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Cyprus

From moonscape to parks

Reforestation of Amiantos

By Angelos Anastasiou

On the way to Troodos, to the top of Cyprus, one might be forgiven for missing the Geopark Visitors’ Centre, despite the numerous signs posted along the way.

Adjacent to the awe-inspiring crater – pretty much the most conspicuous remnant of the famous asbestos quarry that lent its name to the Amiantos village – the former headquarters of the Cyprus Mining Company (CMC) has now been turned into a geological centre with exhibits that would not look out of place in London’s Natural History Museum.

Officially opened by President Nicos Anastasiades just weeks ago, the Geopark Visitors’ Centre is a small but impressively modern museum that features geological exhibits from Troodos, as well as fascinating presentations of the island’s history.

Geopark Visitor's Centre
Geopark Visitor’s Centre

Three-dimensional visuals of the area’s geological development and morphology, impressive maquettes indicating points of interest, a reconstructed mine shaft, dozens of tools used in the asbestos mine, and a 25-minute locally-produced documentary video, can also be found inside the tiny structure.

Clearly presented in the museum are interesting ‘geo-facts’ which explain why the body of rock we now know as the Troodos mountains are of such interest to oceanologists. The area was formed 92 million years ago, eight kilometres below sea level and its tip emerged above sea-level some five million years ago. Plenty of samples of some the world’s oldest rocks are on display.

The Geopark Visitors’ Centre is just the latest instalment in an ambitious long-term plan to bring life back to Amiantos and its long-defunct 13 squared kilometre asbestos mine, the hillside scars of which can still be clearly seen despite reforestation programmes in recent years. The mine is part of the Cyprus Geological Park, a vast area of 1,147 squared kilometres or 12 per cent of the island’s total area, which comprises the Troodos terrain and includes 39 nature trails, 19 picnic sites, and four camping sites.

Abandoned houses and quarry crater
Abandoned houses and quarry crater

The village of Amiantos – Greek for ‘asbestos’ – came to being in 1918, 14 years after the CMC started extracting the mineral from the quarry. Mining operations employed as many as 8,000 people at various points, and some settled the area until the 1950s, when many manual tasks were replaced by heavy machinery.

A miner at work in 1927
A miner at work in 1927

“The village was founded in 1918,” Amiantos mukhtar Kritonas Kyriakides told the Sunday Mail.

“The first inhabitant was a man named Hadjiktoris, who built a coffee-shop and a stable where donkeys could be fed and watered, and left to rest. Hence, at first it was called ‘Hani tou Hadjiktori’, but I found a newspaper clipping from 1918, announcing that it was being renamed to ‘Amiantos’.”

According to Kyriakides, mining operations ceased in 1988 because of “declining demand for asbestos, due to various rumours about public health and such”.

By 1995, work on restoring the mine began in earnest by the government, which took back control after the company went bust. A Master Plan was prepared and is being followed, slowly but steadily.

“Around that time, primarily due to efforts by Takis Tsintides, now director of the Forestry Department, government funds started flowing into restorations,” Kyriakides recalled.

“They started the reforestation of the mine’s crater, which is proceeding wonderfully, they built a dam to protect the village, and then the Botanical Gardens with a donation by Anastasios Leventis.”

But much of the credit goes to him, too, those familiar with the village say.

“He is tireless,” a resident who remembers the village when the quarry had been active.

“Seriously, you should have seen the village back then – it was a moonscape. The river used to be a green carpet, and dust was everywhere, even on locally-produced fruits. The mukhtar has squeezed every penny out of the government into restoring the village.”

Amiantos Mukhtar Kritonas Kyriakides
Amiantos Mukhtar Kritonas Kyriakides

But Kyriakides credits the government for the opening of the Geopark Visitors’ Centre.

“Again, this was down to the efforts of the Forestry Department, in collaboration with the Amiantos Committee – comprising various government departments like the Geological Survey Department, the Public Works Department,” he said.

“There is a Master Plan for the full restoration of the area – for example, the renovation of three or so dozen stone-built houses,” Kyriakides said.

Abandoned houses inside
Abandoned houses inside

He was referring to now-derelict, pathetic-looking structures on the quarry’s perimeter, which used to house miners and their families. Although they have great potential, most stand abandoned and are in danger of collapsing, though the ones in better shape are being used by the Forestry Department. The plan is to rent them out as holiday homes.

Abandoned houses
Abandoned houses

And, of course, there’s President Anastasiades’ promise for the funicular or cable railway. In the quarry’s early days, the mined asbestos was transported to the Limassol port for loading onto ships by means of aerial cable cars, which landed at what is today known as the ‘Enaerios’ area – Greek for ‘aerial’ – at Limassol’s beachfront. By the 1950s, this too was replaced by machines – lorries.

“When the idea came to me four or five years ago, I envisioned a funicular from Amiantos to the Troodos Square and back,” Kyriakides said.

“Before the [2013 Presidential] elections, the president pledged to build a funicular in Troodos – he didn’t mention where for political reasons. And he said it again post-election, that it will start at Amiantos, make a stop at the Botanical Gardens and the Geopark Visitors’ Centre, up to the Troodos Square, and back.”

Kyriakides’ endgame is to bring back his village’s old glory days. His grandfather and namesake also served as community leader from 1926 to 1961, and he has held the post since 2002. He has decided not to run again in 2016, so he has very little time to get yet more things done.

“The whole point of everything we do is to rejuvenate the area, to help people, and grow our village,” he said.

“I believe that the funicular will help create new jobs, not just for Amiantos but for the entire area. Small shops will start cropping up, selling wines, local produce, shoudjoukkos [a local delicacy made from grape juice]. There will be growth.”

With two families already having returned to the village, and two new families settling there in the last few months, the mukhtar’s vision already seems to be coming true ahead of schedule.

“There has been a large increase in visitors – tourists, schools, just passersby,” Kyriakides said proudly.

“It seems we are managing to reverse our destiny.”

Going through a seemingly endless list of smaller growth projects about to be completed – including a mini-football pitch and turning the village’s old primary school into a cultural centre – Kyriakides revealed his never-ending quest for ideas to help the village.

“I have a dream, which I hope I have time to kick-start before I leave this office in 2016,” he said longingly.

“Next to the village’s park, from one bank of the river to the other, I see a bridge, four metres wide, under the plane trees, for people to sit and enjoy the view. I believe it can be a wonderful and lasting project.”

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