Greeks reclaim land to ease pain of austerity

Tony Gosling tony at
Thu Jan 12 01:15:29 GMT 2012

Greeks reclaim the land to ease the pain of economic austerity

Beatrice Yannacopoulou
10th January, 2012

A group of community-minded gardeners have turned 
a former Athens airport into a blooming vegetable 
plot, showing how Greece's eroded soil holds the 
keys to a revival in farming and a way to buck the jobless trend

'If we want to survive on this land we must first 
help to heal the earth,' said Nicola Netién, 
agro-ecologist, teacher and co-creator of the NGO 
Permaculture Research Institute Hellas. He was 
talking to a group of some fifty people of all 
ages who had gathered for two days of workshops 
on self-sufficiency, how to self-organize, 
agro-ecology and composting. This small gathering 
was taking place on a beautifully sunny autumn 
day at the former Athens airport, Ellinikon.

When the airport moved to another location 10 
years ago in preparation for Athens hosting the 
2004 Olympic Games, there was the hope and the 
State's promise that this now available land 
would become a park. Then the ‘crisis' landed and 
rumors began spreading that the site had been 
sold to an international developer who would pour 
yet more concrete on the chaotic sprawl that is 
Athens. This is when a small group of local 
residents, bearing seeds and armed with shovels, 
moved in. Their mission: to create a communal and 
productive agricultural space that will encourage 
an exploration into antidotes for the 
ecological-economic-educational and cultural crisis.

'Thirty percent of Greece's arable land has 
salinized and every year Greece looses 750,000 
cubic meters of topsoil as a result of erosion 
and poor land management,' Nicola continued as 
his demonstration compost pile grew. Just a few 
kilometers west and the political drama of a 
failing government and national bankruptcy was 
unfolding. The world watched the theatrics of 
politicians scrambling for self-preservation, 
while the contagious and desperate fear of being 
ejected from the Euro spread and the markets turbulently responded.

'Topsoil is wonderfully complex.' One meter 
squared of healthy topsoil is bustling with 
hundreds of thousands of life forms. In fact, one 
teaspoon of good soil can contain 5 billion 
bacteria, 20 million fungi and a million 
protoctists. Another way to consider this awesome 
diversity is that in each gram of soil there can 
be 4,000 distinct genomes and these differ 
greatly from one location to another. Topsoil is 
alive and symbiotic, binding land-based 
ecosystems. It is another example of nature's 
resilience and creativity emerging through a 
dynamic process of cooperative diversity- a 
process we can learn from so as to maximize the 
creative potential and resilience of our work, 
our communities, and how we organize. Topsoil is 
also what makes land agriculturally productive.

As the Greek government struggles to put its 
accounts in order, its efforts seem to be 
dislocated from the daily reality of the land we 
live on and live by. This is where the real false 
accounting has taken place. Poor land management, 
perverse subsidies and un-enforced laws have led 
to the impoverishment of the soil in Greece and 
to an ongoing decline in its productivity. 
Despite being one of the most biodiverse areas in 
Europe, little has been done to account for this 
natural wealth and to protect it.

Natasha, one of the first to start working this 
small plot at the Ellinikon, told me that since 
the beginning of the current crisis, more and 
more people are visiting this small edible 
garden. She understands why. A year ago she was 
anxious that her future and her basic needs were 
dependent on the State that employs her. She had 
no survival skills. Now, she says, she feels 
empowered by being proactive in forming her 
community and learning how to grow food.

There are other examples of Athenians taking 
matters into their own hands to reclaim small 
plots of land so as to create communal green 
spaces; sometimes quietly and peacefully and 
other times after long drawn out battles with 
riot police. An example of the latter is Navarino 
Park in the centre of Athens. This again involved 
a broken promise by the State. One of the most 
densely populated areas of Athens was hoping for 
a park, so when the plans changed to build a 
parking lot, the local residents organized and 
resisted. Despite the violence and threats by 
police, residents stood their ground and 
cultivated this small plot that is now a budding 
potential of urban agriculture.

All these examples are neighborhood initiatives. 
It would be wrong to suggest this is a single 
coordinated movement. Often confused by the scale 
of change that is needed and starved for stories 
of hope, there is a tendency to inadvertently 
prescribe meaning to and inflate such examples so 
as to enthuse optimism in ourselves and in others 
that we are well on our way to dismantling 
‘business as usual'. But this would be doing 
these small groups of activists a disservice. 
This is not their story, at least not for now. 
They are in the process of finding their way.

Life in Greece has gotten harder and people are 
quite literally going hungry. The cultural and 
the economic reality on the ground and the 
systemic rot that is so pervasive demand an 
exploration into context relevant ways of 
organizing, empowering, sharing knowledge, and 
redefining our values and our identities.

Riots in Athens have become common; albeit an 
expression of discontent, the dynamic that has 
developed between rioter and State seems to 
maintain the status quo. As I understand it, 
these local activists are not interested in head 
on combat against the ‘business and politics as 
usual' that is largely to blame for the erosion 
of land and values, but rather they undermine the 
status quo by actively participating and 
investing in their own communities' potential.

Within each small neighborhood group there is a 
collective evolving, sharing knowledge, learning, 
building and growing together. Perhaps these 
small groups and their gardens will be catalysts 
for change-maybe they will become nodes in an 
emergent network of urban farmers-maybe not. 
Regardless, this is an account of people 
proactively engaging the challenges and 
opportunities they are faced with. When Greece's 
dominant narrative, particularly of late, has 
been of bankruptcy, corruption, nepotism, 
inefficiency and violence, it is important to 
recognize that this is not the whole story. With 
respect for others' work, as well as our own, and 
as a defense against the infectious cynicism of 
such depressing dominant narratives, we must 
conserve and in fact cultivate the space for hope to articulate itself.

'We can compost anything that was once living. 
Soon we will be able to add our Euros to the 
pile,' Nicola said with half a smile. For a brief 
moment the group became uneasy and nervously 
laughed. This unease though quickly dissipated. 
'A healthy compost pile should never smell bad...'
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