Farmers face a bitter harvest

ARTEMIDA – The still-smoldering trunks of olive trees stretch across mountain slopes and valleys, their precious fruit lying like small pellets of charcoal on the blackened ground. As far as the eye can see, olive groves – which produce one of Greece’s best known exports – have been devastated. A week of massive forest fires have laid waste to at least 184,000 hectares of land, most of it in the Peloponnese, where about 30 percent of Greece’s olive oil is produced. And the fires still burn and smolder, nearly a week later. The fires might not devastate the overall olive oil industry in Greece, the world’s third-largest producer of what is sometimes locally known as liquid gold. Initial estimates indicate that about 4 percent of the country’s average annual production will be lost. But on a local level, thousands of farmers face total financial ruin. «This may not have a big effect on the macro scale, but on a micro scale, the impact is huge,» said Gregory Antoniadis, chairman of SEVITEL, the Greek Association of Industries and Processors of Olive Oil. Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis agreed, and said «there is no doubt that the fires have had huge economic consequences on the provinces affected.» His ministry estimated that at least 50 percent of agricultural production in those areas had been destroyed. There is also concern that the loss of olive trees – as well as of other crops, such as grapes and fruit – could push up prices in Greece, where olive oil is a staple and part of the daily diet. And with the olive crop providing 60 percent of local farmers’ income, and newly planted olive trees needing about seven to 10 years to become productive, farmers face years of problems, Antoniadis said. «They won’t have any income from olive cultivation during that time.» «We had olive trees. Now they’re all gone,» said 77-year-old Theoni Constandopoulou, who managed to save her house from the flames while others in the village burned to the ground. «What will we do without oil? Now they’re burned and we’ve lost them, what will become of us?» When Constandopoulou arrived in the mountain village of Artemida more than 40 years ago, her field had just five olive trees. She and her husband planted dozens more, as well as fruit trees, vines and a vegetable garden on the edge of the village. This week, she stood among the blackened stumps of her trees and wept as she surveyed the damage. «When will these grow again? What will we harvest now? This is what we sold and survived on,» Constandopoulou said, pointing to thousands of shriveled, burned olives strewn across her olive grove. The same scene is played out over and over again in the once-picturesque mountain villages of southern Greece. Makistos, just a few kilometers (miles) from Artemida, was equally affected. Of about 65 houses in the village, between 40 and 50 were totally burned, residents said. The village’s main source of income was olive oil production, said Dimos Kokaliaris, 42, whose father lives in Makistos. «I had olive trees I had planted as a child. Now there’s nothing left. Nothing,» he said. «Now we’ll see what we can do. Replant perhaps.» The government has announced a 300-million-euro aid package for those affected, including an initial payment of 3,000 euros for each family and a 10,000-euro payment for those who have lost a house. The government so far has said it will also give farmers 600 euros for each acre of lost olive groves, while private donations from Greeks have surpassed 38 million euros in total. «Beyond the environmental consequences, these fires have caused an irreparable social and economic catastrophe,» said Nikos Bokaris, head of the Greek Union of Forestry Experts. «The residents have suddenly found themselves without the means to support themselves. They are unable to meet their daily needs.» Constantinos Vassilopoulos, 57, from the village of Velanidi, said the situation was dire. «Machinery, pipes, walnut trees, almond trees, olives – the fire left nothing,» he said. With the local economy devastated and most of the village destroyed, Kokaliaris said locals might just move away. «They will leave. That’s what happens after disasters – people leave and try their luck elsewhere.» A vast expanse of charred earth now surrounds the village as far as the eye can see, from the valley below to the mountain peaks in the distance. «There is absolutely nothing left of agricultural land. All the olive trees are burned, all the vineyards, and the animals that survived have nothing to eat,» said 19-year-old Yiannis Pothos, walking over the rubble of his house. The building was gutted by the fire, the windows melted from the ferocity of the heat. «Our house was destroyed, but we also have to look at the cultivated land.» Like many villages in Greece, most of those who live in Makistos are elderly. The young moved away years ago, seeking better fortunes in the cities. Pothos lives in Athens but his father returned to the village, and had just finished building an extension to their house, which dates from Ottoman times and had been lovingly restored. His family supplemented their income by selling some of the oil they produced, and they also made wine. They had made a special storeroom in the house for their produce. «My family made 2 tons of oil and 300 kilos (660 pounds) of wine a year. This year, we’ll have nothing. We sold our oil; it was some income for the family,» he said. «Now that is lost.» But for others in Makistos, the situation was much worse. «There are people who are 80 years old whose houses were burned. They can’t leave, this is their home,» Pothos said.