How climate change threatens lemon growing on Italy’s Amalfi Coast

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Amalfi, Italy (CNN) — High above the green hills of the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy, a nimble farmer leaps through terraced lemon trees overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Balancing between one wooden pole and another, the not-so-young acrobat defies gravity, bends down to pick lemons and hauls them in crates weighing over 25 kilograms (55 pounds) between vertical gardens at over 400 meters (1,312 feet) above ground.

A strong aroma of rosemary surrounds it, mixed with jasmine, sage and, of course, the unique, bittersweet scent of citrus fruits. The sound of the waves below masks the hum of car traffic and the noise of tourists in the main square of the UNESCO-listed town of Amalfi.

“It’s not blood but lemon juice that runs through my veins,” says Gigino Aceto, an 87-year-old farmer whose family has been growing lemons here since the 1800s.

From dawn to dusk, Aceto’s life revolves around lemons. He sleeps in his lemon trees and feeds on lemon. It was even designed among these plants.

“At the time of my parents, the lack of space and intimacy meant that love was made outside, under the lemon trees”, he says with a smile.

gigantic fruits

Fruit within reach: Amalfi lemons are known for their large size.

Federico Angeloni

Lemons are the beating heart of the region’s complex and biodiverse ecosystem, which has remained unchanged for centuries. But Aceto is one of the last guardians of this vulnerable tradition now threatened by industrialization, social changes and climate change.

The large Sfusato or Amalfi lemon is grown in an area that stretches along the Tyrrhenian Sea between Naples and the Gulf of Salerno. A single lemon can weigh up to three kilograms.
About 2,000 metric tons are currently harvested each year around the Amalfi Coast, according to local figures, but surveys show that these areas of lemon trees have been in decline for 60 years.

“In Amalfi alone, lemon terraces fell from 72 hectares to 48 between 1954 and 2015, while wild forests and urbanization increased considerably,” explains Giorgia De Pasquale, architect and researcher at Roma University. Tre, who seeks ways to preserve the family. lemon-producing companies.

De Pasquale has been working to achieve ‘Agricultural Heritage System of Global Significance’ status for Amalfi’s lemon groves – a designation under a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization program. farming.

“The process that takes place in Amalfi is the same all along the coast,” she says.

A remedy for all

With its light yellow color, intense fragrance, juicy texture and soft skin – it can be eaten sliced ​​like an apple – Sfusato has become a staple ingredient in the region’s traditional cuisine.

It is used in pasta dishes, sauces for salads and grilled fish, desserts – not to mention the famous Italian Limoncello liqueur. And because of its properties – it’s rich in vitamins C, B, E, potassium and magnesium – coastal dwellers have found myriad uses, from cleaning clothes to natural medicine.

“The first thing we do when we wake up with a headache is put some lemon zest in our morning coffee,” says Aceto. “When you cut yourself, you run to get a lemon to disinfect. If you feel sick, there’s nothing lemon spaghetti can’t fix.”

Brought here in the early Middle Ages during trade with the Arabs, lemons were once used by sailors, especially in northern Europe, to fight scurvy. They also played a role in the fight against cholera in Naples in the 1950s.

But it is not only the nutritional and pharmacological properties that have made Sfusati so fundamental in the region. The traditional agricultural system – a remarkable example of the 15th century where man and nature work in harmony – has proven resilient to the instability of climate change.

Sculpting the wild cliffs overlooking the sea, the orderly architecture of the lemon trees alleviates some of the region’s worst problems, including landslides caused by rain and forest fires.

“Farmers provide a systemic service to the entire region, protecting the coastline from landslides and other environmental disasters,” says De Pasquale. Without this agricultural activity, she adds, the landscape of Amalfi and the entire coastline would disappear, deteriorating year after year.

‘A disaster’

Lemon trees fill the steep slopes.

Lemon trees fill the steep slopes.

Federico Angeloni

Arranged vertically in layers, the lemon trees are separated by three to seven meter walls made of Macere – a local limestone resistant to soil pressure and impervious to rain. Even today, the bocage is only accessible on foot or by mule.

The terracing system harnesses the force of gravity to direct rainwater to irrigate plants.

Poles made from local chestnut wood are used to create scaffolding around the stand of lemon trees and allow “flying farmers” – as Italian writer Flavia Amabile calls them – to walk on the trees for pruning, harvesting and l ‘maintenance. The plastic sheets protect the lemons from offshore winds and create an ideal microclimate.

“Everything works perfectly in synergy with the earth,” says Salvatore, Aceto’s 57-year-old son. Still, he says, farmers are in a constant battle with man-made problems, including scorching temperatures blamed on climate change.

“With the frequent fires during the summer, it’s a disaster,” he says.

“The maintenance of the land must be a collective work. The terraces are linked to each other. But today they are either abandoned or transformed into second homes and illegal constructions.”

The low profitability and high costs of the traditional farming system pushed more and more Amalfitians off the land, causing the walls to crumble. Tourism, which is reaching problematic levels in parts of Amalfi, has given them another, perhaps easier, source of income.

“The work is hard here, not like in the valley, but no one wants to work hard anymore,” says Salvatore Aceto, his dialect solidly Neapolitan. “At the same time, they use cheaper methods, like cement [or] lime, which damage the landscape, prevent drainage and cause landslides.”

A disappearing art

In Minori, a town on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Stanley Tucci tastes lemons he calls the best in the world.

There is a risk, he says, that when his generation stops farming the land, the knowledge accumulated over centuries by local communities could disappear altogether.

“Most tourists who come to Amalfi aren’t aware of this system just across the main road,” says De Pasquale, leaving farmers cut off from the tourism dollars that flow into the area.

In an attempt to solve this problem, Salvatore and his brother Marco, 56, created Lemon Tours, an agricultural tourism company to raise awareness of Sfusato and revitalize the traditions used to cultivate it.

They lead groups of up to five people, spending hours on terraces built over a thousand years ago, teaching them culinary skills like how to make a dish of Scialatielli with lemon or how to process local honey.

“It’s convenient to have a certain image of the Amalfi Coast, but we don’t bow to tourists or misrepresent our stuff,” Salvatore said. “We are farmers, and that is what we show.”

“At 5:30 a.m. my clothes are dirty and my knees are exhausted. It’s work that destroys you. These are the two faces of Amalfi, the one you want tourists to see,” he says, pointing down the slopes towards the city. below. “And the real, real life of the farmers.”

“The bottom has become something else.”

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