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.

The scooter bears a decorative sticker: 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 glinting with shotgun shells cinched about his wide belly. 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, what he calls “the pistachio mafia.” (I am plodding east with my Turkish walking partner, Deniz Kilic.) Sercan then 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. Spaced evenly across hundreds of square miles of orchards, their trunks blaze with whitewash paint to repel the afternoon heat. The reddish Anatolian earth around them is neatly plowed—a Zen garden. In this way, the humble pistachio turns Southeastern Turkey into a vast and pleasant parkland.

Turkey grows some of the finest pistachio nuts in the world. It is a point of national pride. After all, the classic Turkish dessert, baklava, is nothing without ground pistachios. The nut is baked into every slice of this distinctive, crisp pastry drenched in honey syrup. Pistachio powder is the core natural ingredient of this sweet. It is so bright green that it looks artificially dyed (but it is not). Kilic and I are crossing the very heart of baklava country. What Champagne, France, is to bubbly wine, so is the rolling country east of Gaziantep, Turkey, to the baked treat baklava. More than a hundred dessert companies produce baklava here using world-class pistachios.

“It must be light, and not too sweet,” Kilic had lectured 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 Mesopotamian mound for layered civilizations. He counted 23.

Why is this sweet to die for?

The pistachio yield in Turkey has yo-yoed in recent years. In 2010, a group of crooked businessmen bought and hoarded immense volumes of the nuts. Then they raised prices. Then the civil war in Syria flooded the Turkish market with low-cost nuts of lesser quality. Farmers’ profits dropped fast. This season, however, the culprit is unpredictable rain due to climate change. Droughts have stunted much of the harvest. The small nuts, once a favorite snack food along the old Silk Road, 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 bounty 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, guarding his orchard. He caught the mafia red-handed. 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. With each tree bearing up to a hundred pounds of pistachios, the haul is very profitable—at least $300 per tree. (More than two weeks’ wages for a farm laborer.) The stolen nuts are sold to wholesalers who ask no questions: a pistachio black 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 brandishes his shotgun. The old farmer shakes his head. With infinite wisdom, with 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

June 7, 2024

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