When the seed knows the soil: a Palestinian story about resilience and food

All over the globe, people are preserving seeds for a sustainable future. In an online talk with the Palestinian ‘queen of seeds’ Vivien Sansour and Hanneke van Hintum from the Resilience Food Stories platform, we learned that small steps can make a green future.

Several years ago, when visiting Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem as a translator for an international NGO, Vivien Sansour was served homemade spinach pies. The taste was very comforting and good, and Sansour was amazed to learn that the spinach had been home-grown in the unkind environment of the refugee camp. ‘How can something so delicious grow in a place with so much pain?’ she thought. It marked the beginning of Sansour’s investigation into ‘the food she came from’.

She discovered that at one time Palestinian farmers were producing food for the whole world, while at present they were often excluded from their land, not allowed to grow the seeds their families had used for centuries. In a way, Sansour connected with her own culture and heritage through these seeds. She collected varieties that were thousands of years old. She understood that those seeds thoroughly know the Palestinian soil. At a time and a place where farmers had become used to monocultures as well as limited access to their land and water resources as a result of the occupation, Sansour started collecting indigenous Palestinian seeds and founded the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library. With this seed library she seeks to preserve and promote heritage and threatened seed varieties, traditional Palestinian farming practices, and the cultural stories and identities associated with them. Based in the village of Battir, a UNESCO World Heritage site outside Bethlehem, the seed library also serves as a space for collaboration with artists, poets, writers, and journalists to exhibit and promote their talents and work.

‘How can something so delicious grow in a place with so much pain?’

Working closely with farmers, Sansour has identified key seed varieties and food crops that are threatened with extinction and would provide the best opportunities to inspire local farmers and community members to actively preserve their bioculture and local landscape. The Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library is part of the global conversation on biocultural heritage. Its Traveling Kitchen is a mobile venue for social engagement in different Palestinian communities, promoting cultural preservation through food choices.

Resilience and love

Hanneke van Hintum discovered the world of food production and the immense challenges faced by farmers when she and Ruud Sies partnered with Koppert Biological Systems. Sies and Van Hintum developed Resilience Food Stories, a storytelling platform where they show the real people behind the global complexity of food production and give them a space to tell their stories, which are extraordinary, exciting, inspiring, instructive, moving, and funny.

Hanneke tells the story of the Romanian priest, whose wife asked him to get her some parsley from the supermarket. When he found himself in the supermarket with a plastic covered bunch of parsley that had traveled all the way from Italy to his village, he had a moment of epiphany: ‘I can grow this myself’, he thought. And so he did, and he grew much more. The village now produces its own food, free of chemicals and with lots of love. ‘At the theological institute, I learned that as a priest I should do good to people. Producing good food is the equivalent for me’ the priest-turned-farmer said.

Food production and agriculture do not always come with romantic stories. Food systems are political systems and, says Sansour, ‘we humans are a greedy species; we always want more.’ Massive production, be it organic or non-organic, usually means that fertile land is consumed by one crop, which kills the soil. Sansour: ‘Farmers used to be artists, working with the land, but now they are forced to follow the rules of food producers.’ Five companies in the world own 70% of the global seed market. And only seeds that are registered in the official catalogues can be put on the market. The registration process is costly and complicated. There are farmers with beautiful and healthy vegetables that cannot be sold in supermarkets, because the seeds are not officially registered.

‘Farmers used to be artists, working with the land, but now they are forced to follow the rules of food producers.’

The seeds are a key element in the stories. Van Hintum: ‘People are in awe of seeds. It is miraculous that old and forgotten seeds can grow into plants and food.’ And seeds need soil. If there is no land because it is occupied, used for buildings or solar energy ‘farms’, or when it is overtaken by huge monoculture production, people are excluded from producing their own food. In a way, growing your own food is a form of resistance. Sansour calls it agri-resistance, defying neo-liberal politics where everything is owned and has a price. ‘What is on our plates reflects our choices: what is it I am eating? How was it produced, how much water was used, and was anybody or anything hurt in the process?’

Both Sansour and Van Hintum agree that what the world needs is a food production system that is kinder to the planet. Their stories on the resilience food platform and the seeds in the seed library tell this message: the magic is in the seed; it gives us all we need.

For more on Vivien Sansour’s work, watch this short movie by Al Jazeera.

For resilience food stories from around the world, go to https://resiliencefoodstories.com/. After corona restrictions have been lifted, Van Hintum and her partner will travel to the Middle East and North-Africa to collect resilient food stories.

Sylva van Rosse is mede-oprichter van Het Grote Midden Oosten Platform. In haar werk maakt ze de Arabische wereld toegankelijk voor Europese actoren die willen werken aan een gedeelde toekomst.

Vanessa Lambrecht is expert en bestuurslid bij Het Grote Midden Oosten Platform. Zij is arabiste en heeft een grote interesse in hedendaagse ontwikkelingen in de regio.

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