Entangled destiny: the connection between trees and people in the Mediterranean

A National Geographic Society project explores how land abandonment and other global changes are eroding the connection between local communities and traditional practices related to trees in three Mediterranean countries.

Screenshot of the presentation of the project at the National Geographic Explorers festival.
The project “Entangled Destiny: Trees & People of the Mediterranean” was presented at the National Geographic Explorers festival. Photo: National Geographic Society.

The powerful connection between trees and culture will be at the centre of a new National Geographic Society project lead by Magda Bou Dagher Kharrat, principal scientist of the European Forest Institute Mediterranean Facility and Professor at Saint Joseph University of Beirut, Lebanon. Developed together with other two National Geographic explorers, Maria Contreras Coll and Sara Camnasio, this multi-disciplinary research and storytelling project will explore the ancient linkage between Mediterranean communities and typical trees of the region: olive, carob, and stone pine.

Magda Bou Dagher Kharrat highlights the role of technology and new information in safeguarding Mediterranean natural and cultural wealth. Photo: Herve Sanguin.

The Mediterranean identity and trees

Since ancient times, co-evolution between human societies and ecosystems has always characterised the Mediterranean region resulting in multifunctional landscapes hosting high cultural value. In this context, trees such as olive, carob, and stone pine have contributed to the development of various Mediterranean societies and have assumed a significant role in the identity of people in the region.

However, climate change together with rural abandonment on the one hand, and growing human pressure on the other, have caused increasing cultural erosion: people, and especially new generations, are losing the connection with the natural resources of their territory and the traditional cultural practices associated with them.

Faced with the risk of losing the traditional ways in which people relate to the land, this project intends to bring the stories of these three trees to light and display the different relationships people have with them in the Mediterranean.

The project will be characterised by participatory storytelling techniques, as emphasized by Maria Contreras Coll. Photo: leszek_kruk / Pixabay.

Three women, three countries, three trees… and infinite stories

Starting this August, the project aims to increase understanding on the vanishing cultural and ecological connection between people and three iconic Mediterranean trees: Olea europea (olive); Ceratonia siliqua (carob); and Pinus pinea (stone pine). A multidisciplinary research approach examining archaeological, genetic and historical facts and findings will be conducted for each tree, unravelling the intimate myths, legends and ethnobotanical use associated with them. Then, the project will focus on storytelling techniques to rebuild this relationship and celebrate traditional knowledge and cultural practices connected to olive, carob, and stone pine in the region.

Magda, Sara, and Maria will travel in a customised van across their Mediterranean countries – Lebanon, Italy, and Spain – collecting and sharing information to shed light on the ecological and cultural relevance of these trees, uncovering the stories of local traditions and preserving the knowledge of the guardians of this heritage for the future.

This project, as Sara Camnasio explains, will bring to light untold stories to fill the gaps that cause cultural erosion around these trees. Photo: Lienyuan Lee / Wikimedia Commons.

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EFIMED is the Mediterranean Facility of the European Forest Institute. Based in Barcelona, Spain, it was launched in 2007.