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Pesticides: UNESCO-approved?

Published in Nature Watch

Hvar is rightly proud of its UNESCO-recognized assets, but are they being looked after?

Herbicide in the Stari Grad Plain, March 2016 Herbicide in the Stari Grad Plain, March 2016 Vivian Grisogono

Hvar's UNESCO entries include the 'Following the Cross' ('Za Križen') Maundy Thursday Processions, which is on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, alongside the shared listings of the tradition of making lace from the agava plant, and the Mediterranean Diet,  plus the Stari Grad Plain (Latin Ager, Greek Hora), which is on the World Heritage List. Great efforts are being made to preserve the cultural integrity of these prized historical assets. Yet there are certain obstacles which have not yet been fully recognized, which could undermine the recognition of the Stari Grad Plain and the Mediterranean Diet.

Built for family use and storing tools.

There is ongoing debate about the rights and wrongs of the buildings which dot the Stari Grad Plain. In the main, these are modern-day shelters for people working in the fields, places where tools are stored securely. Many have been built in stone, in keeping with the surrounding landscape. There are some fine renovations of old stone cottages which dated back decades, if not a century or so. There are some simple shacks, adequate for their utilitarian purpose, but not particularly attractive. There are some eco-tourism buildings, usually beautifully made small stone structures designed for shade and shelter, where visitors can enjoy Dalmatian cuisine (part of the Mediterranean Diet, after all) in exquisite natural surroundings. There are a very few more ambitious actual houses, usually very fine stone constructions, designed as holiday retreats for the owners, occasionally as rustic rental properties for guests wanting to commune with nature. All the buildings are, of course, off-grid and dependent on wells and rainwater cisterns for their water supply.

Some authorities, especially those based in Zagreb, take the view that all the buildings on the Plain should be demolished. Local people and local authorities tend to be of the opinion that the buildings, or many of them, should be allowed to stay. Some, after all, were built at a time when approval was granted in principle by the Planning Authorities, even if it was not confirmed by document. Logically, there were buildings on the Stari Grad Plain from the time it came into agricultural use under the Greeks and later the Romans. Animals and people needed shelter against the elements, whether the hot sun, fierce winds or driving rain. There is also the problem of the amount of devastation tearing all these buildings down would cause to the environment. Small though most of them are, the sum total of debris would be sizeable.

The real worry

While the debate continues over the Stari Grad Plain buildings, little attention is being paid to a much more pressing problem: the devastation of the natural environment through the relentless use of chemical pesticides.

Herbicides in a vineyard in the Stari Grad Plain, pictured one January. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The UNESCO description of the Stari Grad Plain states: 'Stari Grad Plain on the Adriatic island of Hvar is a cultural landscape that has remained practically intact since it was first colonized by Ionian Greeks from Paros in the 4th century BC. The original agricultural activity of this fertile plain, mainly centring on grapes and olives, has been maintained since Greek times to the present. The site is also a natural reserve.' For the Mediterranean Diet, the description covers a broad range: 'The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food.'

Herbicide beside olives in the Stari Grad Plain, April 2015. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Herbicides and insecticides are used regularly by many of the Plain's agriculturalists, usually twice a year, but sometimes more. There is a tragic lack of awareness of the consequences: pesticides don't work as people believe they do, but they can cause a lot of harm in many different ways. There is a mass of overwhelming evidence of the harm linked to the widely used glyphosate herbicides, but the die-hard users resolutely ignore it. Many think that pesticide use is 'normal', even 'essential'. During each year, the effects of the herbicides are often all too evident. They even appear in promotional material, presumably unintentionally.

A brochure showing widespread herbicide in fields near Stari Grad.

Wild greens and asparagus, freshly foraged from the countryside, are traditional staples of the Hvar version of the Mediterranean Diet. Nowadays you have to be careful where you go foraging, to avoid being poisoned by chemical herbicide residues. Olives and olive oil are also essentials in the Mediterranean Diet. But they lose their health benefits when contaminated by chemical herbicides and insecticides.

Herbicide round vines: the poison penetrates and lasts! Photo: Vivian Grisogono

In the video below, land contaminated with herbicide is visible at intervals, especially on a path between vineyards, shown at 2 minutes 42 seconds. Such devastation of the soil and the natural environment is an ecological disaster. Contrary to commonly held belief, the herbicide spreads through the air when it's sprayed, through the soil, and through underground water, of which there is a lot on Hvar. It lasts in the soil too. And it penetrates all the plants it is in contact with. That's why glyphosate, currently the most widely used herbicide ingredient on this planet, is found in the animal and human food chains.

The World Heritage List Criteria

Pesticide use was recognised as a threat in Croatia's Nomination to include ther Stari Grad Plain in the World Heritage List:

Yet no official action has been taken to persuade land-owners to switch to organic methods of farming. This could lead to the Stari Grad Plain being transferred to the Endangered List:

The criteria for designating natural landscapes as endamgered are set out clearly, and include pesticide use:

Opportunity for change

If the Plain was added to the Endangered List, it would not be a major disaster. On the contrary, it would present an opportunity to make the situation better. UNESCO is committed to providing help to endangered properties. In this case, it would probably consist of education in the reasons why pesticides should be outlawed from the Stari Grad Plain. But such outside intervention really should not be necessary.

Chemical pesticides have no part in Hvar's historical traditional assets. The widespread use of chemical pesticides in the Stari Grad Plain, (as all over Hvar Island), undermines the basis for including it in the UNESCO listing. This holds true for Hvar's inclusion with the Mediterranean Diet. The real heritage of the island lies in organic agriculture. That is what people expect when they come to a place which has been put on the international map as a prized heritage. The few organic farmers on the Stari Grad Plain are showing the way: it can be done! Chemical pesticide users need to wise up and follow suit. The various authorities responsible for Hvar's environment and heritage should be encouraging organic agriculture in every possible way. Only then will Hvar's Stari Grad Plain and Mediterranean Diet once again truly deserve their places on the UNESCO lists.

© Vivian Grisogono MA(Oxon) 2016

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