Consensus pulls Prespes region back from the brink

In the Prespes region, around lakes Megali Prespa and Mikri Prespa, it always has been and always will be about water.

“We used to sleep in the boat,” says 64-year-old Tasos Dimanopoulos, who started fishing on Mikri Prespa, the smaller of the two lakes on Greece’s northern border, as soon as he was out of elementary school. “As soon as school was out, our folks would send us to work. By the time we were 12 or 13, we were old hands.”

Up until some 30 years ago, life in Prespes used to be particularly difficult as the area’s fishermen and farmers were at the mercy of the weather: Too much rain and the fields would flood and not dry up in time for sowing; too little and there would be no water for irrigation. Over the years, fish stocks started dwindling and livestock farmers sought higher grazing ground, away from the thick reeds that were choking the shores. The people were poor.

“When I was 17 or 18, we’d pinch a couple of eggs so we could buy cigarettes or a bar of chocolate and play a game of cards at the coffee shop,” says Lazaros Petridis, a farmer.

The problems dogging Megali and Mikri Prespa, however, didn’t just affect the area’s human residents but also its once-thriving bird population. Precious parts of the lakes dried up completely and protected species such as the Dalmatian pelican started vanishing.

Today, the situation is much improved, with many parts of the lake restored and thousands of birds making their way back, including Dalmatian pelicans, which gather around fishing boats begging for scraps like cats at tavernas. According to the Prespes Protection Society, there are currently some 1,400 breeding pairs, up from 150 in the 1980s. The revival of the natural habitat has also helped local farmers, who see their yields increasing with every passing year. Today Prespes is famous for its “plake” and “gigantes elefantes” beans and is a growing tourism destination.

How was all this achieved?

“What it takes is a search for common ground, dialogue,” says Nikos Giannakis, the president of the Prespes National Park management fund. Every year in early March he gathers representatives of farmers, fishermen, regional and local authorities and environmental organizations around the same table. This year’s discussion began with a presentation by experts of the progress made since last year.

In contrast to what invariably happens elsewhere in Greece when the management of natural resources is at issue, the discussion here ended in consensus for the eighth year in a row. Stakeholders rarely agree when it comes to lake management in Greece, and that alone makes Prespes even more special.

The lakes

Megali and Mikri Prespa form a complex system: The level of Mikri Prespa, which is almost entirely inside Greek territory, is about 10 meters higher today than Megali Prespa, only a small part of which is in Greece. All of the activities on the lakes, including the cultivation of the area’s beans, depend entirely on the water level.

Petridis explains as we squelch our way through muddy fields: “The lake starts there,” he says, pointing to a cluster of reeds. “This field is higher than the water and safe, but if the level rises, it will also become part of the lake.”

The two lakes are separated and controlled by a dam with floodgates. Careful control of the water that flows into Mikri Prespa from the north ensures its levels remain high enough for fish and birds to reproduce but not so high that fields flood and don’t drain fast enough.

“If we get a lot of snow and rain, as we did this year, the level of the lake rises dangerously, so we open the floodgates and gradually let it out,” says Petridis.

Another first in Prespes is that the floodgate system was not built by the state but by the Prespes Protection Society, a coalition of 10 nongovernmental organizations formed in 1991 to protect the area. It has already been awarded for its work and a few years ago took over, via the EU-backed Life program, responsibility for the protection of two threatened bird species, the Dalmatian pelican and the pygmy cormorant.

“To protect these birds, it was essential to find a way to control the level of the lake so that the shore floods in spring and the level drops significantly in summer so we can cut down the reeds and have wet grasslands,” explains Myrsini Malakou, director of the Prespes Protection Society. “The floodgate is a tool; you have to tell it what to do. So we formed a committee for the management of the wetland which meets every year and decides on the levels the lake needs to be maintained at throughout the year.”

Not all rosy

So, is everything rosy in Prespes? Of course not.

“We’re not one big, happy family just because we get around a table and talk,” says Malakou. “We get into a lot of disagreements, even arguments. But we don’t leave the table without a solution.”

The consensus that has been achieved today over the management of Mikri Prespa is the result of over two decades of hard work. It is also interesting that in the early years, relations were especially fraught between the conservationists and the locals – due to a dispute that dated from 1974, when the area was named a national park and livestock and agricultural activity was banned.

“When the society started 25 years ago, there were rival camps,” says Malakou, explaining the painstaking process of bringing them closer together.

“These young environmentalists turned up, straight out of university and without a clue,” says Petridis. “After living here a few years, they rethought a lot of things. We also realized that they were here for our own good.”

Now that the benefits of this spirit of cooperation have become apparent, the new generation of professionals in Prespes view the environmental organizations as an element of progress.

“Old minds are old minds. We young people have agreed to go a step further,” says young fisherman Nikos Traianopoulos.

“They’re scientists and they’re doing a good job. The young people like me who chose to stay on here want to make something more of the legacy passed down to us by our fathers and grandfathers.”

Other than an important ecosystem, Prespes is also stunningly beautiful.

“The future is in tourism. We have this lake, this beautiful place,” says Traianopoulos. “People come here from other parts of Greece and Europe and think it’s paradise.”

On this front, however, consensus is harder to achieve.

“Even though I am often disheartened by the fact that there are so many difficulties in communicating and reaching an agreement on all these issues and there are so many prejudices on all sides, we should never stop negotiating and seeking consensus to the extent that it’s possible,” says Giannakis of the Prespes National Park board.

“This can only be achieved when you put all of the parties that have an interest in the same issue around the same table.”

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