As environmental consciousness gathers pace on the island THEO PANAYIDES meets an activist on a mission to promote rational democratic debate and wipe out procedural sloppiness
The setting is a house in Kaimakli, one of the few remaining parts of Nicosia where you can live quite well – or at least spaciously – for a reasonable rent. It’s an old house, the kind with a front porch and a scrubby little garden, on a narrow side-street with no casual traffic. I sit in the living room with Klitos Papastylianou, chatting idly while his partner Maria makes us Cyprus coffee.
The room has its share of quirky décor – there’s a vintage gramophone record player, like in the old His Master’s Voice logo – but is notable mainly for its books, shelf upon shelf of them. They appear to be mostly non-fiction, a quick perusal throwing up many of the usual suspects. Introducing Marx and The Greenpeace Reader. 100 Years of Socialism (two volumes). Eric Hobsbawm and Noam Chomsky. Klitos is currently reading a book by the late Argentinian anarchist theoretician Eduardo Colombo titled La volonté du peuple, ‘The Will of the People’. What’s it about? It’s about “the relationship between political power and democratic forms of governance,” he explains soberly.
Books are important, being his main form of relaxation: “If I want to have some rest, and just stay away from things for a couple of days, the usual solution is ‘Let’s find a good book’”. The reasonable rent is also important, since he hasn’t held a full-time job since the end of 2015 (he takes on occasional projects, and Maria works as a researcher at the University of Cyprus); this was a personal choice, made so he could focus on protecting – ‘saving’, some would say – the Akamas peninsula. Klitos has been an environmental activist since university in Greece (he’s now 35), having worked at Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, as a policy advisor to the Committee Against Bird Slaughter and the Foundation Pro Biodiversity, plus a few months at Birdlife Cyprus. He’s now a leading light of the Cyprus Initiative for the Protection of the Natural Coastline, calling on Cypriots to ‘reclaim the sea’ in the face of marinas, bulldozed beaches and the recent fracas over villas being built near the Peyia sea caves, one of a handful of nesting-grounds for our tiny population of Mediterranean monk seals.
We’re here to talk about him, but we end up talking mostly about ecological disasters (or near-disasters). This is probably inevitable. Environmentalism in Cyprus is a many-headed hydra; no sooner have you lopped off one head, than another appears. It’s also true that Klitos’ personal life has been largely subsumed in his work, leaving little to talk about. His look is memorable, certainly: sharp chin and nose, very narrow – almost slit-like – green eyes, receding hairline, bushy goatee. He looks like a hippy but talks like a technocrat, rattling off the title of this or that EU directive. “One of the main problems of the Green movement in Cyprus,” he complains at one point, sounding rather schoolmarmish, “is that, in some cases, there is not the appropriate documentation and argumentation.”
He speaks slowly and a little long-windedly, counting arguments off on his fingers, pausing only to roll himself a cigarette. Smoking is his only real vice, that and beer (he stopped drinking spirits in his 20s, after having overdone it as a teenager; “Just a single shot of zivania can knock me out” nowadays). His hobbies are simple enough: reading, swimming, hiking, hanging out with friends. What’s he like in company? Does he tend to be the centre of attention?
Not at all, he chuckles, shaking his head.
Does he make people laugh?
“They say that my sense of humour is really bad!” he replies ruefully. “I don’t want to believe that – but unfortunately, that is what they say.”
I’m sure it can’t be that bad – but Klitos does come off as a serious character. His trademark phrase (he mentions it a half-dozen times in the course of our conversation) is “a rational democratic debate”, which is what he’d like to see happen in Cyprus. In the past, it may sometimes have seemed like such debate was impossible, simply because only one side – ‘his’ side – was eager to talk; the vast majority of Cypriot society, especially those in positions of authority, seemed happy to stick with what he calls the “tourist monoculture model” of relentless development. In the past couple of years, however, a number of high-profile cases have made him a little more hopeful – or at least more convinced that people like himself and Maria aren’t necessarily misfits, and “something, at least underground”, may be gathering pace.
“A quad bike in Limni beach destroys 19 nests of turtles,” he says, listing the cases. “Then a concert and a wedding ceremony in Asprokremos beach” (this was last year’s Russian wedding at the Anassa, with Christina Aguilera flown in to sing for the couple), “then illegal bars in Lara Bay, then the villas and the hotel in the sea caves. Then you have the mayor of Paralimni destroying with a bulldozer anything natural left in the coastline, from Cape Greco to Kapparis! Then you have the case of Ammos tou Kambouri near Cape Greco, one of the worst environmental crimes in terms of Nature conservation that took place in Cyprus”. This was a case of a private bulldozer cutting up the coastline to create an artificial marina, all in a ‘Natura 2000’ (i.e. protected) zone; the case is now in court.
“Through these cases, and the discussion taking place, I think a lot of people are now – at least hopefully – understanding that these people [i.e. himself and his fellow environmentalists] are not crazy, hippy-yippy ecologists who say ‘Let’s return back to Nature’,” he concludes earnestly. “You can have the development – but you have to do it in a right way.”
There are two sides to this equation. The first is that, whether because land is running out or because years of indulgence have pushed us down a slippery slope, infringements are becoming more outrageous. Much like the issue of illegal bird trapping, which used to be relatively small-scale but has swelled in recent years, the issue of unchecked development is becoming harder to ignore. Images like the villas being built literally on top of the sea caves are so obviously, surreally wrong they’ve made even neutrals (who never previously cared much for the environment) sit up and pay attention. The other side, however, as implied in what Klitos is saying, is that – contrary to popular belief – most eco-activists aren’t actually calling for a ban on building. They just want the law to be respected.
He himself isn’t “hippy-yippy’. He’s not looking for the whole of Akamas to remain virgin territory. When it comes to the sea caves, for instance, he doesn’t even think a “white zone” (ie a halt to development) is necessary to protect the monk seals; a buffer zone of 200m should be enough. He understands the fears of Peyia locals worried about losing their land, and regrets that “a lot of stakeholders – political parties, MPs – proposed a white zone without defining it” (this may be a dig at Green party MP George Perdikis, who’s divisive in local eco-circles). Klitos isn’t an extremist, or especially militant; he’s the activist you can talk to, even if ‘you’ are the crusty old community leader of a Paphos village. His trump card, he explains, is that he has roots in the area – his grandparents were from Tsada and Milikouri – and indeed owns property in Akamas, most of it within protection zones, so they see him as a fellow landowner. His trump card with civil servants and government departments, on the other hand, is that he reads – not just books, but laws and directives – and knows when the rules aren’t being followed.
“A major problem, which we are facing for at least a decade now, is called Article 6, paragraph 3 of the Habitats Directive,” he explains with his usual precision. That’s the EU directive calling for projects which could impact a ‘Natura 2000’ protected area to undergo an assessment study – but this doesn’t always happen, and indeed there are dozens of cases of projects in Cyprus being approved without any proper assessment. It’s a sore point with Klitos, who often seems outraged by procedural sloppiness and illegality more than anything. When we talk about the towers, for instance, as we do a little later – meaning the two dozen towers due to be built on the seafront in Limassol, including all around the ancient city of Amathus – he makes clear that he’s not against towers per se, but the policy in question was launched in 2013 “with a single decision of the Ministerial Council, without even a plan!… So anyone can build anything anywhere!” He shakes his head, looking aghast: “I could be extremist and say ‘no’ to high towers. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying [to the authorities] that you’re not even following the main provisions of the environmental acquis.”
At this point, some may wonder if they’re talking to an activist or a legal advisor (the ‘acquis’ is the ‘acquis communautaire’, or EU law); then again, part of the paradox in Cyprus is that the law exists, it’s just not being implemented. The EU is the great unspoken here, and indeed Klitos is being a little sneaky in insisting that he ‘only’ wants the law to be followed; any real assessment based on the Habitats Directive would surely lead to projects being stymied, in the majority of cases. One might even wonder if the presence of the EU makes things worse, like an authoritarian father whose prying makes his children less independent: it’s almost as if our authorities – who might otherwise have solved the problem on their own – wash their hands of decision-making, chafing at the rules and secretly pretending that all is well until the EU complains.
It does annoy him to be running off to Brussels all the time, admits Klitos, “but unfortunately in Cyprus you feel that, most of the time, you have to get to that point. I mean, nobody listens! It’s like throwing eggs at the wall”. One idea is to become more militant, going “from demonstrative to disruptive” as he puts it – blocking highways, occupying premises – but he doesn’t think “the political culture in Cyprus” would welcome that kind of protest. He’s so measured, so reasonable; yet his life can’t be easy, even beyond financial worries. “It can be lonely being an environmental activist in Cyprus,” wrote Politico (politico.eu) on its recent list of the ‘Politico 28’, naming Klitos – at No. 28 – among “the 28 people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe”. That was for his work against bird trapping, though in fact such perilous fieldwork – tracking illegal activities, dismantling nets, sometimes tangling with poachers – isn’t really his forte, at least not anymore. Nowadays he’s more of a strategist and an intellectual, seeking the rational democratic debate that could change our mentality.
Meanwhile that mentality persists, making his work an uphill struggle. He lists a few of the many absurdities. Out of 6,500 buildings in Peyia, 3,000 are empty (either for sale or derelict) and another 1,500 are holiday homes – yet developers want to build even more, despite the obvious surplus. Over in Khapotami, the largest wind farm in Cyprus sits right in the middle of “one of the most important special-protection areas” for birds of prey on the island – and now a new project is being mooted, adding 350 villas adjacent to the wind farm. Up in Limni, a well-known businessman won a permit for two golf courses, 792 villas and 50 bungalows, all in a ‘Natura 2000’ area and next to the Polis-Yialis turtle beach (the permit was eventually revoked, much to Klitos’ amazement, when the EU threatened to take us to court). Over on the east coast, above the din of bulldozers, the coastline has been wrecked to build a marina plus two towers in Ayia Thekla, prompting Sotira municipality to demand its own marina (this ‘Me too’ mindset is a big part of the problem). Further west, Paramali village – an old Turkish Cypriot village – was expropriated then partly demolished to make way for a road that leads only to a golf course, which was then handed over to the private company building the golf course.
There’s more; more infringements, more absurdities. We talk for two hours, and barely scratch the surface. Simply put, the work never ends. “We are a bit eco-holics,” jokes Klitos, of himself and his comrades; “We are always talking about sustainability, but we don’t have sustainability in our own lives.” He and Maria want kids, he says (they met, unsurprisingly, through work, at an eco-event where he was on the panel and she in the audience), and he also needs to get back into full-time employment soon. The current lifestyle just isn’t sustainable.
Klitos could – maybe even should – have been an academic; he left a PhD at the last moment, drifting instead into activism. Research and theory may have suited this bookish fellow better, but he doesn’t regret it. “In the classic dilemma of political science and philosophy,” he opines rather grandly, “I think that the optimism of action is better than the pessimism of thought!”. I say goodbye and drive off, down the narrow side-street and back to the main road. Still in Kaimakli, I suddenly notice the graffiti, spray-painted green on a yellow brick wall down the road from the Zampelas Art Museum: “SAVE AKAMAS”.