The Cultural Elements of the Mandra System of Lemnos: A Narrative Approach

By Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos (MedINA)

…because one must produce, one must by all possible means of activity replace nature wherever it can be replaced […] new fields of activity must be created, in which we shall see at last the reign of all the fake manufactured products, of all the vile synthetic substitutes in which beautiful real nature has no part […] no more fruit, no more trees, no more vegetables, no more plants pharmaceutical or otherwise and consequently no more food, but synthetic products…

Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), French dramatist
in Kovani, 2005, p. 74

As the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis puts it, a landscape is not just a simple set of land; rather, it is the projection of a human society’s soul on the matter (Mentzafou-Polyzou, 2005). The term anthropos (humankind) has always been implied in agro-pastoral considerations, as humans are the managers of the natural and cultural environment. In islands, more than anywhere else, the limitations posed by the natural barrier of the sea and restricted natural resources, have triggered human ingenuity to make most of the land’s productive capacity by creating complex systems of agro-silvo-pastoral management –today’s so-called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

In Lemnos, the traditional mandra system is a complex rural management regime where farming and stockbreeding complement each other to create a mosaic of land uses and landscape patterns. Fundamental elements of the system, apart from the traditional mandras (pens) themselves, are inter alia, the creation and maintenance of level stepped surfaces on the hillsides with limited productive capacity; the alternate year cultivation of fields (fallow land and crop rotation practice); the care and maintenance of crops and livestock (until recently, based on local seed varieties and local breeds of farmed animals); the household –trade– economy; and, the solidarity and cooperation between local inhabitants. Such a traditional farming system was based on the intensity of human labour that allowed the exploitation of every available resource and, at the same time, securing its renewal with every passing year.

The German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) stated that …artificial fertilisers, artificial irradiation, are, or could be, on their way to incite the soil to thousandfold yield, in a hubris and unprecedented “Anti-Demeter movement” […] technology per se is meant, and already not far from being able, to emancipate us from nature’s slow and regionally confined labour on its raw materials… (in Jonas, 1984, pp. 188). Nature, though, has its own ways to show that something has to change or be redeveloped (Terkenli, 2005). Climate change and desertification are two major challenges that show how nature has its way to fight back against radical changes. These challenges, remind humans once again that they need to adapt their practices to natural limitations, rather than completely transform nature, if they are to survive and thrive.

Lemnos’ mandra system has resulted in a vital combination of socio-cultural, environmental and economic services. It is threatened, among others, by low economic viability, migration, globalisation and climate change, which have led to the abandonment of many traditional practices as well as the loss of locally adapted species of crops and farmed animals. The mandra system of Lemnos should be revisited in order to identify those aspects that can contribute in understanding the value of keeping alive sustainable agro-pastoral knowledge; protecting the natural environment; promoting local identity; and, enhancing local products, agro-tourism and other market opportunities. At the end, Lemnos should brand its particular features – mainly those reflecting the local environment and culture– in order to promote its locality as a lever for sustainable development. The Terra Lemnia project aims to assist in this direction, by documenting all this vital –but often unrecorded or dispersed between several sources– information, turning into a coherent narrative about the unique, mixed agro-pastoral mandra system of Lemnos.

A great part of the information included in the following sections of the report, especially in chapter 3, was extracted from interviews with local people, conducted in April 2019. Twenty five people to whom we are extremely grateful, shared their knowledge on all the aspects of life in the mandra, in the past and in the present (construction of the mandra, organisation of agricultural and livestock production, crops, techniques, ownership status, customs, social relations, etc.). The semi-structured interviews were conducted either individually or in groups of people. They are quoted as P.I. or G.I. (Personal Interview and Group Interview), followed by the names and date of the interview. A relevant list can be found in Annex III.

Source: Introduction, The Cultural Elements of the Mandra System of Lemnos: A Narrative Approach

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