Restoring the pine forests of Greece’s Evia lost to wildfires

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In a blackened, desolate orchard on the Greek island of Evia, Vaggelis Georgantzis walks to his last remaining pine tree.

“This is the last one I own,” he says, softly.

A plastic bag dangles from the bark collecting sticky resin, now crusty and dry from the heat of the fire that engulfed the surrounding trees. He says he’ll keep it as a memento.

Mr Georgantzis tears up. “We’re finished. I am finished. I’ll never be able to produce resin in my lifetime.”

Known as “retsini” locally, the resin is the lifeblood of this now devastated community. Used primarily as an ingredient in paint solvent and in wine production, the crop embodies the stark reality many on this island now face.

A single pine tree takes between 20 and 40 years to mature fully; only then can resin can be extracted. There are no shortcuts. It is hard to overstate the impact of this loss for the island.

Mr Georgantzis is head of the Resin Producers Association on Evia, representing 1,500 farmers. He says 800 of these farms were lost in the fire, representing close to three quarters of the island’s production. Beneath those farms is a complex and mature value chain, leading all the way to processing and export.

Bags on pine trees with resin – or “retsini” locally – in a forest on the island of Evia, about 185 kilometres north of Athens, on August 12. AP

Resin exports are worth $15 million a year to the Greek economy, which accounts for 2.5 per cent of the global export market and 85 per cent of those exports come from Evia, Mr Georgantzis says.

But resin is not the only industry coming to terms with loss. So much value is given to Evia’s forest by locals, it is a source of pride and love, as well as an example of respect for natural resources. It seeps into almost every aspect of island life. Gaze over Evia’s charred hills and mountains you see devastated olive groves, fig trees and virgin forest.

Evia’s honey is renowned in Greece for its sweet pine aroma – it also accounts for 50 per cent of honey production. Bees in Evia had access to tens of thousands of hectares of pine trees. With more than 50,000 hectares ravaged by wildfires, that crop too has become greatly diminished.

Honey makers told CNN that 60 per cent of production has been destroyed. They will now have to move their bees to other parts of the country.

Owners of a honey processing factory react as a bushfire approaches the facility in Aspropyrgos, near Athens, on July 10. EPA

Locals say they have been living through hell during these fires. Firefighters speak of monster flames devouring everything in their path.

Not surprisingly, beach bars and cafeterias are devoid of tourists. Some owners have transformed their businesses into safe houses and supply bases, where volunteers still gather to co-ordinate firefighting and the monitoring of rekindles.

Food and other supplies, donated by unaffected locals and from other parts of Greece, have made their way to fire-affected areas and into the hands and mouths of emergency services.

One firefighter tells me he’s never seen this level of co-ordination by volunteers. “The food, water and help are something special and the people of Evia helped constantly. For the first time in the years I’ve been fighting wildfires, I’ve never had to worry about food or where to sleep in between shifts.”

Greece has as many as 6,000 islands, but only 150 are inhabited. People live in small villages, most of which rely on agriculture and tourism.

One business has a multiplier effect creating more demand; the value chains are intricate and fragile. A catastrophe of this scale, impacting multiple industries and requiring decades to recover, has knock-on effects wherever you look. Higher unemployment means less demand for everything from mechanics to hairdressers.

The Greek government has proposed a $600m relief package for Evia, but many young people already say they want to leave. “There’s nothing left, there’s no future,” one 30-year-old entrepreneur said. A mass exodus would be catastrophic to the island’s economy.

Mr Georgantzis says relief will need to be targeted and expertly distributed to ensure the best and quickest outcome to regrow the lost forest. He believes the only way to save his industry is to work with locals. “We know the forest and if we don’t take the right steps, we might end up waiting 100 years instead of 20.”

He doesn’t care why the help comes, as long as it arrives. He is sceptical that it will. Another island is still reeling from fires and floods, he says, after government promises of recovery aid failed to materialise.

“Even if politicians help us because they don’t want to lose political favour, that’s fine. As long as they don’t forget us,” he says. “We want signatures not promises.”

As men sit around the diner, or “kafenio|, in the village of Skepasti, some drinking their ouzo with their worry beads, or “komboloi”, in hand, they discuss what comes next. Many agree that the Mitsotakis administration has an opportunity here: to make Evia an example of how drawing on local experience and love for the land can be the winning formula for restoration and reforestation.

The men say they don’t want handouts so they can sit idle in the coffee shop; they want to be heard and included in their island’s future. Something they worry won’t happen.

“They can’t just parachute in experts,” one says. We know what to do and how to fix this. We are ready to rebuild, even if it takes a generation.”

Eleni Giokos is a CNN correspondent and anchors Connecting Africa on CNN International

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