Beauty of high places at risk

Global warming is slowly shrinking Europe’s snowfields, and Greece’s with them, threatening the livelihood of what has been a growing industry in some of Greece’s mountain areas. Yet the shaky fortunes of weather-dependent businesses such as these backs up the view held by some experts that there is no future in dealing with a country’s landscape in a piecemeal fashion, or focusing solely on a single activity. Costas Tsipiras, a distinguished architect and nature photographer, says the decline in local economies in Greece’s mountains can only be reversed if the landscape is taken as a whole when designing economic recovery programs and when the best overall use is made of resources. Tsipiras’s work as an architect has led him to design bioclimatic homes in Greece and around Europe, and his interest in photography and mountain climbing has resulted in the publication of several books. But it is on the personal level that he has become involved in the search for more effective and sustainable ways to preserve and develop mountainous habitats. «Many people approach the environment in a professional capacity, compiling studies, but very few come to the issue on a personal level, with feeling,» he told Kathimerini English Edition this week. In his latest book «Oreini Ellada» (Greece’s Mountains»), Kedros, 2003, Tsipiras makes an impassioned plea for a holistic approach to these areas, which comprise 42.3 percent of the country’s territory, making it the most mountainous one in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Although nearly half the landscape is mountainous, the mountain population has declined from 14.5 percent of the total in 1950, to just 9.16 percent in 1990. This figure also includes those who are registered in these areas but who actually live in the cities, returning to their home villages only to vote (and eventually, to be buried). In Epirus, where the upland population represents 12.1 percent of the total, the reduction has been greater than 40 percent and in parts of the Peloponnese, over 30 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, between 1980 and 1997, many people moved from the mountains to the nearest coast due to an inflow of funds from the First and Second Community Support Frameworks to these areas. «Add to this the fact that over the past decade there has been a social and economic decline in these areas due to the destruction of the natural environment, overgrazing, soil erosion (as a result of terraces not being maintained), flooding, fire, the collapse of architectural monuments such as traditional homes and bridges, the loss of customs and destruction of human and social relationships,» wrote Tsipiras. However, he believes that the greatest danger for Greece’s mountains is not the reduction in population, but the waste of natural resources and landscape through shortsighted policies aimed at unrestricted development. «Greece’s mountains were not part of any development program in the 1970s or ’80s, and only since the mid-1990s have some spasmodic efforts been made but without any central or even regional planning,» he said. Tsipiras cites the case of the Pindos range, where the eastern watershed is under the jurisdiction of the Region of Thessaly and the western under the Region of Epirus, treated as if they were separate mountain ranges, with development programs for the eastern side but none for the western. That is why it is of major importance, says Tsipiras, to draw up a strategy for mountain areas on a national scale, treating the landscape as a whole, and creating an interdisciplinary network for monitoring it. «Unfortunately, we are the only mountainous country in Europe that has no unified national policy, geographically or culturally, not only for those still living there, but for future populations that want to reclaim the mountains because of the continuously deteriorating quality of life in the towns or the climatic change that will create ‘environmental refugees’ in the years to come,» said Tsipiras. Such a framework, he says. should do the following: – set out a unified strategy for dealing with the mountain landscape as a whole, but with a decentralized administration by means of a network of local centers, such as Metsovo, Anogeia, which can act as administrative centers for broader geographic unities; – coordinate the currently compartmentalized, spasmodic policies and services that administer national and EU programs and other funds; – ensure the protection of a minimum percentage of the national territory (10 percent for example); – set up an interdisciplinary national agency on the lines of Euromontana (a European association for cooperation between mountain regions, bringing together regional and national organizations of mountain people such as socio-professional organizations, in particular agriculture, rural development centres, associations, territorial authorities, research institutes). At the moment, says Tsipiras, the proportion of territory protected in Greece is the lowest in the EU, the developed world, and even the Balkans. In some other countries, people began to become aware of the deterioration and destruction of natural environment about 100 years ago. With its usual delay, Greece passed the first environmental protection law (856) in 1937 on the basis of which seven national parks had been set up by 1966. These used as their institutional frameworks the US models created at the end of 19th century as a result of proposals by nature lovers and intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, although without incorporating the European experience of decades, claims Tsipiras. He says that despite the dozens of international conventions signed, very few real steps have been taken to safeguard national parks or to link environmental protection with ecotourism and local societies. The last national park set up was in 1974, in Prespes. Tsipiras suggests that properly managed networks be established similar to those in France and Italy, in order to preserve local populations and their activities. He suggests new national parks for areas such as the forests of Zagradenia and Kara-Dere in Rhodope, the mountain ranges of Falakro and Orvilo at Kato Nevrokopi, the Aspropotamos region centered on Gardiki, and the area of Lidoriki between mounts Giona and Vardousia. He also draws attention to specific areas. For example, he says the popular Epirote town of Metsovo could play a larger part in broader areas of the Vlach-speaking northern Pindos range and its southern side, along with the merging of the Vikos-Aoos and Valia Calda national parks. Krikelo, the heart of upland Evrytania, could act as the center for the area along the lines of Euromontana, to administer the enormous forests at Kalliakouda and Sarantaina, the waters of the Krikelopotamos and the establishment of model ecodevelopment in the most forested area of Greece. Kalavryta, an historic town now more identified with the nearby ski slopes, should have long been the center of a national park, says Tsipiras, that would include both Mt Helmos and the Vouraikos gorge. Tsipiras says he is not optimistic about the future of the Greek landscape, particularly its mountains, as long as the Greek State persists with its «shortsighted policies and piecemeal approach.»