Balkan Botanical Garden is at risk of closing down

THESSALONIKI – Greece’s Balkan Botanical Garden, on a unique site at Pontokerasis, Kilkis, in the foothills of the Kroussia Mountains, is in danger of drying out even before it is properly finished. The garden’s administrators say that bureaucracy is the reason for the fact that in recent months, funds have dried up and the gardens’ 1,200 plant species are at risk of being abandoned to their fate as they await the appointment of a new board at the National Foundation for Agricultural Research (ETHIAGE), the only authority with the power to make decisions. The 31-hectare garden set up just four years ago belongs to ETHIAGE and, although viewed as important both for the foundation itself and for the country’s flora and agricultural development, it has not been able to open for the past six months as it has not been able to access funds approved by the Economy Ministry. The delay is surprising given the assurances made during a recent visit to the garden by then Minister for Agricultural Development and Food Savvas Tsitouridis. He had declared that the garden should become an autonomous and viable organization to meet research and educational requirements of national importance. He had said his ministry would undertake all the necessary initiatives to make that possible. Initial funds for the construction of the garden, as well as the collection and care of the plants, came from the European Interreg II program. In 2001, the Economy Ministry approved the sum of 4.5 million euros until 2005 so there would be no gap in the funding procedure that could bring work to a halt. The garden’s mission is to study the biodiversity of Greece and the Balkan peninsula by creating a «storehouse» of genetic material and the dissemination of the knowledge acquired. There are about 5,700 species of plants in the Balkans, 13 percent of which are endemic, with about 270 species considered rare and threatened with extinction. According to a survey by Thessaloniki University, there are more than 750 endemic species in Greece. It was recently announced that there are about 10,000 samples of protected genetic plant material held by public foundations and private firms, of which 7,000 are destined for the floral industry with an international turnover of many billions of dollars. In Greece, less than 100 species have been preserved in this way. Apart from protecting and conserving the natural environment, the Balkan Botanical Garden aims to develop cooperation with other Balkan countries in education, research and the exchange of genetic material, contributing to environmental education (dozens of schools visit the garden every year) and in the region’s economic growth. In the few years since it opened, it has had thousands of visitors and its scientific teams have carried out 60 missions around the country to collect plant material and have created a collection of over 1,000 dried samples. They have also created fully equipped greenhouses to propagate plants. «It was no coincidence that Pontokerasis was chosen for the site,» said Eleni Maloupa, manager of the Botanical Garden and also a researcher for the Laboratory for the Protection and Exploitation of Native and Decorative Species. «The area’s microclimate is ideal for the species planted here, and it is close to the borders, it facilitates cooperation with other botanical gardens, such as the Galicica National Park of Ohrid, the University of Skopje, the Eastern Rhodope Natural Park and the Bulgaria Academy of Sciences. The garden has 50 plant species from these regions,» she said.

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