Golf at Vai: Development or destruction?

Abbot Philotheos of the Toplou Monastery wants to build a 7,000-bed golf resort with three separate golf courses near Siteia, in southeastern Crete. Manolis Tsantakis, head of the local environmental group, claims that building something that requires so much water in such a sensitive ecosystem is, in the very least, absurd. The abbot is the founder of Bio Sitia SA, which produces organic olive oil, wine and the local firewater, tsikoudia. An agreement with foreign investors guarantees 10 percent of the project’s gross revenues for the monastery for 80 years. Tsantakis, who heads the local environmental association, says the plan threatens more than just the ecosystem. The restored Toplou Monastery in the eastern part of Lasithi prefecture in Crete is a tourist attraction in itself. On the right, before one enters the monastery grounds, is a restaurant-cafe. Inside, through the iron gates the monastery shop sells just about everything – vases, icons, CDs, body lotion and soap, encyclopedias, recipe books, tourist maps, even a complete set of the works of the excommunicated author, Nikos Kazantzakis. The Byzantine Monastery of the Virgin of Akrotyriani, as it is properly called (Toplou was the name given to it during the Turkish occupation), is now the home of just two monks, Abbot Philotheos and Brother Zacharias. In recent years, the monastery has secured court ratification of its ownership of some 4,000 hectares, which includes the famous Vai palm forest. The land titles go back to Turkish rule. Philotheos (Michalis Spanoudakis, from the village of Kryoneri), joined the monastery at the age of 19 – in 1960 – and became abbot in 1969. Today, due to the monastery’s enormously valuable assets, he is the most powerful person in the region. Local farmers and livestock breeders who graze their animals on monastery land all depend on him. When we arrived, the abbot was away in Siteia. When he returned, we asked him about Kazantzakis’s books on sale in the shop. «Well, the tourists want them,» he replied. As to how he reconciles monastic life with business, shops and traveling, he replied: «I often go to Germany to a trade fair, to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, to Egypt to visit the monastery of Mt Sinai, to Argentina because the bishop there is a friend of mine, to Brazil because they needed me. Monastic life is within, and when you are working there is a way to pray. Most of the time I am traveling, because the demands are great,» he said. A capable manager, he is the founder of Bio Sitia SA, which produces 500 tons of organic olive oil, 50 tons of wine, 10 tons of tsikoudia annually. About 90 percent of the organic produce is exported, with the abbot’s likeness printed on the oil label. In 1991, Philotheos set up the Panaghia Akrotiriani Benefit Foundation, headed by the metropolitan of Ierapetra and with himself as vice president. The monastery transferred 2,600 hectares to the foundation for development. «So that no one could say the monastery is investing in tourism,» he explained. An international competition was held with Ernst & Young as financial advisers. In 1994 the British firm Loyalward Ltd won the competition with a proposal for six tourism villages comprising 7,000 beds and three professional standard golf courses, budgeted at 1.2 billion euros, in a municipality of 2,500 people. «I thought it would be a sin for the area to remain unexploited. Desertification could happen, but golf courses won’t be responsible. If it happens, it will be due to a number of natural causes. Unless the golf courses are built, nothing can be done. If you want to attract quality tourists, you have to give them the things they want.» The contract concedes the 2,600 hectares to Loyalward Ltd for 80 years. The company is required to pay the foundation 10 percent of the gross annual revenue. However, in Article 2 of the contract, it clearly states that after the 80 years are up «the Foundation will ensure that the tenants and owners of the villa and apartments will continue to enjoy their rights for as long as the Foundation retains ownership of the land.» The glossy brochure distributed by the firm to local residents in 2005 presents the investors as outright ecologists. The Minoan Group, as Loyalward Ltd was renamed, is supposedly in favor of «implementing principles of sustainable development, protecting natural resources, restoring nature and protecting the cultural and environmental heritage.» Paradoxically, the photographs in the brochure, bought from a photo agency, are completely irrelevant to the natural landscape, and have nothing to do with the beautiful isolated beaches on which the tourist villages are to be built. Nor do they make any mention of the unique ecosystem, part of which has been included in the Natura network.