A hundred years or more have passed since any farming of olives has been undertaken on the far-flung island of Kastellorizo.
But in the face of Greece’s dire economic circumstances that’s all about to change, due to the combined efforts of Australian Kastellorizians and local people.
This week the first sales of locally-produced olive oil are underway after the pressing of 180 litres last winter.
While the amount is a drop in the ocean compared to Greece’s major producers, the project’s passionate supporters believe the new cottage industry has major benefits for the island’s economy.
The initiative has been financed by Greek Australian donors through the ‘Friends of Kastellorizo’ group, one of the most successful diaspora support mechanisms for Greece currently operating.
The group was founded in 2007 and now has 1,600 supporters on its mailing list, with scores of donors willing to put their hands up to help projects that enhance the island’s infrastructure and economy.
With investment in the shape of a €3,000 injection to the olive oil project, Perthbased Nick Mitaros, a director of Friends of Kastellorizo, says the project is about creating new and sustainable jobs for the island’s resident population of just 300.
“Locals tend to think that all the opportunities are in tourism, in that four or five month window every summer, but there are other possibilities,” says the semi-retired lawyer, whose grandparents migrated from Kastellorizo around the same time that olive oil was last produced there.
“The Friends group exists as an association of directors across Australia, we don’t have offices. It started as an Aussie initiative but morphed into an international one last year as a result of a waste recycling project introduced on the island.
“We called for donations and within three weeks we’d raised $50,000, most of it from Australia,” says Mitaros.
“We bought an electric buggy and it goes around twice a day to all the restaurants and houses picking up all the plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans. That project employs two people, and on an island with such a small population, every job is important.” With a not-for-profit (Drasi Kastellorizou) established by local residents, the Friends group have a direct channel for identifying priorities and managing funds.
“They identify the projects that are most important and then we go to the diaspora and Philhellenes,” says Mitaros.
“People choose different projects to fund. We’re planning to start a honey farm up in the mountains and someone will put their hand up for that.” Previous projects supported include air conditioning for the local school, with many more in the pipeline, but Greece’s worsening economic crisis has altered priorities for Mitaros and the donors.
“Our focus shifted from simply doing projects to improve the island to ones that create new and sustainable employment. The next is a free range chicken farm,” he says with some pride.
“We’re also about to launch a campaign to raise $300,000 to restore a 19th century windmill, to make it into a fully working mill again to grind wheat. We have the approvals in place and one Greek Australian donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, has already put in the first $50,000.” “What we want to do is show local people that this sort of initiative can be successful, and encourage them to harvest their own olive trees next year and become part of a co-operative.” As for the olive oil, Mitaros says while it’s a symbolic project given the small quantity involved, it’s a vital model, and what’s more, a project that offers sustainable employment.
“We know we’ll be able to sell the olive oil this summer to tourists and the Greek Australians here They’ll buy a little bottle and take it home.
“What we want to do is show local people that this sort of initiative can be successful, and encourage them to harvest their own olive trees next year and become part of a co-operative.” Perth-born Margarita Kannis, one of the organisers on the island, told Neos Kosmos that the project had already borne fruit, with one full-time and one part-time job having been created.
“This is our first production, our tester season. Until now the trees have all been wild and so we were very limited,” says Ms Kannis.
“To begin with we’re providing products for sale here to the local market. Hopefully in the future we can think about exports.” To celebrate the first manufacturing of Kastellorizo’s finest extra virgin oil since the start of the 20th century, five 250ml bottles of the golden green nectar (offered as one batch) are being auctioned on eBay this weekend.
The auction closes at midnight Greece time 2 August 2015..