Protecting Crete’s ancient olive trees from being fed to the fire

“These trees helped our parents put clothes on our backs and send us to university. It is thanks to these trees that Crete is what it is. Its cultural development is thanks to them. Yet no one cares for these olive trees that have fed millions of people for thousands of years, that have been worshipped and adored.”

Aris Koutakis becomes emotional when he talks about the destruction he has witnessed around his home in Amari, a district of Rethymno that extends to the foothills of Mount Psiloritis and is famed for having some of Crete’s oldest olive trees.

“Organized crews that are cashing in on the fact that most of the residents are elderly come here and, without getting permission from anyone, cut down entire groves of olive trees, even trees that date back 2,000 years,” Koutakis laments. “There are also people who cut them down out of desperation because they no longer yield fruit or income. But it pains them to do so.”

The residents of Amari are powerless to stop the destruction of their iconic landscape as need and avarice take over.

“This land used to be covered in olive trees, cypresses, planes and pines. The olive trees are gradually disappearing; let’s see how long the others last,” says Koutakis, who has been trying to salvage the island’s historic trees since 2009 as part of a group formed by the Network of Cretan Cultural Associations. The network has already created a record of 1,000 ancient olive trees – aged no less than 500-1,000 years – that continue to grow on the island, while attempting to raise public awareness regarding their historical and cultural significance.

However, already under threat from rampant construction across the island, these historic trees have little chance of being saved from those who profit from the economic crisis and households’ skyrocketing demand for firewood. Add to that the fact that the network is alone in its campaign as it has not managed to secure the help of local authorities to combat the phenomenon.

“As if it weren’t enough that the authorities are not interested in helping, we have had complaints from some municipalities because we are keeping records,” says Costas Savvakis, a spokesperson for the network.

In Amari, which boasts some of Crete’s oldest and most imposing olive trees – one of its biggest has a circumference of 25 meters – illegal logging has already taken a heavy toll.

“They chop them down so that new trees can grow and be used as firewood,” says Koutakis. “I estimate that around 500 trees will be lost on Crete this winter.”

Even though the local forestry department has the jurisdiction to list flora for protection, it has failed to do so for the island’s olive trees, despite pressure from the academic community and local residents.

“Some simply don’t want to come up against the loggers, for obvious reasons,” says Koutakis. “We are all alone. Sure, some will ask why we’re bothering to save trees when everything else is going to pot, but these trees have been part of our lives for so long.”

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