By Angelos Anastasiou
Whether sensible or scandalous, the government’s decision to turn state land within the Natura-2000 designated area in the Akamas peninsula into a National Park, while exempting privately-held properties, is a major breakthrough – a giant leap compared to the overly cautious baby-steps taken by previous governments, wary of political backlash, over the last 30 years.
Decades of inaction, caused by the natural aversion of elected governments to political hot-water issues, have predictably resulted in unregulated and unlicensed economic activity in an area which in 2009 was declared part of the EU-designated Natura-2000 network of nature protection areas.
Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis recently referred to “uncontrolled entry, [jeep] safaris, overgrazing, and generally any activity that can cause problems to the environment and destroy biodiversity”. Such developments also include illegal restaurants, powered by gas-fuelled generators and makeshift structures operating in completely virgin land, one of which is even located very close to the famous protected turtle-nesting site at Lara Bay.
For the first time, the cabinet’s decision, approved earlier this week, means the government is actually stepping in and taking ownership of if, how, and when, the Akamas area and its unique flora and fauna will be protected, while acknowledging landowners’ rights to their properties.
Thus far, governments had been cautious over stirring up too much trouble, banning development in Akamas but not addressing the crux of the matter – private landowners, whose properties comprise some 25 per cent of the Natura area and who have long demanded to be allowed some economic use for their assets. Set against them have been vocal, well-organised environmental groups which mostly oppose any form of development in the area.
Perhaps the most common misconception regarding the Natura-2000 designation is that it necessarily puts a firm and irreversible brake on development. This is simply not true – in fact, some Natura-2000 areas are urban – and the European Commission has gone to some length in trying to make it as clear as possible.
“Sometimes new development plans and projects are proposed that might have an impact on sites within the Natura-2000 Network,” ‘Natura 2000 – Conservation in partnership’, a 2009 European Commission guide reads.
“These could, for instance, involve the construction of a new road, a tourism complex or the opening of a new quarry site. None of these activities are prohibited a priori under the EU Nature Directives. Instead they are put through a rigorous screening process in order to determine whether the plan or project can be permitted to go ahead or not.”
In other words, the point of the designation is not to leave an area untouched, but to protect and preserve the natural characteristics and the habitats of species found in it.
A 2009 cabinet decision offered a theoretical framework of options available to private landowners – swaps with other government properties, expropriating the land for fair compensation, or transferring building coefficients to another property. Even not factoring in whether this was acceptable to owners – “Will we become refugees in our own village? I was born and raised in Akamas, what would I do with a piece of land in Kalavasos?” quipped one local – none of the options was ever implemented.
That decision, too, is now subject to “revision”, a euphemism for “scrapping”. Kouyialis has rejected all of these options on grounds that any one would create precedent for every property found in a Natura-2000 area across Cyprus (which comprise almost a quarter of land under the control of the Republic).
According to last Monday’s cabinet decision, all recommendations for the protection and conservation of the Akamas area, as listed in the management plan devised, have been adopted in full, and state land within the Natura-2000 area in Cyprus’ westernmost point will immediately be declared a National Park, with an advisor to be commissioned on how to best set it up and manage it. Further, the interior ministry’s town planning department has been mandated with coming up with a new land-use plan for the area within 18 months. This means it will decide whether – and to what extent, and under which conditions – some development of private properties will be allowed. Lastly, prior cabinets’ decisions on this matter are to be “re-examined”, or, more accurately, replaced by the latest one.
Critics view the latest decision as just a ploy to allow private developers to ruin this part of Cyprus, too. Environmental groups like BirdLife and Friends of Akamas have voiced outright opposition to the plan, while political parties have accused the government of serving private interests.
In a letter to the European Commission on Wednesday, main opposition AKEL’s two MEPs charged that the government’s decision promotes the interests of “a few large owners” and asked “what action the Commission plans to take to protect Akamas”?
“In fairness, the cabinet decision itself does not allow development per se, but the ministers’ remarks open a window to some form of ‘mild development’,” Kyriacos Tsimillis of the Friends of Akamas told the Sunday Mail.
“The decision breaks Akamas in two [private- and state-owned parts], leaving the local communities behind,” he said.
For years, the six local communities located in the Akamas area have complained that they have suffered greatly from the ban on tourist development, especially blaming environmental groups – who insist on the most stringent of environmental-protection rules – for their plight. So for them to invoke the communities’ best interests in their arguments seems surprising.
“Where were these people when the previous government said it would expropriate our land?” laughed Stelios Koupparis, the community leader of Droushia, one of the Akamas villages.
“Seriously, they are worried about us now? Listen to me, we love Akamas more than these people do – we were born here, and have lived here all our lives. Kouyialis did a good thing. It’s the only way to rejuvenate our area, so that our children can hope to live here, too.”
In reality, the environmentalists’ concerns are more focused on the plans of the big boys than those of the locals. Much of the privately-held land in Akamas is owned by three entities – the Paphos Bishopric, and businessmen Photos Photiades and Stavros Papaioannou – and they have not been shy about what they want to do with it.
Fontana Amoroza Coast Ltd, a land-development company that is part of the Photiades Group, owns land in two parts of Akamas.
“The Ayios Nicolaos plot in the Akamas peninsula in the North West cape of Cyprus, covering 1.3 million squared metres, with 3 km long beautiful sea coast,” the company’s website states.
“It is the only private property in the whole area. [There is a] Masterplan to create an integrated golf resort with luxury hotels, marina, sports’ centres, etc.”
The other piece of land, it adds, is a “seaside site of 265,000 square metres in Toxeftra, earmarked for future masterplanning and development”.
“Our group has bought these two plots, falling within the boundaries of the Natura 2000-designated area, decades before the issue of Akamas came up, at prices considered very high at the time,” a spokesman for the group told the Sunday Mail.
“Since then, we have been treated as if we committed some crime by investing in a remote area of our country, and many lies and inaccuracies have been heard through the years. It has been suggested that we own 27 per cent of private land in the designated area. In truth, we own 6 per cent of these, or 1.5 per cent of the total area.”
And anyway, he added, the company’s plans to develop its Akamas plots were devised in the 1980s and are now outdated.
“The plans obviously don’t meet modern needs and sensitivities,” the spokesman said.
“We, and the thousands of Akamas landowners, are asking that the terms that will apply on private properties in the area are, at long last, clarified. Of course we don’t want Akamas to be cemented. But development is not a black-or-white scenario. The modern attitude towards environmental protection globally is neither the indiscriminate banning of development, nor its unregulated or environmentally insensitive propagation. It is its harmonious coexistence with nature.”
In this sense, the debate has long since been not whether to allow development, but rather how to best balance the need to preserve Akamas’ natural beauty and habitation and landowners’ right to exploit their land. The real concern over the government’s decision, in other words, is not that it might allow some limited form of development in some areas of Akamas, but whether sufficient environmental and ecosystem protection measures are adequately designed and adhered to.
“There is no precise definition of what ‘mild development’ is,” Kouyialis said.
“But it refers only to development that causes no harm or problems on the biodiversity we are trying to protect.”
According to Kouyialis, neither the cabinet nor the ministerial committee on Akamas – comprising himself and Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos – has even discussed, much less authorised, development in the area.
“Nor can either body decide on this issue,” he said.
“The town planning department will consider all scientific data and decide whether any development is sustainable, and to what extent. This is why I reject any talk of ‘opening the door to private interests’ and all that. I completely reject this.”
“It’s a moot point,” said Tsimillis.
“Development, mild or not, cannot exist without access. Which means that, in the least, a road network will necessarily be constructed where any development is approved. This is the only such area we have in Cyprus, and the ambiguity allowed by the ministers in their remarks is not constructive at all.”
His criticism implies that building roads (or a house, or a hotel, or anything man-made) will necessarily harm the area’s biodiversity and natural beauty, and should be prohibited on these grounds. This is simply not the case, all other stakeholders counter. And the problem for the environmentalists is that the European Commission itself has stipulated that development can be approved within any given site if the level of its impact on the environment is acceptable.
To argue the ‘no development’ case – especially invoking the European Union as an ostensibly unconditional ally when it is not – may well prove to be fighting a losing battle.
The Akamas peninsula became a part of the Natura 2000 network in 2009. It comprises 7,851 hectares of sea area, and 10,231 hectares of land. Three quarters of the designated land are state-owned.
The debate on the fate of Akamas dates back to 1986, when it was first identified by the agriculture ministry as a large area of unspoiled beauty, with remarkably diverse features, that should be preserved in its natural state.
In 1989, the government issued a preservation order, which effectively banned all development in the area.
In 1992, the government commissioned the World Bank to prepare the Akamas Conservation Management Plan, which was unveiled in 1995.
In 1996, Thanos Hotels – the family firm of then-Foreign Minister Alecos Michaelides – was issued relaxations that allowed it to build the Anassa hotel complex in an area designated by the World Bank report as a buffer zone. Public outcry over the scandal forced Michaelides to resign, but the hotel became operational in 1998.
1999 saw the end of military exercises in Akamas by British forces, as a result of pressure exercised by Cypriot environmental groups, as well as the granting of an additional permit for a tourism facility, Aphrodite Beach Hotel, even closer to Akamas than Anassa. Some private housing complexes have also been built in the area.
In 2002, the Council of Ministers decided that privately-owned land enclaved within the state-owned land will be expropriated or exchanged, while ‘mild development’ may be allowed on privately-owned land on the eastern border of the area.
In 2009, the cabinet decided that no development can be allowed in Akamas, and all privately-held land will be bought, or exchanged, by the government. The cost of the decision has variously been estimated at anywhere from €300 million to €1 billion. No measures to implement it were ever taken.
In 2010, the government approved and submitted the boundaries of the Akamas peninsula Natura-2000 area to the European Commission.
In 2012, the environment department of the agriculture ministry commissioned an Akamas Peninsula Management Plan, which was finalised and presented in June 2014. It recommended that the state place all private land in the area under its control, either by compensating owners, land-swaps, or building coefficient transfers.