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Seeds of Loss, Seeds of Hope

As part of the exhibition “De duisternis ontvluchten/Fleeing the Dark” by Syrian born artist Issam Kourbaj in the Tropenmusem, we have planted seeds on the terrace of our Café. These seeds have been on a long and symbolic journey. This is their story.

A list of images

Feeding the world

Agriculture feeds us all. To produce enough food, effective and sustainable agriculture is needed. This is not possible without the right crops: plants should be suited to the climate of the country, resistant to common diseases and pests and fit with local tastes. Making sure that farmers have access to a wide variety of crops and enough seeds is something that KIT’s seeds team works on together with seed specialists and farmer communities. A lot of our our work is carried out in so-called ‘fragile countries’, such as Mali, South Sudan or Syria.

Diversity under threat

In many of these countries, crop diversity is under threat. War, droughts and floods destroy crops, not only resulting in famine but leaving nothing to be planted in the next season. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to tackle this. Seeds can either be imported from other countries or well-adapted local crop diversity from before the disaster can be brought back to the country. The first option works well in the short term, but the plant types are usually not well-suited to the local climate and tastes. The second requires a store of seeds for use in an emergency. Agricultural scientists know the value of locally adapted seeds, so they have kept collections of traditional seeds so they can be accessed when needed.

Brought back from war

Also the Syrian crop diversity has been seriously affected by the war, including the seed collections held by ICARDA, an international agricultural research agency specialised in crop development and agricultural research in dry areas, and based in Syria. Luckily, small quantities of seeds of the collection had been deposited in the Global Seed Vault on Svalbard. These Syrian seeds were withdrawn from the vault in 2015. Subsequently they were planted at ICARDA stations in Morocco and Jordan to multiply them, and hopefully return them to Syria to support recovery of the country’s agriculture in the future.

Symbolic Seeds

Because seeds play a central and symbolic role in Issam Kourbaj’s exhibition, the Tropenmuseum asked KIT for help to add a living part to the exhibition by sowing seeds on the terrace of our cafe. A member of KIT’s seeds systems team, Coosje Hoogendoorn, worked with ICARDA to obtain some of the rescued and re-multiplied seed, which they generously sent to us.

Representing the typical crop diversity of Syria, we have planted seven Syrian wheats, a barley, a chickpea and a lentil, creating the outdoor part of the exhibition. At the end of the summer, we even hope to harvest these crops, and to bake Syrian style bread, bringing the symbolic journey of the seeds to a full circle.

The exhibition of Issam Kourbaj is full of the symbols of loss and hope, if you want to know more, visit the website of De Tropenmusem:

After planting the seeds a few months ago we have noticed that each wheat is growing differently in the unfamiliar Dutch climate. Some are thriving, whilst others struggle with the cold and rain.
Like people, each plant is adapting to its new environment in its own unique way. And so, this Syrian garden is also a metaphor for the predicament of migrants who must put down roots in unfamiliar surroundings.

Want to know more about KIT’s seed sector work?