New methods for removing plastic from the sea, stopping rodents from destroying crops in an eco-friendly way, and educating schoolchildren about environmental protection are but some of the Greek proposals that earned accolades at this year’s Green Ideas competition for the Western Balkans.
The idea for a regional competition with an ecological theme began eight years ago and came to fruition with the support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, explained Panagiotis Tzannetakis, project manager at HumanRights360, which manages the Greek part of the competition, in cooperation with the Higher Incubator Giving Growth & Sustainability (HIGGS).
“The idea was to create an institution in a geographical region where the wounds of war in the 1990s have not yet healed, but also to cultivate an ecological mentality in the same area, which is dealing with critical environmental challenges,” Tzannetakis told Kathimerini in a video call.
The initiative has led to numerous ingenious programs and cooperation agreements between different states. “The ‘recycling wizard’ who tours schools in North Macedonia and the farm in Montenegro that helps abused donkeys are but two of several examples of successful projects,” said Tzannetakis.
Alexandra Emirza, deputy director at HIGGS, told Kathimerini that three projects were selected to represent Greece for this year’s competition, from a short list of 10 culled from 30 entries. It was the second time Greece was participating in the competition, which was conducted online this year because of the pandemic.
“We have observed a huge shortage in environmental education. To begin with, school yards are extremely aggressive spaces and environmental education is conducted with extremely dated methods,” said Dominiki Vagiati, speaking on behalf of a group of around 10 educators, environmental scientists, architects and artists who belong to the Green Community of Thessaloniki grassroots initiative.
The group’s first campaign was to transform an old apartment block into a green building, an idea that led to the school project being conceived last March. “We designed a range of outdoor activities, from vegetable patches and composting stations to ‘traffic’ lanes in school courtyards,” explained Vagiati.
The coronavirus may have put the brakes on the implementation of the project, but it did not stop it from earning kudos at the Green Ideas competition and a cash prize of $5,000 in the New Ideas category.
“We are optimistic that our ideas will take actual shape in the spring, at the 40th Elementary School of Thessaloniki, as extracurricular activities,” added Vagiati.
Greece’s first professional fishermen’s school Enaleia won $10,000 for its Mediterranean Cleanup initiative, which has already resulted in the collection of 100 tons of discarded plastic by fishermen between January and September.
“Our idea was literally born on the fishing boat,” said 26-year-old Lefteris Arapakis, the founder of Enaleia.
“Together with their catch, fishermen also bring up a lot of plastic, which many used to throw back into the water. We encourage them to bring it to shore,” he told Kathimerini. “At first we stored it and then we began sending the plastic bottles and nets to organizations in the Netherlands and Spain, respectively, while the rest is sent for recycling,” he said, adding that the prize money will be used to expand the program to more parts of Greece.
The Barn Owl Project enchanted judges at the competition with its amazing farm-friendly qualities, even though it did not win any prizes. “Barn owls live exclusively in agricultural ecosystems and tend to nest in disused stone structures,” Vasileios Bontzorlos, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Thessaly whose research has focused on raptors and their role in ecology, told Kathimerini. “Their greatest virtue is that they feed only on mice, with each individual eating between 3,000 and 6,000 rodents a year.”
Barn owls have been used in Israel for years as a means of controlling rodent damage to crops and Dr Bontzorlos drew from that practice to set up wooden nesting boxes all over the Thessaly Plain in the initiative that he launched in 2016 with nongovernmental organization Tyto.
There are 100 such boxes in Thessaly today, at least half of which are hosting barn owls and 20% of which have also hosted nests.
“The barn owl is the farmer’s friend. Farmers in Thessaly have sustained damage worth hundreds of millions of euros in the past decade as a result of rodents,” stressed Bontzorlos.