NEWS

Looking after Greece’s environment for fifty years

Greece is not the first country that comes to mind as a place where the natural world is held as sacred – cigarette packs tossed merrily out of car windows, garbage dumps in the midst of beautiful countryside or next to human habitation, industrial waste spewing out into rivers and bays, not to mention the unsightliness of modern construction, are only some of the blights on the country’s landscape. Yet Greece was once a place where nature was deified and viewed as immortal, as the distinguished writer and critic Marios Ploritis pointed out this week at a special ceremony in Athens. The ancient Greeks were not ‘nature lovers’ in today’s sense of the word – they did not regard nature as a place to take a holiday or have a picnic. They lived with nature far more than we do, in relatively small cities that were surrounded by and scattered with vegetation. The sky, earth, sea, forests and parks… each had its own god. Harm done to them was seen as a kind of sacrilege, said Ploritis, speaking at a a gathering of hundreds of people, many of them the descendants of those first Greek nature lovers. They were all celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, an organization that has been working hard to make Greeks and those who love Greece more aware of the country’s natural heritage and working even harder to protect what remains of that unique heritage. In its most recent campaigns – such as the fight to save the Schinias wetland from being developed as one of the sporting venues for the 2004 Olympic Games – the society has been working hand in hand with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Hellenic Ornithological Society (EOE) and the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage. Often in cooperation with the State, environmental organizations just as often find themselves pitted against it, pointed out the society’s general secretary, Makis Apergis, so working together is vital to their success. It is because of that cooperation that these three organizations are the recipients of the Society’s Vyron Antipas prize for 2001, presented at this week’s ceremony. The backbone of all of these groups is the work done by volunteers, pointed out EOE President Dimitris Bousbouras. Voluntary work is often considered foreign to the Greek way of doing things, but much of the effort to protect the environment is carried out by people who do it for no personal gain other than that of intrinsic satisfaction. Voluntary work is what keeps environmental organizations alive. Our effort is based on our enthusiasm and love for Greece’s natural environment. The problems, of which there are many, have led us to mobilize our forces and go beyond the stage of moving about the countryside, recording the various species and landscapes and doing ‘narrow’ scientific research, said Bousbouras. The four associations have worked together to fight on many fronts, including the diversion of the Acheloos River, changes to Article 24 of the Constitution on land use, and restrictions to the length of the hunting season, apart from the Schinias issue. Often people accuse us of being against development, but what we have been promoting is a rational approach, in order to avert the destruction of prospects for future generations, added Bousbouras. Conflicting ideas of what is good for society are what often pit environmental groups against the State. We might be living in a democratic society, said Dimitris Karavelos, president of WWF Hellas, but allow me to point out that concepts such as dialogue, negotiation and joint decision-making cannot be taken for granted. Nor can the consideration that should be given by the State and its citizens to what we call nature and culture. Other values and models are looked to, often at the expense of what we are trying to keep alive, he added. For the ancient Greeks, said Ploritis, nature was not only mother and provider, she was the indispensable teacher… of harmony and order, above all… It is that harmony and order. .. which is (or rather should be) people’s guide in their relationship with themselves, with others and society as a whole, but also the guide of society and the State, he said, concluding: Instead, we, the descendants of the Great Mother, have not ceased, for centuries now, to distort and annihilate (nature), committing the greatest of crimes. We have become perpetrators of matricide and, eventually, suicide. And the most tragic thing of all is that we know it; we keep saying it, and yet we all keep doing it. The ball was already in the government’s court as it was, as security and venue construction – both directly and essentially State responsibilities – remain the overriding, crucial concerns for the foreseeable future. (We can’t really foresee the future, but that’s another story.)