By Annette Chrysostomou
Restoring a forest after a massive fire entails much more than merely planting trees.
Take the huge Soleas fire which in June destroyed more than 18.5 square kilometres of forest. The forestry department predicts that about 70 per cent of the forest lost in the fire will regenerate itself. But to create the conditions to ensure that can happen, the department has prepared a comprehensive action plan which involves anti-erosion measures, managing biodiversity and some hard work from closely monitored volunteers.
When Friends of the Earth announced on their Facebook page recently that they were looking for volunteers to begin restoration work in the Soleas valley, I wondered whether I should get involved.
“Volunteers do not need to be trained in these works, but they should be prepared for hard, manual work and labour,” the Facebook post said. “They should have with them hard gloves, long-sleeved clothes, boots, hats for the sun and most importantly must be willing to work for at least six hours in the area.”
I was certainly curious but not sure if I was the right person for the job. Hours of hard manual work? Maybe they needed someone younger and fitter? I could not imagine myself digging for six hours, especially as it is still hot and with the trees burnt down there was little chance of any shade.
However, I registered, and a phone call from organiser Natasa Ioannou was reassuring. “We are leaving Nicosia at 6.30 in the morning,” she said, “last time we left at eight and that was too late, it was very hot. By the way, this is not going to be slavery, you can have as many breaks as you need.”
So around 40 of us started early last Sunday from Nicosia and pooled our cars to reach Ayios Theodoros where a forest station is manned by eight foresters who work in two shifts during the day, with two on duty at night.
The forestry department has learnt a lot since the big fire in Saittas in 2008 where many volunteers took part in planting trees. Although they were watered for three years only some survived.
Nowadays, there is a bigger and better plan, complemented by the differing terrain between Saittas and Solea. Although it rains more around Saittas, the ground there is stony whereas in the Solea area there are plenty of underground water pools to work with.
Around 70 per cent of the forest is expected to regenerate itself. “The seeds from the area germinate more vigorously than the ones from the nurseries,” Andreas Christou from the forestry department explained. Hence the department’s warning that people should not go by themselves to the area and step on these valuable seeds, thereby destroying what is most needed for the recovery.
Until 2007, the idea after a forest fire was to create terraces and plant on them, but now the project is much bigger in scope. Apart from anti-erosion control there is also an effort to manage biodiversity, so a variety of bushes and trees – all those which have grown in the area before – are going to be planted and the foresters will also take other measures such as making nests for birds and installing feeding stations for them.
For now, the department is focusing on putting the anti-erosion measures in place with the additional help of newly hired local workers and volunteers like the groups from Friends of the Earth.
We were one of the first volunteer groups to take part in the effort.
“Volunteers are welcome, but only those who form organised groups who work for five or six hours under the supervision of the forestry department,” the department announced. “What we don’t want are those who come on a weekend and plant five or six trees, then take a picture and go and eat.”
“The important part is to deal with the soil erosion now. The main problem is the short time we have in which to complete the anti-erosion measures before rains flood the area,” Christou said.
Only once these measures are in place, will other volunteers from organisations and schools be asked to help with planting where it is necessary. This is going to start around mid-October and will go on until January 2017. During this time the government is planning to sow around 15,000 seeds which they already have in their nurseries to add to the natural regeneration.
So last Sunday I spent my time digging trenches which is not only an anti-erosion measure but also prepares the soil for planting and makes watering the plants in the trenches easier as water can flow freely.
During our morning of work, we were supervised by the forestry officers, who, as Natasa put it “tell us what to do as they have the knowledge. We are the soldiers who do what we are told.”
So we soldiered on and it was actually not that difficult, though I expected to be tired after about ten minutes. We had those promised breaks and the fact that so many of us worked together gave a feeling that we were really accomplishing in this vastness of destruction.
Nobody complained about the dust and the heat. On the contrary, it was good to meet people who viewed our day in a very positive light.
“It was awesome. I met new people who are as passionate as I am about stopping the destruction of the environment,” said fellow volunteer Thalia Konari.
It was a small beginning. The next action indicated by the forestry department is building small shelters and nests for wildlife in designated areas. Then there are the months of planting ahead before the long wait for the plants to grow – if they are given a chance with enough water and crucially no more fires.
The good news is that there is at least money for most if not all of the project. The forestry department is not sure how much all this will cost exactly, but they believe a large part of it has already been donated by individuals and organisations, with one company based in Cyprus offering €200,000 alone.