By Thodoris Tsimpidis
Director of Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation
The original article in Greek was published in
Translation in English by Jennifer Barclay

The Devaluation of the Greek Islands

The story of a catastrophe – from autonomy to absolute dependence

Have we ever asked ourselves how, within a few years,our islands were transformed from exemplary models of management and self-government to utterly dependent places, no longer productive, most without even drinkable water? It’s worth noting that in the old days, often ships did not stop at the islands for many weeks, a fact that had no negative effect on the availability of goods and the daily lives of the islanders.

Those of us who lived on the islands in the decades 1960 to 1970 and earlier, even if we were young at the time, experienced the end of a period of autonomy that for thousands of years had characterised the Aegean.

I remember how in my village, Raches in Ikaria, in every home people took care each season to store what they had produced, on which they lived on in the following months, therefore giving them a form of self-sufficiency and independence.

[metaslider id=42845] The few things that the islanders did not produce, such as sugar, rice, coffee and the indispensable kerosene for lamps, were sourced from the few shops that existed with what little money they had at their disposal, or by means of exchange of goods. The ship from Piraeus would come to the island sporadically, whenever the weather conditions allowed, unloading not only few passengers but also few goods on the island, because the locals had little need for consumer goods.

Conversely, when the ship travelled towards Piraeus, usually they dispatched many different types of local produce, either for sale or for relatives who lived in Athens and Piraeus.

For centuries, all the islands lived from what they produced themselves, not only for local consumption but also for export. The bigger islands, such as Lesbos, Chios and Samos, were for centuries important regions of production and export for all type of agricultural and animal products, with important small industrial units (e.g. tanneries and soap-makers).

Ikaria exported raisins, the famous kaisi (a type of apricot), almonds and many other agricultural products. Kythnos even up to the end of the 1970s produced the equally famous ‘Therma’ barley, which covered the entire production of the beer FIX, occupying through contract farming the majority of the island’s residents. Paros exported large quantities of wheat and Naxos exported potatoes, fruit and vegetables. Many islands exported also primary materials (e.g. charcoal, lime or mineral kaolite – the basic ingredient of porcelain).

There was equivalent produce and export of different products on all the inhabited islands, while small trading boats travelled between the islands throughout the year to sell or to exchange products. The last trading boats remaining in the Aegean stopped their voyages around fifteen years ago.

In previous decades even the small islands had a plentiful supply of water. They made use of the springs and the groundwater, while there was also a system for collecting rainwater.

It’s worth noting that back then, often the ships, either because of the weather conditions or for other reasons, sometimes did not approach the islands for many weeks, a fact that had no negative impact on the supply of goods and the daily life of the islanders.

Today when the ships don’t stop at the islands because of a prolonged period of bad weather or a strike, it takes just three days for the shelves of all the shops to be empty, the first being those of the multinational supermarket chains that have set up in almost all the islands.

Then after five or six days things become very difficult, when there is a complete lack of vegetables, fruit and almost all food items; moreover there is not even drinking water, since on most islands the residents consume almost exclusively water from single-use plastic bottles, with all the consequences that brings for their health as well as the environment. But that’s another story.

After 10-12 days, then, when the ships don’t stop, the survival on the islands becomes very difficult. The islands do not even produce salt, which in days gone by we children brought home in our little buckets.

From autonomy to dependence

The question, then, is this: How in the space of 40-50 years we managed to go from complete autonomy to complete dependence, disdaining a wise system of management which should have become a teaching model in all the environmental schools on the planet? How did we go from that era when we would exchange products and civilisation in the Aegean, to today, when the islands ended up exchanging only rubbish from the open landfills?

Rainfalls cause millions of cubic meters of soil to be lost in the sea every year. This is due to the erosion caused by intensive overgrazing and other catastrophic interventions

Many times we search for the causes in financial interests, but I fear that in this case the cause of this loss is not only financial interest. The state of the islands today reflects not only the national policies of the previous years but also the displacement of the political persons who were chosen to manage that unique place. And in doing so they devalued the culture of management. The only thing which they had to recommend and apply was to transform the islands into a monoculture of tourism, which gave the final blow to the culture of self-sufficiency and wise management of the natural resources.

Most of the cultivated lands were deserted and replaced by small and large tourist units. The systems for preventing erosion on the islands were abandoned, increasing the incidence of erosion on most of the islands. Thus, along with the fertile soil of the islands, the groundwater is also lost.

The “fertile pastures….” of Arki island

The traditional method of raising animals was also destroyed, which incorporated through experience the understanding and knowledge of how many goats and sheep should graze in an area, in which seasons and when they should transfer the animals elsewhere to avoid the negative consequences of over-grazing.

These were not ecological practices but based on common sense, the knowledge and experience of many years (which today we place no value on) and naturally on the necessity of survival. They did not exhaust nature because they knew that they would be harming themselves in the end. The remains of this traditional method of raising animals we see even today on all the islands, with the dry-stone walls and the stone pathways which they used to divide up the grazing areas.

The reversal of the autonomy of the islands began in the 1980s, when the state authorities, following a European policy – which proved disastrous for the islands – devalued that ancient and tested system of management and encouraged the islanders – both farmers and others – to take an annual subsidy for however many sheep and goats they decided to raise. There was, no examination of the carrying capacity (i.e. how much many animals an area/ island could bear), no care for management of the livestock, nor a prerequisite for production of milk, cheese or meat. The result was catastrophic for animal raising. With the incentive of making profit from the subsidies, the few hundred animals became many thousands, for example 35,000 sheep and goats on Ikaria of 9,000 inhabitants, 3,000 sheep and goats on Arki island of 40 residents, and so on.

The number of grazing animals went up and up, since everyone then could claim that he was a farmer, without any provision made for slaughtering or cheesemaking. The islands were destroyed by overgrazing and consequently by erosion, while the sheep and goat farmers were also ruined since there were no longer grazing grounds and they were forced to bring in expensive imported feeds to the islands (usually of doubtful quality, e.g. cheap genetically modified corn).

And what became of the fishermen of the islands?

The next inspired action was the devaluation and destruction of the fishing industry. In Greece not a single practical policy of management of fish stocks has been applied since the 1970s, with the numbers of fish dwindling in a worrying way year upon year. Instead of managing the fishery, the state, following yet another European policy which it adopted as national, decided to limit overfishing by destroying (that is, smashing up into pieces) more than 13,500 fishing vessels, 90% of which were wooden, traditional, elegant examples of the shipbuilding craft, which we are no longer in a position to construct today.

Together with this unique cultural heritage there also vanished many thousands of jobs, if we consider that even the smallest fishing boat employed directly or indirectly 3-4 people, in areas where the state is unable to create even a little steady employment for the local communities.

With the 30,000 to 50,000 euros which was the average compensation for the destruction of each boat, each fisherman usually built a few rental rooms or some equivalent seasonal touristic activity, which obviously could not sustain him all year round.

Meanwhile, in the same areas where the fishermen used mild methods of fishing (nets and lines), now most of the fishing is by large vessels – which start out from Piraeus or Michaniona (the port of Thessaloniki) or even from Italy, as we see more and more often in the southern Aegean, exhausting the stocks of fish and often destroying healthy ecosystems.

The new inspired plan: installation of industrial sized wind farms on the islands

It took another crisis and a pandemic for us to realise that tourism, however important it is today, when it results in a ‘monoculture’, is a profession which cannot under any circumstances assure the permanent and steady survival of the island communities.

As if all this was not enough, however, now our politicians have started to apply another bright idea, which will probably result in the coup de grace for the islands. After all this devaluation and destruction of the islands on land and at sea, having deindustrialised the greater part of Greece, they thought to create a new zone of industrial production (energy, that is) on the islands and islets.

This is on islands where for centuries the residents have been careful even about moving a single stone, so as not to have a detrimental effect on the local aesthetics or to cause erosion, and therefore the loss of fertile soil.

The residents of the islands had moulded a local aesthetic which was an important sign of their civilisation, which all of us, Greeks and foreigners, take pleasure in appreciating on our holidays. All the buildings blend in with the environment and the landscape (with the exception of certain villas which sprouted up in recent years), with exceptional balance and harmony, where no building offended the landscape or hid the view of the neighbouring buildings.

This balance, moreover, was a prerequisite for the functioning of a geographically isolated community, where everyone had a real need for the other, whatever their personal differences.

Part of this unique aesthetic is also the sound that is produced when the wind blows through the narrow alleys, and much more.

Ikaria island: The environmental footprint of another destructive “green” project

The last bright idea, then, which our politicians had was to construct in these unique landscapes and ecosystems a new form of development, which they ironically promote under  the name ‘green (!) islands’.

As we read in the environmental impact assessments of these planned industrial sized wind farms, they state that ‘they will upgrade the development of the installation area’ and that the wind farms ‘will become a source of pride for the area and a triumph for the residents who will thus demonstrate their contemporary vision and environmental consciousness’! This description is a clear affront to history, not to mention the intelligence of the islanders.

In unique islands, then, such as Amorgos, Paros, Tinos, Andros, Ikaria, Samothraki and others as well as tiny islands such as Levitha and Kinaros, where there are few permanent residents living in perfect harmony with special important ecosystems, they are now preparing to install production units for wind energy on an industrial scale. Energy which will not only cover the needs of the residents, but most of which will be transported via submarine cables to urban centres and to large consumers, with works which 15-20 years from now will be outdated and have to be demolished.

The basic motivation for using these locations is the free land. There could be equivalent industrial scale installations near to the cities – as happens in the rest of Europe – but that has a cost for the investors, while the islands and mountains are granted free and the expenses will be to a great degree subsidised – as a ‘green’ investment.

What are the preconditions of these investments?

The precondition of course for these large-scale works to happen is that the mountain ridges be made level, that roads be opened so that vehicles of up to 30 metres can drive and manoeuvre. For example, in just one of these projects that have already been approved affecting 14 islands and islets of the Dodecanese and Cyclades, in Natura 2000 regions, they are planning to install more than 100 wind turbines, each with a height up to 198 metres, on islands where the average height does not surpass 300 metres. The energy produced will be 2.5MW per wind turbine, such as is the average consumption of an island of a size equivalent to Sifnos.

In order for this particular installation to happen, they need to construct 70 km of road network in hard-to-reach areas, to make extensive excavations, to construct 14 ports (single-use), disproportionate with the size of the islands, in remote areas, in order to provide unloading facilities for all the materials and vehicles, the mountains must be cemented with hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of cement, they have to excavate to bury 673 km of cables and many other equivalent ‘developmental interventions’.

All this at a time when the latest technology renewable energy applications of great efficiency are found at their pinnacle globally and we insist on applying technologies that belong in the past, but still bring high profit for those large investors and constructors.

Dramatic consequences for the microclimate

Naturally, with all this destruction, few want to reflect upon and understand the dramatic effects on the special and important birdlife of the islands. Something, however, that everyone can understand is the dramatic consequences of the changes to the microclimate. Just as the national experience has confirmed, the turbulance caused by the turbines creates an intense mixing of the gaseous masses, changing the temperature and the moisture near the surface of the ground.

On the islands the groundwater is not filled from the little annual rainfall but almost all the year from the so-called ‘frost’, that is the water vapour coming from the evaporation of seawater during the night, that condenses and settles on the mountain peaks and the sides of the islands. With the help of leafs and the rhizomes, this moisture ends up in the groundwater.

The giant wind farms will make this water vapour disappear, bringing thus a reduction of the feeding of springs and further exacerbating the problem of lack of water which the islands already face. Simultaneously, since the temperature on the mountain peaks will increase, they will cause serious drought, resulting in complete destruction.

As we like to recall the history of thousands of years of this place of which we find ourselves the current managers, we must consider how we came within a few decades to cause such great cultural and environmental damage to our land.

But also to consider if we like that we ourselves are bringing about the final blow: the irreversible destruction for the local communities, tourism, the environment, quality of life and so much more.