Ancient groves fuel pizza ovens

Corfu’s olive trees, some of them planted some 400 years ago by the Venetian rulers of the time, are now being shipped back across the Adriatic in the form of firewood destined for pizza ovens, threatening not only to denude the island of much of its greenery, but also to precipitate an ecological disaster. Local residents have over the past few years been waging a campaign to stop the practice, so far with limited success, but they hope the new government will act where others have failed. The practice began about 10 years ago but has become more prevalent in the past two years to the point where about 3,000 trees are being felled every month, according to Dimitris Fanariotis, head of the Corfu Environment Initiative (, who has written to the government and local deputies to protest. Another major force in the campaign against the practice has been The Corfiot newspaper, whose editor Hilary Paipeti has also promoted the issue in her weekly TV show. «The trees are being cut down to ground-level stumps to sell as firewood, which is exported to Italy to fuel pizza ovens and to pulp for toilet paper… The practice of transporting olive wood to Italy was initiated by Diellas (a local supermarket chain), so that trucks ferrying cheap pasta and tuna from that country over here would not go back empty,» Paipeti said in one of the many articles written in The Corfiot as part of the campaign. «Olive farmers say they are forced to reap this short-term cash crop by a combination of factors. They blame low olive oil prices, the failure of EU subsidies to reach their destination, diminishing profits in the tourism industry, and losses on the stock market,» she added. Paipeti explained that for many of the locals, the reason for cutting down the trees is pure economics. «Locals who own tourist accommodation in some resorts are receiving from the tour operators as little as 22 euros per bed per week – that’s per week, not per night. They have to pay all the expenses, like electricity and laundry from this, plus the bank loans most of them got to build their apartments. It’s hardly viable and they really need the extra cash. The olive trees are in most cases their only other asset. So when you see an olive grove cut down to the ground, it’s likely that the owner is in deep financial trouble.» Price of destruction The price of the destruction is about 230 euros a ton, and after the handling expenses, the owner will get about 100 euros a ton. So a large olive grove will yield a profit of around 1,500 euros – little enough, but many really do need this money. The irony is that it’s about the equivalent of the price that the Venetians paid to have the trees planted, so now the Italians are paying for the trees a second time. Cutting the trees to a height of less than 3 meters is illegal without a special license, but the law is not enforced. «Whenever the police are called, they say it is a case for the Finance Ministry police, so by the time the buck has been passed around, the trees have already been cut down,» Paipeti told Kathimerini English Edition. Another problem, according to Fanariotis, is that although the law forbids the practice and makes a clear distinction between pruning and cutting down trees to stumps, there is no specified punishment for law breakers. «According to a 2001 implementation of laws passed in 1918 and 1933, the cropping of the trees in this manner is illegal. The document validates that laws forbidding the catastrophic chopping of the trees is defined as cutting to a low level in a way that degrades the environment, as well as the appearance of the landscape,» wrote Paipeti last February in an article with Harry Tsoukalas. The authors said they had contacted the previous government, including Agriculture Minister Giorgos Drys, to no avail. «Farmers have lost faith in getting any income from olives and they have become alienated from olive growing,» wrote Paipeti. They had also contacted the (then) opposition ND Deputy Spyros Spyrou, who described the destruction of the olive groves as an «ongoing disaster» and that if his party won the elections they would take action against any illegal activities connected with cutting down the olive trees. Local residents Jim and Lorraine Webster also mentioned the difficulty in getting the olive grove owners to appreciate the potential effect on the environment and tourism. According to some sources, tourism accounts for about 70 percent of the island’s GDP. «The fact that they will lose their olive production and their EU subsidies seems not to be a big concern. Neither is the fact that if in the future they want to sell their land, the chances of finding a foreigner who wants to buy a few thousand square meters of stumps might be pretty low,» said Jim Webster. As for the environmental effects, these include the disappearance of the entire ecosystem that evolved under the trees’ canopy, including flowers and plants, the insects and small animals dependent on them and the fertile topsoil created by the trees. The Websters point out that cutting the trees down wipes out this ecosystem, and «if unchecked could lead in the long term to soil erosion and a change in the microclimate.» New law All is not lost, however, for if legislation proposed by Nikos Georgiadis, the ND deputy for the island, is passed as scheduled within the next few weeks, then it will be harder to get the wood off the island. «The text is ready and has been approved by the Ministry for Agricultural Development and Food, and will be in the first bill tabled by the minister, probably within the next three weeks. It contains a paragraph explicitly stating that cutting down olive trees anywhere is illegal without a special procedure to obtain a license,» Georgiadis told Kathimerini English Edition last week. «As soon as this becomes law, we will be sending finance police to the port to check the first truck that tries to leave the island with wood that has no approval. The difference will be that this time the whole truck will be confiscated, not just the cargo itself.» Georgiadis wants to encourage the development of organic farming on the island as a way to bring farmers back to the olive groves. «In Greece, and especially on the islands, growing crops any other way is illogical. The technology and the methods are there to produce good oil and have an environment free of chemicals.»