NICOSIA, CYPRUS - While Greek and Turkish Cypriots seek to resolve one of Europe's longest disputes, two scientists from Oregon State University are working to unite a divided country at ground level - through soil.
"Soil, in the sense of land, is what these communities have been battling over, both figuratively and literally," said Jay Noller, a professor of soil science at OSU. Noller and his wife, Lisa Wells, a professor of geosciences at OSU, are in Cyprus helping scientists on both sides of the divided island nation to map soils and develop plans to conserve this fragile resource.
Cyprus has been divided into a Turkish-occupied north and a Greek Cypriot-dominated south since 1974 when Turkey invaded the island following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. U.N. peacekeepers patrol the dividing "Green Line."
"The Turks fought for and gained nearly all of the prime agricultural soil on the island during the war of 1974," Noller said. The reunification plan proposed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had provisions that would put a significant portion of these soils under Greek Cypriot control, Noller added.
Noller, Wells and their two school-age sons came to Cyprus last summer, as part of a year-long assignment Noller received from the Fulbright Commission.
Noller's research in Oregon focuses on the impacts of large-scale and long-term landscape manipulation. Cyprus has been an excellent laboratory, according to Noller, with 9,000 years of agriculture and forestry dating to the Neolithic Age.
The political situation in Cyprus puts a strain on his working conditions.
"I have an office in the Ministry of Agriculture in the Republic of Cyprus, the southern part of the island, under Greek control. It looks onto the South Cyprus president's house in Strovolos, just south of Nicosia," Noller explained.
"I have another office in the Ministry of Interior in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is not an internationally recognized state," he added. "It overlooks the central mosque and the north Cyprus President's office in north Nicosia.
"In addition, Fulbright provides me with an office - a small, one-room, free-standing cinder block building - between the barbed-wired boundaries of the Greek and Turkish lines for a neutral work space," Noller said. "My typical work routine requires crossing the Green Line twice daily. Lisa and I and our boys live in the south, one kilometer from the Green Line."
Like much of the Mediterranean region, the island of Cyprus is a rocky landscape with a thin mantle of highly erodable soil. Noller is working with both governments to map soils and document where erosion and sedimentation are occurring.
Their findings have political implications. Soil degradation and desertification in southern Europe is a topic of immediate concern to the European Union (EU), which Greek Cyprus is scheduled to join next month. Having the data and soil maps necessary to combat soil erosion would empower Cyprus to gain from EU efforts in the region.
"Despite millennia of communal efforts on this island to conserve soil and watershed through sweat equity, the past 50 years have been marked by loss of soils due to injustice and bloodshed, and the lack of a solution to the Cyprus problem," Noller said.
Noller is committed to bringing scientists from both sides together to map the soils of the island they share. In March, at an international conference in Greece, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot stood together with Noller and presented the results of their geomorphological study that spans the "Green Line."
"Turkish Cypriot scientists have been banned from international meetings since 1974, and this was a first," said Noller. "This is a good example of peace through science."
However, the week of the referendum vote disrupted scientific work in both government offices, according to Noller.
"Reports of physical threats from extremists in the north have shut down my field work there for this week," he said. "And last week it was reported that a local farmer's tractor blew up when it struck a land mine in the fields where I had been digging soil pits last summer. That was too close to home."
Despite the unrest, an important part of this research, according to Noller and Wells, relates to a Cypriot tradition of soil conservation that has persisted for millennia.
"This idea suggests that care for the earth transcends political and religious institutions; transcends emigrations and immigrations; transcends time," Noller said. "It is a character innate to the people of this insular landscape. I firmly believe that this bi-communal project is in keeping with this age-old Cypriot tradition."