in explaining our concerns and our will to protect our olive culture.” Many of the protesters had been hoping that they could gain the support of members of the Islamist AKP, given that the olive is considered a “blessed” fruit in Islam and is mentioned a number of times in the Quran.

The Aegean region, particularly the towns of Urla and Ayvalik, lie at the heart of Turkey’s olive culture. “Turkey is home to the oldest olive oil press ever found, in the ancient city of Klazomenai in Urla, dating back to the sixth century B.C.,” Banu Ozden, a food culture researcher, told Al-Monitor.

“Since then, olives and olive oil have been a part of cookery in this land. Now Turkey has the most state-of-the-art, modern, continuous olive oil [production] plants, [now] featuring high-tech [equipment] and producing about 178,000 tons of olive oil each year,” said Ozden. At the Third International Conference on Food History, held this month in Tours, France, Ozden presented a paper titled “Technology Behind the Golden Liquid: Olive Oil Extraction Techniques Used in Western Anatolia throughout History.”

Any negative effects on Ayvalik's olives and olive oil would greatly affect the Turkish table. Turkish cuisine has a category of dishes called “zeytinyagli” — literally “with olive oil” — that are eaten cold or at room temperature. This range of vegetable dishes is totally vegan. The vegetables are braised in olive oil with sauteed chopped onions and sometimes with a handful of rice, until their juices are reduced to almost nothing, adding intensity to the flavor of the vegetables.

Thanks to these olive oil-based dishes, Turkish cookery's vegetable cuisines are quite rich. Traditionally, this method of cooking was particularly preferred during Lent among the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire, where religious dietary rules required believers to abstain from all meat, dairy and other animal products. This is why there is always a vegetarian, olive oil-based version of dolma (stuffed) or sarma (wrapped) dishes, often called “yalanci,” the Turkish word for “liar,” in this case leaning more toward “fake,” as it indicates containing no meat. Moreover, the olive in Turkey is an essential part of breakfast. Cured black olives and bread can constitute a feast on their own. An olive-rich breakfast is sometimes called the Aegean or Ayvalik breakfast.

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