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Outside the last physically divided city on Earth, a small, olive oil-producing farm surrounded by barbed wire thrives in a UN-controlled buffer zone.
Forty-five years after a war tore Cyprus in two, a farm grows in ‘no-man’s land’

Forty-five years after a war tore Cyprus in two, a farm grows in ‘no-man’s land’

In 1974, Turkish forces invaded the island of Cyprus – which is home to both ethnic Greek and Turkish communities – following a military coup backed by the Greek government. Some of the fiercest battles between the Turkish and Greek armies were fought here at the now-abandoned Nicosia airport. After Turkish soldiers seized approximately 40% of the country, a ceasefire was eventually reached – but not before tearing the island in two.

Today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the capital of Cyprus, Nicosia, remains the last physically divided city on Earth. Since the ceasefire 45 years ago, a 180km-long United Nations buffer zone (known as the ‘Green Line’) that cuts through the city has divided the island between the Turkish Cypriot-controlled north and the Greek Cypriot-controlled south. This partition displaced more than 25% of the island’s population, as up to 150,000 Greek Cypriots who lived in the north were expelled to the south, and some 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were relocated from the south to the north, leaving their lives and land behind.

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

Maria Baltazzi is one of the many Cypriots whose families were displaced by war. Her uncle, George David, grew up in the village of Petra, which was largely destroyed in the fighting and now lies uninhabited just north of the buffer zone. In fact, much of Baltazzi’s family land, a vast 45-hectare area containing 6,000 olive trees – some of which are 1,000 years old – extends directly into this demilitarised zone patrolled by the UN, which for much of the past 45 years, no-one was allowed to enter.

While there are still military posts on both sides of the ‘Green Line’, locals and tourists have been able to walk from one side to the other by showing their passport since 2003. Some 27,000 landmines in and around the buffer zone have been destroyed by the UN in order to clear the region for farming and other activities.

Baltazzi’s dream was to return her family’s land to its former splendour, and after a friend introduced her to sustainable farming methods six years ago, she quit her marketing job in Athens, relocated to Cyprus and, together with David and French environmental engineer Nicolas Netien, had the idea to start an organic farm in this desolate no-man’s land. After applying for a permit from the UN to farm in the buffer zone, Baltazzi and Netien began transforming the abandoned terrain into a fertile pasture.

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

When Netien first saw the land six years ago, he remembers it being an arid wasteland. Yet, because Cypriots had not been allowed back inside the buffer zone for decades while the UN gradually destroyed all the active landmines in the area, Baltazzi and Netien thought the lack of human activity made it the perfect place to start an organic farm.

“We arrived in a place that wasn’t sprayed since 1974, so we had insects, which is rare now,” Netien explained. “If you don’t have insects then the bad bugs don’t have predators. So, they help us with the pest management. We never have to spray here. Because the olive flies get eaten before they get to the tree.”

In addition to being blessed with millennium-old olive trees, the duo soon realised that their farm was home to healthy fox, rabbit and bird populations that had thrived in the 45 years since hunting was outlawed in the buffer zone. Today, the Baltazzi and Netien raise horses, cows, chickens and a donkey; grow figs, prickly pears and other plants; and produce a unique form of extra virgin olive oil.

A farm in a war-torn land
(Credit: crozstudios/Alamy)

(Credit: crozstudios/Alamy)

While Netien and Baltazzi grow a variety of aromatic plants and shrubs, the thousands of olive trees dotting their property are the source of the farm’s most prized product: olive oil. Instead of harvesting the olives by hitting them with a stick – which is quicker and more common, but often damages the olives – the farmers handpick them. They then take them straight to the onsite mill to squeeze them into oil.

“We mill them in our facilities within 30 minutes to avoid oxidation of the olive,” Netien explained. “It's simple logic and we want to do everything we can for [the] best quality. I never did any course regarding olives – we learned everything by working on them.”

Baltazzi and Netien sent their olive oil to the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, which is home to a well-known lab that has analyses olive oil to measure its health and therapeutic properties, and eagerly awaited the results.

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

Researchers at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens have analysed more than 7,000 olive oil samples from 10 different countries. Their report found that the olive oil Baltazzi and Netien produce has some of the highest concentrations of polyphenols (the micronutrients found in extra virgin olive oil and fruits, vegetables and other foods) ever tested. Research has shown that consuming polyphenol-rich olive oil can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, lowers cholesterol and plays a role in the prevention of cancer.

Their report also said that their olive oil had the highest concentration of oleocanthal, one of the polyphenol nutrients, ever recorded. It’s not just a world record, but also 28 times higher than the average extra virgin olive oil. These findings, which were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, have commanded a lot of outside interest, and three institutes are currently studying Baltazzi and Netien’s unique olive oil. The University of California, Davis is examining its anti-inflammatory properties; Hunter College in New York is testing its anti-cancer properties; and the University of Athens is studying its effect on Alzheimer's disease.

Today, Baltazzi and Netien sell their Atsas olive oil in a shop in Nicosia and ship it worldwide. Their extra virgin olive oil has received gold medals in the Olympia Awards from 2016 to 2019, and the High Phenolic Aristoleo Awards in 2017 and 2018, and a silver medal in the London International Olive Oil competition in 2018.

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

The farmers were surprised by the results, and believe it’s the principles of agroecology they follow in their farming that make their olive oil unique. As part of this practice, Baltazzi and Netien attempt to mimic nature and create an environment that has the diversity, stability and resilience of a natural ecosystem. That means protecting pollinators, avoiding pesticides and using less water to increase the fertility of the soil – all of which makes their crops more resilient and increases the amount of carbons in the soil.

Netien says the fact that the land was untouched for more than 40 years also made it more receptive to organic farming than other areas. “[The land] wasn't spayed with pesticides or even tilled, so the soil was a rich ecosystem,” Netien said. “We're now helping this ecosystem grow bigger.”

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

Baltazzi’s home is located next to the farm and part of her balcony is directly over the buffer zone. She lives here with her son, rescued stray dogs and cat, and is a five-minute drive away from the village of Evrychou, where her family moved as refugees after the war. Twice a day, white UN trucks and a helicopter come by to patrol the area, but aside from the occasional noise, Baltazzi maintains that it’s actually quite tranquil.

“It’s very peaceful. Friends came to visit and they were like: 'Oh my God, you’re in the middle of nowhere!',” Baltazzi said. “They don’t really understand how lucky we are just to be here. Every time I go to Nicosia, I’m just aching to get back.”

Baltazzi said that she and the few other farmers working in the UN-controlled buffer zone near her home all have a close relationship. “It's like a village within a village because there are not that many of us around and there are not that many of us that have passes to be able to work in the buffer zone,” she said. “Everyone knows everyone. They'll bring us oranges; we'll give them some of our olive oil.”

(Credit: Andrew Robinson/Alamy)

(Credit: Andrew Robinson/Alamy)

Ten km away from the farm and buffer zone, Baltazzi's uncle has set up an education centre, where Netien also teaches, and invites scientists and other farmers from across the world to come educate and train the local community in sustainable farming practices.

Business management, producing protected designation of origin products and adaptation strategies for climate change are also among the topics for seminars and workshops.

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

(Credit: Nikolia Apostolou)

For Baltazzi, the buffer-zone farm is a very personal labour of love. These days, her dream isn't just to revitalise her family’s land, but also to inspire other young Cypriots to return to the areas surrounding the buffer zone. And if she can do this while also educating others about the benefits of organic farming, all the better.

“This is why we've set up a model farm, to try and make it sustainable,” she said. “To work the land and prove that it can be a profitable business. We're trying to get more farmers in the area to go organic.”

Netien sees their small organic farm’s success as evidence of the island’s agricultural potential. “Cyprus is a paradise. It has an incredible potential; it has an incredible combination of climate, soil, unique geology. [It’s] unique in the world.” he said. “We have amazing mountains, an amazing sea and amazing people with really good hearts in both the north and the south sides. The potential is huge for producing the best quality products in the world. I’m sure of that, and we demonstrated it with the olive oil.”

Breaking Barriers is a BBC Travel series featuring inspiring tales of unity and humanity in theatres of dispute and division.

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