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01 May 2008

Olive Oil that changes lives

Olive Oil that changes lives

An ancient olive grove in rural Spain is connecting the prayers and gifts of UK Christians with addicts trying to get back on track. Hazel Southam reports...

A new brand of oil being imported into the UK has an extraordinary story behind it. Olivalle organic extra-virgin olive oil is the result of an inventive social experiment by Christians to find an effective way to help young men overcome years of drug addiction.

To find out more, I travelled deep into the rugged Andalucian hills in Spain to witness the harvest, watch the oil-making process and talk to the young men who, through this unusual means, are getting clean.

We want to make it evident that there's hope

This 150-year-old olive grove, which stretches over 12 hectares of steep hillsides near Pozoblanco, is El Buen Samaritano Christian drug rehabilitation centre. And the oil they produce has been rated as some of the best in the country.

The results of this combination of prayer, therapy and olive oil are impressive. El Buen Samaritano's success rate is twice the national average; 24 per cent of those who pass through its doors never even smoke a cigarette again, while more than seven in 10 will never revert to drug-taking.

The key to success, says psychotherapist and centre director Raul Garcia, is to give the men a sense of purpose. "They need to learn to love a job. They know that bringing the harvest in will buy food for them and for other people.

"The aim is to rescue people who are out on the streets of towns and destroyed by drugs. We want to make it evident to them that there's hope. I have seen people's lives changed."

I watch today as Juan, Carlos, Alfonso, Diego and Israel harvest the olives in the same way farmers have for hundreds of years. They've worked methodically down the slopes all morning with the help of a team of volunteers, plus their dogs Simba and Harry.

Placing nets under the trees, they strike the branches with sticks in a swift upward motion to avoid damaging next year's growth. The nevadillo bianco olives cascade into the nets and are then poured into long, green baskets.

One of these workers is 21-year-old Juan Jose Miatinez from the Andalucian village of Jaen. He has suffered three alcohol-induced comas; on the most severe occasion, when he was 18, his heart stopped. He's also made numerous suicide attempts. But for the last two-and-a-half months he's been at El Buen Samaritano and is not drinking.

"I thought I was a real man," he says. "I went to two-day parties. Then one day my heart stopped. It said, 'I'm not up to this.' I had problems with my family and I tried to kill myself. I didn't want to live."

Olive oilOver the last few months his life has changed dramatically. "Now I'm glad that I survived," he says. "I'm content. I don't want to go back to those problems. I wasted the first 20 years of my life. But now I'm realising what life is all about. We get on well here and have a good time. My parents are proud of me now, although I put them through it."

Trafficking drugs and people

"It's very difficult to combat this problem," says Luciano Cabrera, mayor of the nearby city of Alcaracejos. "Spain has got a geographical position that lends itself to the trafficking of drugs and people."

According to the latest figures from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Spain is the key country in the trafficking of both cannabis and cocaine, which are moved through here on their way from the Caribbean and South America to the rest of Europe.

So it's not surprising that drugs are very cheap here. According to staff at the centre, one in five Spaniards aged between 15 and 34 have used cannabis in the last year. And Spain also has the highest cocaine use in Europe.

But Cabrera commends El Buen Samaritano for working to change lives. "It is worthy of praise," he says. "There is a moral depth to the centre. We can see people who were there, but aren't any more. It's really positive."

Alcohol is also a problem in the hills of Andalucia. It's common for children as young as 12 or 13 to binge drink. Local politicians worry about teenagers in Pozoblanco who drink at a Friday night rave known as "the big bottle". From drinking, teenagers move swiftly to drugs.

I wasted the first 20 years of my life. But now I'm realising what life is all about

"The young people are starting younger and younger," says the Deputy Mayor of Pozoblanco, Serafin Pascual. "I'm deeply worried about this. I have a son and I know that he has been offered drugs. But cannabis, cocaine and heroin aren't the whole problem; it's teenagers mixing drinks until Bam. That's the route to drugs."

The ultimate goal of El Buen Samaritano is to help these young men reintegrate as productive members of society. In addition to funding from the European Union, the project has been supported by Alliance member agency European Christian Mission, which is working with retired Scottish Christian businessman Alan Moir to run an adopt-a-tree scheme to get UK Christians involved in the project.

One thousand trees at El Buen Samaritano are up for adoption for £40 each, and the sponsor will receive a 3-litre container of extra virgin oil direct to their door. People in the UK have already sponsored more than a hundred trees, and Moir says he would buy another olive grove if there's enough demand for it.

"I'd always wanted to do something like this, but I couldn't because I was working," says Moir, who has invested hundreds of pounds of his own money and the last six months to see the scheme get off the ground. And he's even adopted trees in the names of his son and his grandson.

It's hard not to catch the vision, as Moir points out the variety of benefits in this kind of project. "Olive oil is great for blood pressure and cleaning the liver. It reduces cholesterol and is high in anti-oxidants. It's got major health benefits," he notes. "And another reason for doing this is to help protect the environment. The trees prevent soil erosion. If they disappeared, the centre of Spain would be a desert."

But most of all he wants to see the scheme prosper for the sake of the young men who are finding new life at El Buen Samaritano.

To find out more, or to adopt a tree, visit: www.buensam.org.uk

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