Reshaping Greek Agriculture & Tourism with Permaculture

Stavroula Dimitropoulos
Tuesday, 8th July 2014

Implementing permaculture on the tourist Greek island of Paros is difficult, but Elena Symeonidou is working hard to embed native plants, water saving systems and education into the locals and tourists lifestyles.

Greece might be the perfect place for permaculture to prosper, professed prominent permaculturist Rhamis Kent in one of his recent digital interviews. Kent also believes the current financial meltdown isn’t exclusive to Greece but is a soon-to-be-worldwide phenomenon. "In the future we shall see an abundance of similar cases, for as long as there are unsustainable economic systems, crises will smite nations invariably." 

Whilst visiting Greece, permaculture teacher, Darren Doherty argued that this debt-laden country should relocalize its economy and reprioritize the environment over capitalist obsessions. “If we can do that and improve the cycles of money and nature in this beautiful part of the world, then I’m sure Greece and other countries that practice permaculture will have a fantastic future.”

Indeed, permaculture can assist Greece to break the chains of the borrowing-to-paying-off-loans vicious circle into which it has been pushed for seven consecutive years. “Permaculture is not only about landscaping and farming, it is also a socioeconomic framework, a holistic chance,” emphasizes Elena Symeonidou, a permaculture activist and pioneer of permaculture in Greece.

Paros Island & Permaculture

Elena graduated from the well-ranked National Technical University of Athens with a BSc in Electronics Engineering before gaining a position as web editor at CERN's press office in Geneva. A restless spirit, genuine nature aficionado and anti-conformism partisan deep inside, she was also studying permaculture and its holistic approach that promises to reharmonize humans with the Earth by emulating natural processes. Soon afterwards, she left her much sought-after job and submerged herself in the global movement of permaculture.

Her next step was to introduce permaculture ethics and principles into Greek society, and reignite hope and boost morale among debt-laden citizens. She moved to the cosmopolitan Cycladic island of Paros about four years ago. Ever since, she has been dedicated to spreading these ethics and principles in heavily-agricultural, ‘permaculturally’ nerveless, Greece. She has also helped form a local cooperative, BioParos, that is ‘hesitantly’ attempting to convince mainstream farmers to switch to more permaculture-oriented farming techniques. BioParos grows organic food for the community and sells it at the local market, with growing popularity. However, problems still arise with the island focussing more on its tourist trade than the land that sustains it.

Tourism

"Working in a renowned tourist destination that is at the same time at the front of desertification in Europe has its challenges. Locals have long abandoned land cultivation and turned to tourism for profit. Land is sold mainly to build villas and not to create a home or to cultivate, so it is quite expensive to purchase land for cultivation. You therefore end up renting land for short term use ... that means you cannot make the investment of permaculture with the view to building soil, a procedure that takes time. The bottom-line is that you cannot rely on farming alone to make a living in a tourist destination like Paros unless you own the land beforehand. Therefore, among other things, I work as a landscape designer and create gardens for people who build their holiday homes on Paros," Elena explains.

Presently, critical problems of the island's ecosystem are water scarcity and use, soil depletion and erosion, and hard winds (meltemia). Normally, budding Paros homeowners are not versed in permaculture and Elena has to go the extra mile each time one of them calls for her services, since she wants to tackle these grave environmental issues both as a landscapist and permaculturist. This, as she explains, makes mulching a challenge: "Villa and hotel owners do not appreciate straw, wool, or plant litter as mulch, because it doesn't look good, so I use more aesthetic solutions: wood chip and olive leaves that I find after harvesting and pruning numerous olive trees on the islands. It is also a challenge substituting ornamental plants for edible plants." 


Planting Native Species

Customers avoid edible plants in case they attract insects, rodents, and other ‘uninvited’ guests into their precious ornamental gardens. Plus, those that are just second home vacationers in Paros do not stay long enough to appreciate a veggie garden. Elena has to assure some of them that they will not be attacked by swarms of roaches if they opt for edible plants and suggests native plants or other plants well adapted to semi-arid conditions for the gardens. Nonetheless, she never selects plants harmful to bees and other insects and she has a plethora of herbs and flowers that are native or more generally from the Mediterranean to choose from. Another challenge to a permaculturist in Paros is the choice of trees. Elena finds it amusing that northern Europeans come to the Cyclades and ask for apple and cherry trees in their gardens when it is highly unlikely that they will thrive, even in a microclimate.

Water Issues

Permaculture is about allowing the Earth to bear fruit without interfering with her intrinsic rhythm. The trees on Paros are olive, carob, pomegranate, fig and also grape vine. Elena shares a system she has come up with to make capital of available nature: “A system I have been using with success is olive trees with climbing grape vines. The grapes climb successfully up the olive trees.”As Paros is semi-arid, the rain only falls during winter for four to six months, and has lately not exceeded 350mm per year. “I have applied Brad Lancaster’s techniques to slow, spread and sink as much water as possible into the soil. I have tried to divert overflow rainwater from dirt and concrete roads into fields and gardens using simple drain ditches and small swales,” Elena explains.

Paros dwellers often erect houses worth several thousands of euros, with ideas of pools and lawns, that are not right for the climate. Elena’s main weapon of persuasion is that the immoderate amounts of water needed are extremely pricey. A recurring issue is that Paros land is fragmented into very small plots owned by different people, so people end up buying small parcels of one acre and cannot control or make decisions about their watershed. Nearly all old houses on the Greek islands have a cistern built at the basement of the house, useful for collecting rainwater from the roof. Nonetheless, ‘high-tech’ engineers have abandoned this cistern design to gain a few square meters of living space. This deprives landlords of the precious rainwater and burdens the water table even more. “I wish people invited me to help them before they started building, or even before buying land to build their dream house overlooking the Aegean Sea,” Elena says. People’s eagerness to ‘consume’ the gorgeous white-and-blue of the Cyclades renders them fallible to several errors. The most detrimental is error number one, according to Bill Mollison ... to site the house literally in the wrong place.

“Local people refuse to sell their land cheap (neither should they) but the first thing they do is to get rid of the plots where they can no longer farm due to severe erosion or because of exposure to strong winds. A prospective buyer gets lured by the stunning views and is inclined to position the house in the topmost part of the land ... It is then that an eternal battle with the wind starts, with the defeated battler being always the humans,” says Elena.

At the end of the day, a permaculture venture in Paros is about amalgamating monetary needs with eco-viable solutions. Anxious-for-the-economic-future locals, lifetime-ambition-fulfillers-now-turned-locals, micro-businessmen, hotel tycoons, eco-tourists ... they all have a lot to learn from this driven woman! Elena is equipped with knowledge, interest and a heavy dose of patience and is currently striving to leave a positive legacy. 

“With designing and constructing gardens comes the serious task of educating and informing people about prudent and money-savvy choices. If we are not careful enough while producing holiday paradises, we may destroy the very land that creates them,” Elena sums up. Tourism is a cornerstone of Greece’s economy, but why not let permaculture reshape it?

Elena maintains a blog where she regularly shares her ideas, suggestions and techniques to perma-curious Greeks who wish to delve into permaculture deeper: http://permaculture-greece.org

Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer whose work has appeared in various publications. She is also a B.A. in Natural Sciences, a BSc. in Psychology and an MSc. in RCDM.

Further resources

Perma-caravan arrives in Greece

Greek 'potato revolution' spreads - economic hardship relocalises food supply

Watch: Healing Afghanistan with permaculture

Haiti: how permaculture is proving a vital tool in disaster relief

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