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In mid-October, along with four members of the Rotary Club of Ojai, I traveled to Stolac, Bosna i Herzegovina, to visit the Global Grant project to which One World Rotary has extended financial support.   The grant was written to provide an economic development project for women in rural Bosna i Herzegovina (BiH) by providing financing and technical support to train 30 unemployed women to cultivate tomatoes, dry and package them for sale.   The  Rotary Club of Ojai is the grant international sponsor and the Rotary Club of Mostar is its local sponsor.  Our partner private non-profit, Urdruženje Orhideja Stolac is a women’s cöoperative.  A distinctive feature of this grant is that the project seeks not only to reduce the grinding poverty that still afflicts the area 20 years after the civil war which ravaged it, but to serve as model of reconciliation as Bosniak, Serb and Croat residents work side-by-side in this cöoperative effort to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.


Stolac - Beautiful but in many ways still sadly divided

Stolac is one of the oldest settlements in the region with references to it showing up in documents dating to 1463. Extolled as one of the most beautiful towns in the former Yugoslavia, Stolac is situated along the Bregava River.  It enjoys a Mediterranean climate and prior to the war contained some stellar examples of Ottoman architecture.  Illyrians settled there in the 14th century and left behind a necropolis of Stećak tombstones.  Nearby are the ruins of Daorson, a settlement the Illyrians built atop a much earlier Hellenistic fort, where artifacts dating from as early as the 4th century BCE have been found. 

Stolach’s pre-war population stood at about 19,000 people of which nearly half were Muslim Bosniaks, about 20 percent were Orthodox Serbs, and some 33 percent were Catholic Croats. Through history tensions existed between these groups, but after the formation of Yugoslavia and under the communist/socialist leader Tito (Josep Broz), these conflicts were suppressed by the prohibition of any political campaigns based on religious affiliations.  Tito sought to deemphasize ethnic identies and build a unifying Yugoslavian identity. In this respect the Tito era, which ended with Broz's death in 1980, is still missed by some. The ensuing power struggle between the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the Croat leader Franjo Tudjman degenerated into vicious ethnic warfare and resulted in the dissolution of the Yugoslav state.  Slovenia and Croation declared their independence in June 1991 and Bosnia declared itself a sovereign nation in October; in April 1992 it was recognized by the European Community as an independent state.  

Despite the nation’s new status, nationalist impulses to identify as Serbs and Croats rather than as Bosnians divided the country and armed warfare ensued. Beginning in 1992 and continuing through 1995, neighbors took aim at each other from sniper locations, buildings were bombed, looted and burned. In Stolac, all non-Croat residents were rounded up and taken into custody or forced to leave. Since the end of the war the population of Stolac had rebounded to about 14,900 in the 2013 census (per Wikipedia) and about 60 percent of Bosniaks have returned to reclaim and rebuild their homes, but many buildings remain as ruined reminders of the conflict. While there were 8,000 jobs in Stolac prior to the war, recent figures put employment at less than 1,000 with 70 percent of these positions in the public sector.  The vast majority of these jobs are held by Croats and overall the unemployment rate is estimated at 65 percent (the jobless rate for BiH as a whole stands at slightly more than 44 percent).  This high unemployment rate adds to ethnic tensions.  

Our global grant project with the Rotary Club of Mostar and Urdruženje Orhideja Stolac seeks to ease both the economic distress and ethnic tensions still lingering twenty years after the war by bringing people together across ethnic lines.  The growers who are participating in the project  (they are mostly women, but there are a few men who asked and were allowed to join) are Roman Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbians and Muslim Bosniaks.  They are actively building bridges of commerce and friendship in a grassroots effort to heal their community and lay animosities to rest.  This peacebuilding aspect of the project, though not the basis of the global grant, was in large part the reason that One World Rotary voted to contribute funds to this project.

There is still a lot of peacebuilding to do in Stolac, and unfortunately the cöop members are not getting the help you might expect from their local government. Stolac is governed by a coalition of the HDZ (Croat Democratic Union) and the SDA (Party of Democratic Action, Bosniak), but there is no doubt that the Croat HDZ holds the upper hand.  Public sector jobs go almost exclusively to Croats.  The public statues and monuments that have been erected in town mainly extol Croats. The public schools are strictly segregated, as are the medical centers. So efforts of organizations like Urdruženje Orhideja Stolac are crucial if the deep ethnic/religious divisions are to ever be overcome.

We came, we saw, we were encouraged by what we saw

Before heading to Stolac our Rotary team - Kay Bliss, Marty Babaco, Bob Davis, Mike Weaver and I - met with members of the RC Mostar, the sponsor club for the grant.  They reported that they have been very satisfied with the way that the project is proceding and impressed by the way Urdruženje Orhideja Stolac was administering the grant.

The following day, accompanied by the agronomist that is working on the project, we paid a visit to the farm of a participating grower.  She and her family graciously invited us into their home and showed us around their farm.  Though the tomatoes had long been harvested, dried and bottled, we had the opportunity to see her hot houses and drying racks, and hear (with the agronomist interpreting) about her personal experience and satisfaction with the project. Later her observations were corroborated by the other growers that we met. 

Since the grant became effective April 1, 2016, Orjideja has selected the beneficiary growers, distributed tomato seedlings, purchased a vehicle, constructed drying racks for each grower, conducted training by university agronomists, and overseen the harvesting and processing of the tomatoes. 

In total they produced over 6,000 jars of sun-dried tomatoes but not without some problems. They experienced issues with weather, inexperience with how best to dry the picked tomatoes and lack of product consistency among the diverse group of growers. Despite these hiccoughs, we found the growers and members of the cöop extremely pleased with the progress they have made and their business dealings with the cöop and relationships with one another. 



While Urdruženje Orhideja Stolac has years of experience selling their homemade jams and crafts at farmers markets and fairs around Stolac and Mostar, the sheer number of jars of this year's production of sun-dried tomatoes requires them to adopt a new approach to marketing and selling their products.  So during our visit, businesss consultant Mike Weaver conducted a formal training session on how to market and sell to commercial customers who will buy in bulk — owners of restaurant chains, distributors to food stores and managers of large food processors.   We also met with several of the participating growers who, over lunch, shared their observations about the the program, talked about the relationships they have formed within the cöop, and expressed their hopes for the future. It was a frank and rewarding discussion and to a person they were satisfied with the program and eagerly looking forward to being involved in the next growing season.  













As with all Rotary Global Grants, the plan for this one is for it to be self-sustaining. Funds from the grant were used for capital investments - the transport vehicle, construction of the drying racks and purchase of glass jars - that will allow operations to continue to the next growing season and beyond.  The farmers were paid for their harvest on delivery and the cöop already has enough funds on hand to purchase the seedlings for next year. Sales of this year's production will develop the customer base and establish the marketing channels that will guarantee funding for future production.  Dedicated to the project’s success, RC Ojai advisors will continue providing technical support to the cöop via Skype calls even after the grant is closed and the final report is submitted to Rotary International next Spring.

Brighter prospects for a peaceful future

Though the remaining ethnic divisions in the community are troubling, there are many heartening signs for a lasting peace in Stolac.  The growers involved in the global grant were enthusiastic about the project and eager to let go of past differences for a better and peaceful future.  They expressed satisfaction with the ties they have formed with each other and the  trust that they have developed.  Friendships have formed that extend beyond the business of the cöop.  It appears in this respect that our investment is peace is bearing fruit for peace.

The Global Grant project is just one of many that Urdruženje Orhideja Stolac has initiated.  The organization has also partnered with IN Fondacija to administer Dnevni Centar Gnijezdo Stolac, an afterschool care program which receives funding from UNICEF and the Netherlands-based Stichting Kinderpostzegels. Unlike the public schools, this program brings children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds together and particularly engages with Roma parents to encourage them to enroll their children in school and see that they attend classes.  Many Romas undervalue education and Orhideja is diligently working to change this ethic. Orhideja also organizes youth sports, providing venues and sponsoring and annual antidiscrimination football (a.k.a. soccer in the U.S.) tournament. 

Children are of course our best hope for a more peaceful future, and each of these programs gives them opportunities to get to know each other, play with each other, discover all they have in common and become lifelong friends.

For Rotary's part in helping to build a brighter future, the global grantees asked us to extend to you a hearty “Thank you, Rotary!”

Many thanks to Marty Babayco, who snapped most of the photos in this article.  The others were taken by me or by Sanel Mariç. 

Please share your thoughts or comments below.

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