Pistachio Mafia

Pistachio Mafia

Pistachio nuts are so prized in Turkey that the trees are protected by guards. Paul Salopek and his guide are warned about passing through the area as farmers might think they are thieves. Content warning: The following text contains references to violence.


5 - 12


Social Studies, English Language Arts, Geography, Anthropology, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek

NEAR NIZIP, TURKEY (10/27/2014)

Editor’s Note: Security concerns in Southeastern Turkey temporarily disrupted the order of walk communications. Today, we resume the storytelling from the trail in the order events happened.

A man drives up behind us on a bright red motor scooter.

There is a decorative sticker on the scooter. It’s a picture of Atatürk, a famous and controversial figure of Turkish history, walking on a hilltop during battle. The man on the scooter carries a shotgun strapped across his shoulder. He wears an ammunition belt. The shotgun shells around his wide belly shine in the sun. His name is Cebir Sercan. He tells us to stop. He says we might get shot if we continue walking.

“Farmers will think you are thieves,” Sercan says.

Sercan keeps guard over the pistachio nuts. He pulls out a cell phone. He calls ahead and tells his contact to allow two men and a cargo mule to pass. He adds that we are not criminals. My Turkish walking partner, Deniz Kilic, and I are walking to the east. Sercan insists on escorting us.

The pistachio is a beautiful tree.

Its leaves are a dark, gleaming green. Its trunk is round as a lollipop. Its bark is smooth to the touch. They are spaced evenly across hundreds of square miles of orchards. Each trunk is bright with white paint to fight the afternoon heat. The reddish earth around them is neatly plowed, like an elegant sand garden. In this way, the humble pistachio turns Southeastern Turkey into a grand and pleasant parkland.

Turkey grows some of the finest pistachio nuts in the world. It is a point of national pride. After all, baklava is the classic Turkish dessert. And it’s nothing without ground pistachios. The nut is baked into every slice of this special, crisp pastry drenched in honey syrup. Pistachio powder is the most important natural ingredient of this sweet. It is so bright green that it looks like a colored dye, but it is not. Kilic and I are crossing the very heart of baklava country. Just as Northern France is the home of bubbly wine, Eastern Turkey is the home of the baked treat baklava. More than a hundred dessert companies produce baklava here using the best pistachios.

“It must be light, and not too sweet,” Kilic explained to me in a baklava shop in Gaziantep. A baklava shop seemed, by city order, to occupy every city block. He used his fork to probe the dessert on his plate, counting its thin sheets of filo dough. He looked like an archaeologist probing an ancient mound for layered civilizations. He counted 23.

Why is this sweet to die for?

The pistachio harvest in Turkey has gone up and down in recent years. In 2010, a group of tricky businessmen bought huge amounts of the nuts. Then they raised prices. Then, civil war in Syria led to lower-quality pistachios coming into Turkey. The low-priced nuts made it hard to sell the Turkish pistachios. Farmers’ profits dropped fast. This season, however, less rain due to climate change is to blame. Droughts have reduced much of the harvest. The small nuts were once a favorite snack food along the old Silk Road, but now, they are scarce. The makers of quality baklava need them. So, the value of a pound of raw, undried pistachios has more than doubled—from about $1.45 to $3.10.

“That’s why there are thieves,” says Necip Karabac, a pistachio farmer who greets us along the trail. He tells us that the thieves have formed a mafia, a group of organized criminals.

Karabac’s entire family is out gathering nuts—brothers, wives, nieces, toddling grandsons. They are all climbing tree branches, twisting off the pink-shelled nuts, plucking the fallen fruits from ground tarps. Each grown man keeps a shotgun within reach. The nut mafia killed a pistachio farmer the week before. The young farmer, Osman Yilmaz, was camping under his trees. He was guarding his orchard and caught the mafia in the act of stealing. He was killed in an exchange of gunfire.

The criminals come in the night, Karabac explains. They ram the trees with their cars to knock the nuts down. Each tree can have up to a hundred pounds of pistachios, which is worth at least $300 per tree. That is more than two weeks’ pay for a farm laborer. The stolen nuts are sold to others who ask no questions. Those people sell them again. It is an illegal pistachio market.

“Every time, it’s us who gets shot,” Karabac, the farmer, says. “We are afraid to kill a thief because our laws protect the criminals. We end up selling our orchards to defend ourselves in court.”

Sercan, the orchard guard, is on patrol with his red motor scooter. He blows a police whistle to announce our presence on the farms. He guides us out of the trees. We come to a sunlit plain. The pistachio frontier.

“I’m very sorry for the dead boy,” says an old pistachio farmer who fills our canteens from his hand-pumped well. “He died for nothing.”

Sercan growls. He flashes his shotgun. The old farmer shakes his head. With great wisdom and sad eyes, he tells Sercan: “Don’t be a hero.”

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 24, 2024

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