Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - In divided Cyprus, olive oil ‘for peace’ brings hope



In divided Cyprus, olive oil ‘for peace’ brings hope

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Turkish-Cypriot Hasan Siber (left), co-founder of Coliveoil, holds freshly picked olives in Mora (Meriç), a village in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) near the divided capital Nicosia. AFP

In divided Cyprus, olive oil ‘for peace’ brings hope

In a field bathed in winter light, Hasan Siber patiently harvests his olives. It’s a common sight in Cyprus, but his “oil for peace” represents a rare glimmer of hope on the divided Mediterranean island.

Turkish-Cypriot Siber’s oil is to be sold via Coliveoil, a start-up he founded with his Greek-Cypriot friend Alexandros Philippides.

The pair in their early 30s, who met at university in London, want to “take the peace process forward” by selling oil from both sides of the island.

“You never know where an entrepreneurial adventure and friendship might lead,” says Philippides.

Based in the buffer zone of Nicosia, the last divided capital in Europe, Coliveoil is a rare example of a start-up bringing together the island’s two communities.

Cyprus has been split since 1974, when the Turkish army invaded and occupied the northern third following a coup aimed at incorporating the island into Greece.

Reunification talks have been suspended since 2017 – but that same year, Siber and Philippides set up their company that same year with the aim to building bridges across the divide.

The project has enthused Siber’s family, some of whom fled the south during years of conflict.

“Working here today fills me with hope,” says Ayhen Eminel, Siber’s retired uncle, who himself tried to set up a bi-communal business in the early 200s but faced rejection by Greek Cypriot authorities.

He uses a rake to pick olives in a sunlit grove owned by Greek Cypriots, in the formerly mixed village of Agios Ioannis.

The septuagenarian, who speaks Greek as well as Turkish, recalls fleeing the Paphos area in southwestern Cyprus after having been a prisoner of war.

Siber’s aunt Sidika Hudaoglu, a primary school teacher in her 50s, said the project has brought back memories of a childhood spent among the olive groves in the island’s south, which she fled in 1974.

And the entrepreneur’s father Turgut, a 65-year-old cardiologist, has invested in his son’s start-up and has come from Istanbul to support it.

“Working together, it’s the start” of living together, he says.

“I think others will follow . . . It sets an example.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Olives harvested in the TRNC can’t be registered as organic by the EU, even though the pair say all the olive groves they use are. AFP

‘Bring down the barriers’

While bi-communal projects enjoy some support among Cypriots, this one faces several obstacles.

Without a legal framework for registering bi-communal enterprises, Coliveoil has two legal entities, two bank accounts, two phone numbers and two addresses – one of each on each side of the divide.

The company in the south must buy from the one in the north in order to export to the EU.

Complicating the export process is the fact that EU laws are not applied in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), only recognised by Ankara.

Olives harvested in the TRNC can’t be registered as organic by the EU, even though the pair say all the olive groves they use are.

“We have to bring down these barriers,” Siber says.

On the northern side of the checkpoint, Siber and Philippides examine olive groves in Meric, a village surrounded by hills bearing a huge Turkish flag visible for miles across the buffer zone.

When they first took olives into the south in 2017, customs officers asked them to clean the northern olives for export to the south, they recall, even though nothing in the European regulations indicates this.

Resolving the Cyprus problem would more than double the island’s overall gross domestic product to 17.4 billion euros ($19 billion) over 20 years, according to a study by the Peace Research Institute Oslo Cyprus Centre (PCC).

But since a summit in Switzerland collapsed in July 2017, there has been no movement in UN-sponsored negotiations for the divided Mediterranean island.

‘Breaking taboos’

Yet Coliveoil worker Cemre Berk says she feels she is an active part of the peace process for the first time.

“We’re breaking taboos”, the Turkish-Cypriot says. “The more people get used to seeing Turkish-Cypriots working on the Greek side and vice versa, the more normal it will become.”

Many Turkish Cypriots express regret the outcome of a referendum on a United Nations reunification plan in 2004 – the year the divided island entered the EU.

Turkish Cypriots accepted the plan, but Greek Cypriots voted it down.

Coliveoil gives 10 per cent of its profits to “Home for cooperation”, which houses the start-up in the buffer zone of Nicosia alongside pro-reunification NGOs.

Jammed between the low checkpoint walls, Coliveoil works with duo CyprusInno, which connects entrepreneurs from both sides of the island.

Such initiatives still attract stigma, says Steven Stavrou, one of CyprusInno’s cofounders, who met his business partner online.

Burak Berk Doluay was the first Turkish-Cypriot he had ever met.

They started their digital platform in 2013 during the country’s economic crisis, and they now count 2,600 members.

“It has changed our lives,” says Stavrou, who was also a witness at his associate’s wedding.

“By coming together through business, sometimes things go beyond that.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh placed in two-week lockdown

    The government has decided to place Phnom Penh in lockdown for two weeks, effective April 14 midnight through April 28, as Cambodia continues to grapple with the ongoing community outbreak of Covid-19, which has seen no sign of subsiding. According to a directive signed by Prime Minister

  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Hun Sen: Stay where you are, or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that the two-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Kandal provincial town Takmao could be extended if people are not cooperative by staying home. “Now let me make this clear: stay in your home, village, and district and remain where

  • Businesses in capital told to get travel permit amid lockdown through One Window Service

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration has issued guidelines on how to get travel permission for priority groups during the lockdown of Phnom Penh, directing private institutions to apply through the municipality's One Window Service and limit their staff to a mere two per cent. In

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Ministry names types of business permitted amid lockdown

    The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training singled out 11 types of business that are permitted to operate during the lockdown of Phnom Penh and Takmao town, which run through April 28. Those include (1) food-processing enterprises and slaughterhouses; (2) providers of public services such as firefighting, utility and