Friday, December 28, 2012

2013 - more Nature in our Lives

New Year's Wishes! 

I want firstly to thank all my close friends, family and co-workers for making 2012 a year of discovery and transformation. I especially want to thank HCMR - our learning organization - i believe in this think tank! 

For Greece, 2012 was a very difficult year; so many changes have brought much pain - it would be ridiculous not to mention the human crisis taking place. We must learn to support this country, its greatest cultural assets being its people and landscapes.
And biodiversity is not a luxury-conserving it is part of the solution!

I want to thank all my friends and family abroad - in Canada, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Portugal, UK, The Balkans, Turkey, Kuwait - The Mediterranean - so many of you have given our endeavors so much support. 

I wish you all a Happy New Year and I hope you can visit us here, 
with your co-workers, families and loved ones
 in GREECE in 2013.

Lets get more nature in our lives................

Conservation History in Karystos

A nature conservation history: Karystos

This is a personal history. It attempts to document conditions and events that have inspired a bit of local intrigue in and around the small community of Karystos, the southern part of the Island of Euboea. This is a free-writing memoir. The thought-line follows the conservation movement and unintentionally I bypass a lot.... I try to describe a reality, I introduce no fiction here. Things are presented as I recall them and as I feel about them today.

The '70s 

The setting

"Conservation" or nature protection of any sort was absolutely unheard of in the '70s in Karystos. The culture was different then. However, external unstructured ideas for tourism development and attempts to show-off "nature" were not unknown in the '70s in Greece. Karystos is unique: The abrupt mountain rising like a pyramid above the Aegean just 50 Kms east of Athens had easily inspired interest - a kind of  "promotion" interest early on. The place is blessed with hundreds of springs and small streams, cool riparian woodland strips contrasted by arid rockscape's. In the '70s this was a kind of nirvana cultural landscape for learned visitors. The island's biggest castle, unexplored archaeological sites everywhere, even Mount Ochi's peak at 1399 m asl had a megalithic temple - known as the Dragon's house. About 30 small hamlets, a few village-sized, were scattered around the mountain and above the wild sea. The mountain was like a wilderness beaken  - a rock-castle in the sea drawing attention. Already by 1962 Athenian mountaineers prompted by a few local visionaries had built an alpine hut at Kastanologgos - next to the ancient chestnut wood bellow the peak. The villagers persisted in an other-worldly, almost medieval existence: a life of goat and sheep grazing primarily. They would laugh at the few souls who ventured up the mountain - to "see what?".

Environmentalism reached Karystos in the late '70s through a preposterous plan to build Greece's first Nuclear Power Plant on top of one of the Archaeological sites - the beautiful beach-side Kastri (Ancient Geraistos). This never happened because of a series of incredible demonstrations that included a walk from Karystos all the way to Halkis (the Island's Capital - 120 kms away). These were one of Greece's first mass eco-demonstrations.... In fact the '70s and early 80s were an unprecedented environmental awakening in Greece - similar to the late '60s in the West.

Background details

My mothers' parents are from Euboea, specifically the small hamlet of Lala, next to Kalyvia village. This small village, only 5 km from Karystos Harbour, is the reason I became a naturalist I think. Karystos has had strong influences on me from my toddler years.  

I can clearly recall summers in the late '70s and '80s at Karystos' West Beach. My mother loved to stay at our camper-van beside the beach instead of at Lala. We would go to swim in the morning on a oil-flat sea. The sea was alive, so clear and crisp. Hippies always slept on the beach - it intrigued me that a few kms west of the town nearly all beaches were "nudist". And behind Karystos' west beach was a swampy coastal plain - the Karystos Plain. My Dad, an expat restaurateur in Canada, migrated every summer to Karystos for the fishing. He had a boat that he had built of fine Allepo pine in Piraeus in 1973. We spent every summer fishing. I stayed with Grandma in the village a couple of years;  went to kindergarten and first-grade at the Kalyvia School (before migrating with the family back to Canada). Lala was traditional then. Electricity came to the village in 1976 (I remember the Power Company blasting holes in the village to set up utility poles). So I lived the oil-lamp period. No TV. No cars until the early '80s. Subsistence agriculture and grazing dominated village life. People were proud to own horses; a gravel quarry churned micro-industrialism across the opposite hillside. People were tough: animal herding, orchard-working, hunting, mining. 

Karystos is not a picturesque harbour town (pop: 7000). Athenians discovered it and build a few high-rise apartment blocks since the early '70s. But there has always been an amazing harbour - a real fisherman's harbour, with people who worked the sea, trawling, gill-netting, octopus harpooning etc. My dad became well-versed; he was tutored by the sliest and wisest fishermen. And there were factions and competitors. One ugly chap, 'Saris', we hated more than anyone - more than a Turk. Saris would supposedly go for octopus but steal our gill-netted fish from our nets instead. I think Dad often used this as an excuse for a few very fish-less days....

If Lala was my cradle, Karystos Bay became dream-world - even before adolescence. On the tiny wooden boat, powered by a huge diesel FAHRMAN engine, we would brave anything - to fish. I learned all the species. Gill-netting was Dad's greatest passion. He had obtained through bribery and wit all the required licences to safely call himself professional. Out on the sea with his youngest son he probably felt totally free. The fish we caught we would "give" to the people at Lala who in turn brought us milk products, poultry, herbs, and services to my family. No money, food-for-food of food-for-service. A wall built here, cement poured there, trees planted and pruned; rabbits gutted-cleaned. Fish in exchange. We had a network. We were summer villagers. 

The '80s 

When I reached 13 years old I decided to stop fishing (and hunting) and became an amateur scientist. Dad would drive down to the Harbour for fishing and I walked down- strolling through the Karystos Plain always wearing binoculars. I began recording all my daily bird observations in August 1983. I did this upon my return home after each field walk- carefully listing all species seen, numbers of species and brief comments. The Karystos Plain became my first university (In Vancouver and in Athens I had other nature study areas too - but here it became serious). I was fortunate enough to live in Athens from Spring 1983 to June 1986 (and these were definitely the glory days of my life, they formulated my approach to natural history). Because our family "escaped" constantly to Karystos, I learned to do this by myself, and by 15 years old I would take bus-and-ferry and go to Karystos just for the sake of being "out in Nature" for the weekend. I was obsessed with nature. And I decided to study it - not just enjoy or photograph it. In '84 I wrote my first two scientific pieces about Nature. One "The Otters of Karystos" was not published out of fear that the small population would be discovered and shot but local hunters (upon the advice of Mr. Byron Antipas- General Secretery of the HSPN). The other piece, was a treatise on "The Birds of Karystos" (in fact just a list- with at least several blunders and misidentifications included - however it was my first paper, published in the HOS Bulletin in early 1985). It was my proudest moment; I had become an ornithologist.

The beginning of a campaign
Since I was a rather confident young lad - I would talk to people about what I do. I knew the Forest Department people (and even advised them against planting exotic trees etc. in '85). I discovered that some Belgian Geographers had adopted Karystos and were doing MSc level research each summer; I observed the workings of the South Eubeoan Exploration Project (American / Canadian Archaeologists); I was a frequent visitor at the tiny Karystos Library (a silent life-less place - where a young lady, Georgia Pantelia, headed a small-town newspaper). My Sister Eva -an Art Historian, and my Brother Kosta a wielding charter-boat captain at the time - inspired me to study and explore. I was not sociable or anything like that - mostly I wanted really know the birds, to save nature - and used my imagination a lot. (Actually, I remember asking if "anything had ever been written on the birds or animals of Karysita"...impressed that what I was doing was exploratory). I was very naive as a proud youngster could be. But I was totally "involved". 

At the time "ecology" was an exciting buzzword in Greece. And proposals had been put forward to create an protected area on Ochi - to stop overgrazing - at the level of a so-called "Aesthetic Forest" in  the Dimosaris ravine. My friends at the Hellenic Ornithological Society and I then begun a campaign  to "Save" the Karystos Plain (or Karystos Wetland to be more particular). In the plain were two huge clay pits created in the early '70s by a dredging for brick building.  I had discovered them and named them (the big one was "Souvala" which most locals called "Homateri" i.e "dump"; the small one was Limni Vidras - Lake Vidra, i.e. Otter Lake). In 1985 an interesting attempt were made to actually purchase Lake Vidra through an intervention by my heroes at the HOS. The HOS helped me feel I was doing something important; and in particular my friends Georgia Tsakona and Phillip Dragoumis visited and work on ideas and writing with me.  Even great scientists later visited me, like Philios Akriotis. I met Alister Gammel of the RSPB in Athens and our small idea was talked about, we even brain-stormed on how to secure funds to buy the clay-pit (Lake Vidra). This baby-campaign failed since the locals interpreted the attempt as "European money" and wanted to get an easy fortune made. I continued to study the place even after I left to live in Canada (I left in '86). But through these initial efforts Karystos was put on the conservation map in bold. The idea of Mount Ochi and the surrounding area as a proposed Area of Conservation Interest was born. The area was formally described in the Corine Biotopes Project in the mid-80s (The project was headed by friends Ben Hallmann and George Sfikas; Ben in fact was one of these very special expats who left an imprint on many of us in HOS). I often dreamed I could become like Ben - an explorer and crusader who fought strong and hard for nature (and I built on this while living in Vancouver Canada in the late '80s - a time of unprecedented environmentalism there).

Having had conservation experiences in Canada - I later tested my trained hand in my faraway lost paradise in '89 and the early '90s. The bulldozers were moving in on the Souvala Pond; they had logged a dozen trees at Lake Vidra; sewage had poisoned the waters of Rigia Stream (I never again saw them clear and full of eels). I had found a couple of otters and an eagle shot. I had photos to prove this and I begun taking pictures to show people - the carnage, the loss. Our HOS team helped construct an official conservation proposal which was finally printed and bound and presented to the Mayor of Karystos in the Spring of '88 (Yorgos Tsolakis- a PASOK leader was very fond of green ideas). The municipal council did pass a statement to protect the wetlands from hunting. I remember giving Yorgos some ready-made metal signs spelling out "NO HUNTING-PROTECTED AREA" but he probably never placed them up.

In the summer of '89 I think I did my "most serious" work ever at Karystos. I even had a HOS volunteer join me (the late Tassos Kitidis) - we surveyed the entire Karystia Peninsula south of Stoupaei Village (an area of 400 Km2). I had started a huge "study" (and never really finished it -although I promised I would). I explored the wider Mount Ochi Area. Amazing places were "discovered": wild valleys, unroaded coastlines, more small wetlands. And I met lots and lots of people out there - they intrigued me (however I was not going to become an anthropologist or anything like that....).

Somethings became a bit tricky during that summer. I reported some fishermen blast-fishing to the coast guard (with photos!) and the culprits crusaded to get-back at me. Villagers talked about me -"'O Zongaris"- in many villages - and they new the blue Mazda pic-up I was driving...One said they would "feed me to the black fishes". The feeling of being notorious gave me an instant high! Many nights I slept in fear and hid well. I also traveled away. I had to take "breaks" away from Karystos during that summer- to other parts of Greece - now filled with wanderlust - I became international. But the feelings were always strongest at Karystos. Much of this was a combination of boyish fantasy and true pathos for local nature. It was obviously difficult to commit any more. I felt only scientists were taken seriously. So I went back to school.

The '90s 

I graduated in '95 with a BA in Geography and Biology and was eager to return to Greece to fight. And one of the places in my mind was Karystos. Under my arm I had a thesis written on "Birds and Nature Conservation in Southern Karystia" - a product of my 4th year class in Ornithology at SFU (I remember professor Dov Lank didn't particularly approve). So armed with a degree- I was back in Greece - here to stay with my wife and her family in Athens. In 1996 I was working with the HOS and just before a 6-month compulsory stint in the Army I met a conservation consultant, Thomas Arapis. He asked me to work with him for Euboea. I was so intrigued by his idea of working for conservation and earning what I called good "European money" that I helped to support a new EU funded project to "Promote Actions for Conservation on Mount Ochi and the Dimosaris Gorge". Arapis' consultancy was called "OIKOS" and we worked together on many things for seven years (we are still friends and collaborate on things). The first phase of the Karystos project lasted for three years and it became a huge learning experience for all of us. Key locals and most specifically a teacher-naturalist by the name of Sakis Biniaris joined forces to develop the practics of the conservation idea. It seemed a great idea: Create a strong ecotourism incentive and then apply the EU-funded conservation measures. This of course was all to be made very public - a study to design a protected area became big local news (after all the "Mount Ochi-Karystos Plain-Cavo D'oro coasts" was  a NATURA 2000 site; a proposed Site of Conservation Interest). Some environmentalists, such as the late Vaggelis Vroutsis (famous speleologist and climber) thought our plan was weak with no teeth. Others thought that more participation and information to the locals was called for. Things didn't go well. The events of the experience need carefully explanation and I will try to do this elsewhere. Some results included the following:

- We crafted an ambitions study designing a huge "Eco-development Area" (analogous to a multi-use landscape park about 270 Km2) and promoted no-roading in the uplands and some valleys. The draft Presidential Decree proposed stringent conservation zones in multi-zoned area - it even "protected" 2.2 Km2 of private land in the Karystos Plain (this was presented in public in '98).
-We designed and built a Info Center at Kalyvia-next to Kalyvia School (officially opened to the public in 2002) and a small "guard's house" at the Dimosaris trail head. 
-We created brochures, post cards, an amazing award-wining booklet (published in 2000).
-We engaged the locals- had public talks - and tried to show that the "preposterous idea" was non-threatening.
-Trails and paths and ecotouristic signage were built (a ridiculous mistake and scandal surrounded one of the trails- were a huge concrete ladder was built -marring the traditional stonework grazers trail).
-We designed and executed re-planting of sites with native trees (all the treelets later eaten by the goats).
-We helped design and eco-friendly access road (!!) to the trail-head of the Dimosaris (this helped access).
-We designed ecotourism approaches and my wife Vasso Vlami, friends Aris Vidals, Vassilis Hatzirvassanis, Panayotis Dimopoulos and others participated in many aspects. In fact it was a big team effort. 
In the three years that I worked in the initial EU funded project associated as consultant (initially as a member of HOS), I met and worked with many people - and again I became "known" as the local ecologist. In parallel, a small NGO was set up in Karystos - it would be called SPENK (Society for the Protection of the Enviroment in Notia Karystia). Although I helped form this organization I never became a member, in order not to associate my negative name to it. The key-voice and worker behind SPENK and many things before and after the late '90s was Sakis Biniaris.

Natura 2000

Myself, Sakis, Thomas, my family and others in SPENK and even HOS became targets of an anti-conservation campaign. It was not a summer's notoriety anymore. The backlash was strong and hard - and it hurt. Many residents believed the rumors that a special EU scheme - the Natura Scheme - was crafted to rob locals of their land, their rights, their booming economy (now based mostly on land-selling speculation, holliday home building, quarrying, and a general free-for-all land-abuse).  We were threatened over the phone and newspapers slandered that we had taken the BIG MONEY and given only grief and fear to the people. It was after all "their land". I recall Stratis Bourdakis from the HOS telling me to be careful - it could get dirty. Graffitti spelled-out "NO TO NATURA" and "Get your hands off our land". Graffiti was everywhere by the turn of the Century - streets, walls, buildings. In October 1999 I was beaten-up by a bunch of locals as a "lesson" to smarten-up or leave. I was hospitalized for a night and sent back to Athens by police escort. People considered me just another eco-politician who knew the ways of the "system" and had fooled everyone into believing that a rocky hill could become a "Park".  I think even a few trusted people in the Ministry of Environment may have believed the slander - that I had introduced otters to give the place heightened ecological values etc. I practically was exiled away for a long while!!!! It was dangerous going back to Karystos for me (I could go on-and-on about this; others in SPENK had similar problems - it was like living in civil strife for them....).

Ecotourism did catch on for about a decade. It was amazing how the "image" of Karystos had ameliorated in an ecotouristic sense. The Dimosaris Gorge - a name and concept crafted by us to mimic the Samaria Gorge idea worked! I reckon at least 5000 tourists hiked the 10 km trail annually for about a decade. The positive exposure lent a lot of credibility to the "protected area" cause. The book that we put together the "Mount Ochi Area" which fortunately had Vasso and Aris Vidalis involved, created strong positive feelings for conservation. In fact this "Green Book" as it has come to be called was pivitol in changing many minds. We worked on documentaries, pamphlets, hiking maps - many other things. In the end Vasso's and Aris' Green Book backed by Thomas's good will and experience was the single most important culture-affecting work!

But, many negatives totally outweighed any good the "promotion" gave. Land properties sky-rocketed. The marble quarries (nearly all of them illegal and tax-evading) boomed, the locals who had some land in the Karystos Plain did quite a bit of swamp in-filling. They fought the Natura scheme by attacking nature. In fact even a couple of  house building foundations were build on the marshes so they could stand as an affront to the proposal to stop building there. Hundreds of willows were cut and burned. (In fact a local militant NGO was formed "Insulted Landowners" to fight against the Natura 2000 scheme). By 2007 I thought the otters were gone - but they did survive (and I find that amazing.....) The small wetlands of the Plain I felt had no future as the area was being developed as prime beachfront or extensive garbage dump!!!. Overnight, some politician in Athens amputated the Karystos Plain from the Natura 2000 site delineation. Wind farm proposals and developments created more changes, more threats- would any wilderness be left? In the later part of the decade, the ideas of conservation became more distant. In the economic crisis that ensued - "giving up" land for preservation was thought of a ridiculous luxury. 


Now, I can celebrate 30 years of studying nature at Karystos. But the history of our conservation actions there is almost forgotten and seems so insignificant. The policy-built conservation area exists on paper and in cyberspace. In this crazy reality Greece is going through, people probably do not even question the faded graffiti anymore. I hope I have done justice in referring to some peoples names - many many others helped positively (and many others were totally out in the far LEFT FIELD- and we all lost opportunities because of the chaos). And during these years many other issues loaded the campaign and made the details so complicated - its hard to bring out the full context of politics, personalities and tensions here. Despite the outcomes, the work at Karystos was a huge learning project. And all who participated - government and NGOs and private groups were part of a unique learning organization. In fact in October of 2012, I gave a talk in Karystos - it was a special event for me after so many years.  For me, for my wife Vasso, and for several close friends, I think being involved in the campaign has been a gift.

(Photos follow from our recent visits to the area during the HCMR Ichthyological Expedtion and a HSPN walk to the Dimosaris Gorge and Kastanologos in October 2012)

A small fishing boat in Karystos Bay in October 2012. The peninsula across the Bay is the Paximadi. Most of it was slated to become a private holiday home resort - in the '80s it was pristine.

October 2012 - while leading an HSPN trip. In the Kastanologgos with a Shepard that I know for nearly 30 Years.  

October 2012. Giving a talk at the Karystion Hotel to Members of  HSPN, SPENK.  Few realized this was my first public appearance since I was the object of a lot of "grief" in the late '90s early 2000.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Winter Trout: The Leopard of our Streams

Winter 2012

My friend Babis Hondralis from Lamia gave me these shots of West Balkan Trout (Salmo fariodes) we fished back in March at Karpenisi. We were participating in an educational seminar at the local Environmental Education Center. Babis' photos are sharp and alive - and I seeing them reminds me what an active time it is for trout in the winter here: their spawning time. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sarajevo Nature

Mid December 2012

During our five-day stay at alpine Jahorina near Sarajevo we collected pictures of winter life. The mountain, with its posh hotels, high above the foggy valley of Sarajevo, was a paradise. On a break in our workshop, in the unique cold-crisp montane clarity I jogged away from everything. To Norway Spruce and silence. On the snowy road, dog footprints could have been wolf-prints. I loved the feeling of being excluded from civilization for an hour. 

The mountain contrasts with urban Sarajevo...A new capital city in "post-war" recovery. Here we were guided by our IUCN workshoper, Dejan Kulijer from the Natural History Department of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dejan is a tall smiley Sarajevan, who knows the landscape in depth - and he has a real passion and knowledge-thirst for dragonflies...The museum where he works is unfortunately closed now, we hope they find a way to make it work again. The city needs its culture and nature.

We saw a lot in a two hour walk and drive around. The churches - Islamic, Catholic, Orthodox. The touristy old town with many "Turkish" influences. The Latin Bridge over the river Miljacka (a distant tributary of the Bosna-Sava-Danube...). Hooded Crows, Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Jackdaws, pigeon flocks, ducks on the river - they bring life to the riparian scene. But most of all, people here are most intriguing; Islamic, Catholic, Orthodox. Bosnians and Herzegovinans, Balkan people. 

People have been through a lot here. Bullet holes and shell-damage in the buildings and the cemeteries in the city parks may shock you. This should be a good "wake-up call" for the wider region. As an inhabitant of the Balkans you stop and think. What happened here just a few years ago; horrific, unbelievable.

Never again!

Just visit Sarajevo.........