How immigrants could help us deal with the climate crisis
Approaching Tan y Fron, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had stumbled into a Greek mountain village. Santorini-blue window frames peep out from under a grape vine that reaches the second floor of the little miner’s cottage.
Under a patchwork of wooden offcuts and panes of glass, mismatched pots growing beans, figs, and fresh herbs spill into the apothiki, where years of parts and pieces that might come in handy one day bide their time. Nothing is thrown away, nothing is wasted.
In the kitchen bread becomes rusks, bones become stock, and foil is folded up and reused. It is impossible to pop in without leaving with a pot of yuvetsi or moussaka, some homemade jam, or a bag of muddy potatoes.
My dad, who will be 70 next year, moved to Blaenau Ffestiniog at the start of the ‘90s, after sweeping my mum off her feet on her holiday to Corfu.
While that is the short story, there was a mostly unspoken shadow over my dad’s migration, as he would be unable to return to Greece for over 20 years.
Hearing nostalgia-tinged stories of Greece growing up, I imagined Corfu as a kind of Garden of Eden. Almost everything that made it to the family table had come from the garden, from the olive oil to the wine, and if it hadn’t there was a good chance that it had been swapped for something that had.
Now, in an allotment in North Wales, overshadowed by slate tips, growing his own food helps my dad stay connected to his culture and cultivate friendships.
One of the people he admires most in the allotment is Cindy. Cindy left Vietnam as a teenager, after growing up in a rural farming village in Lang Son.
Working in the allotment brings back memories of her childhood, and she enjoys the sense of community, the sharing of skills, knowledge and even plants with other growers.
While rice, corn and pumpkins grew plentifully in her old village, in Blaenau she has had to ask her neighbours what will grow best in this climate.
She explains that her two plots in the allotment take almost as much work as acres of rice, due to the wet weather and the abundance of weeds and pests.
This hasn’t stopped her though, as her patch overflows with different berries, flowers, and vegetables. She points to the Jerusalem artichokes that my dad shared with her and tells me how she has learnt to take cuttings of her blackberries to share with others.
Cindy’s daughter picks raspberries behind us while we chat, and her mother explains the importance of her children seeing how things grow rather than thinking they come from a box in the supermarket, and her wish for them to learn the importance of patience, hard work and commitment.
Cindy almost echoes my dad when she speaks about sustainability, and explains that without bins in her mountain village, they had to be mindful about waste.
She recalls that they were almost completely self-sufficient, only buying rare staples such as salt, which would come wrapped in newspaper rather than plastic.
Speaking to Cindy and my dad, I’m struck by two things. Although I’ve heard of programmes across the UK using allotments to help immigrants integrate and to share skills with locals, it’s wonderful to see this happening organically here in our little Welsh town.
I also think it’s ironic that so much mainstream discourse focuses on the need for immigrants to assimilate, to become more like ‘us’- when really, we should be asking what we can learn from them.
As I look up at the slate tips, I wonder how Blaenau would have developed without the mass migration that fed the quarries in the 19th century.
Would these slate tips be here if people hadn’t come from far and wide to work?
Would the industrial revolution have been possible without migrants from all over the world?
What if, instead of presenting immigrants as drains on society, we could welcome them as valuable human beings bringing with them valuable knowledge and experience that could help us all deal with the looming crises?
In Mauritania, a country which is at the forefront of the climate crisis, this is already happening. With over 85,000 refugees from Mali arriving in the country since 2012, there is potential for yet more conflict over scarce resources.
However, there are reports of refugees and locals sharing knowledge and skills, particularly around preserving water and growing techniques.
While most of Blaenau’s residents may think that my dad is crazy for trading the warm waters of the Ionian for the cold mountains of Snowdonia, he has travelled to over 50 countries, and hasn’t found a better climate than in north Wales.
While we may struggle not to laugh at this, he calls it Ipia – mild. The summers aren’t too hot, and the winters aren’t too cold. The perfect growing climate.
This will be Blaenau’s power in the future, with many areas of the globe becoming uninhabitable to humans due to climate change.
Estimates for the number of climate refugees by 2050 range up to 1.2 billion, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), with some of them potentially from as little as 20 miles away.
While we may not always be able to bank on my dad’s claim that ‘there is no extreme weather here’ we are certainly geographically well placed to deal with it.
One thing that we can bank on is that growing our own food, reducing waste, and consuming less are going to be essential to our survival as a species.
For many of us this will mean making big adjustments to the way we live. For others, like my dad and Cindy, it hasn’t taken a climate crisis for them to learn the importance of living sustainably.
Our willingness and ability to learn from each other, to share knowledge, skills and resources will be as vital to our survival as water and arable land.
Kiki Rees-Stavros is one of the participants in GALWAD’s People’s Newsroom.
GALWAD is part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, co-commissioned with Creative Wales with funding from Welsh Government and UK Government galwad.cymru
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