In an environmental engineer and activist THEO PANAYIDES finds an honest woman who brings dynamism and joy to her battles, from fighting sexism to money as the agenda
You can tell a lot about a person from the state of their office – and Xenia Loizidou’s is especially revealing, an eclectic, all-embracing riot of political and personal, like the woman herself.
There are photos of kids (she has two daughters, Leda and Maria), funny coasters, glimpses of Asterix and Winnie the Pooh – but also jars of sand and gravel samples, ranging from Larnaca Beach to Giza in Egypt to the Blue Glacier in Norway. On the wall is a homemade collage of objects and pictures, a gift from her now-teenage daughters when they were small. On the shelves is a dog-eared notebook where she’d write down cute things the children used to say (“Does the heart have a heart?” one daughter asked when she was five or so; “So how come it doesn’t die?”) – but also dry technical volumes with titles like Shore Protection Manual and Cyprus Coastal Zone Management. Somewhere in the clutter, Bob Marley gazes out from a feelgood postcard: “Don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing’s gonna be alright”.
The rest of the workplace seems equally easy-going: a half-dozen engineers (all women) at their desks, a foosball table, a general air of contented industry. A large, friendly husky called Aria accosts me when I walk through the door, poking her snout at my midriff. This is Isotech, an environmental consultancy with projects all over the world and a network of local partners in 50 countries – one of two hats Xenia likes to wear, the other being Akti (Greek for ‘coast’), an NGO where she’s more of an activist. She’s also the only Cypriot to have been appointed Ambassador of Mediterranean Coasts by the UN, the only Cypriot ever to have been on the compliance committee of the Barcelona Convention, and responsible – along with the team at Isotech – for some 200 publications, around 20 of them in top international journals. She’s been doing this since the turn of the millennium.
There’s a certain manner – aloof, sometimes pompous – that comes with such high achievement; but not in this case. Xenia is candid, open, chatty, as unguarded and unselfconscious as her office. She talks with her hands, her English sometimes on the point of fracturing in the rush to get the words out. There’s a kind of congenital honesty, and indeed honesty seems to be important to her. “I’m 55,” she replies when I ask about her age, then immediately pulls herself up: “No, 56! 56! I don’t hide years!”.
The office is honest, happy to display the whole person; she’s never played down being a mum (“The most amazing thing I did in my life”) as well as a scientist, never been shy about cutting short a business meeting because she had to go pick up her daughter. She’s devoted to friends and family, and they in turn are allowed – indeed encouraged – to be brutally honest: “I have very good friends… We have this relationship where we say ‘Oh come on, what you said was bullshit, what was that?’. So my friends are very honest. My husband is also very honest, and I owe him a lot.” (Her husband Panayiotis is an academic, professor of philosophy at the University of Athens.) She seems to be a woman who might get in a no-holds-barred shouting match if she disagreed with you, but would never pretend to agree just to stab you in the back later. The ambience at Isotech seems so calm, I note; does she never get into arguments with her co-workers? “Oh, very often,” she replies with a grin. “I’m not considered to be a very calm person.”
Does she get depressed when things go wrong, in general?
“No. I get angry!”
Does she have enemies, then?
“I wouldn’t say enemies, but I have people who believe I am…”
Does being a woman have anything to do with it?
“Definitely,” she replies quietly. “This is the story of my life”. She tells me about the ‘flag incident’, from her schooldays in Paphos in the 80s. Society was changing, and Xenia – despite being a girl – was actively encouraged to study STEM subjects with a view to becoming an engineer. She was actually the top student in her final-year class, and the top student would always be the flag-bearer at the annual parade – but it wasn’t considered proper for a girl to hold the flag, so that honour went to a boy even though he was actually the fourth-best student (all three top positions had gone to girls). Looking back, she notes now, what’s enraging is that she didn’t even protest at the time, didn’t think there was anything wrong in the school’s decision. It’s like she didn’t think she was entitled to hold the flag.
Something similar tends to happen now, a woman – especially a blunt, dynamic woman like herself – being encouraged to work hard and produce lots of data, yet often ignored and passed over when she comes “close to the decision making,” when she’s in the running for some post or leadership position: “‘You are a woman’. They don’t say it nowadays, they show it”. The difference, of course, is that she no longer passively accepts it (and she has held a number of public posts, including four years on the board of the Cyprus Tourism Organisation) – but it’s hard, especially when a woman is also an environmentalist. She does have some influence in Cyprus, says Xenia, ministers and politicians will at least listen (or pretend to listen) when she speaks, and of course “I get so much appreciation from people” – but “the decision making has an agenda. And sustainability is not the agenda.”
The agenda is money?
“The agenda is money,” she agrees. “The agenda is money… But you can have money through sustainability too – this is what we’re saying. I’m an engineer! I’m not an activist in the sense [that] I’m saying ‘Don’t touch this area because of this bird with the red ear’.” She did Civil Engineering in Athens, followed by a Masters in Coastal Engineering at Imperial College – but her PhD was in participatory decision-support systems, the practical process of trying to develop management plans for natural systems. That’s mostly what she does at Isotech, whose projects have ranged from the depollution of the river Ganges (“For two years I was travelling once a month to New Delhi”) to combating sea-level rise in the Venice lagoon. Her work with Akti is more local – and, inevitably, more thankless. Much of our interview is taken up with Xenia pointing out assorted eco-issues in Cyprus, and the official response which tends to range from negligent to downright obstructive.
The towers on the seafront in Limassol. The rocky beaches of Protaras (among her favourites in Cyprus, along with Akamas, Ayios Filon on the north coast of the Karpas, and Ayia Irini just below Kormakitis) “which are going to be sacrificed now for the development of the marina”. The mayor in that area sees rock as the enemy, she notes acerbically – so rock is destroyed, mud bubbles up from below, and the crystal-clear waters turn cloudy and muddy. Then there’s the question of solar power, still scarce despite our abundant sunshine – “but see what’s happening now! The licences for solar parks are destroying our forest”. It boggles the mind, says Xenia, we only have two forests and we’re cutting them down for photovoltaic parks – and meanwhile 60 per cent of Cyprus is arid land where the parks could’ve been situated, not to mention “urban areas, parking lots. There are several other solutions”.
It goes on. “Now, for instance, we have a decision to construct 37 breakwaters in Chrysochou bay”. A study has apparently been done, claiming no adverse environmental impact – but it’s just common sense, “how can we say that 37 breakwaters will not harm the marine environment?”. Xenia sucks her teeth unhappily.
Another example: the area around Mitsero, where a conglomeration of industries (soon to be joined by an asphalt plant) includes an abattoir which emits an unbearable stink; people can’t even dry their clothes in their gardens, because of the smell. “Our company is the consultant for the villagers – and the government comes in with a study from academia, saying ‘We’ve run the model for odours, and there is no problem with the odours in the area’.” She shakes her head in frustration: “Just go there!” she challenges the nameless officials.
And another one: “We have farmers who want to buy shredders,” so that, when they prune trees, they don’t have to take the branches to a landfill and pay fees. Indeed, not only would the farmers save costs, but the shredded branches would be used as compost which helps the environment and combats the impact of climate change – and this could be accomplished with a small government subsidy of perhaps €5,000 per farmer; but landfills are owned by private companies, and make a lot of profit for those companies, so nothing gets done. The agenda is money.
It sounds like Xenia Loizidou must be very bitter and unhappy, given the state of our environment after 20 years of trying to improve it – yet in fact the opposite is true; she’s fiery, for sure, but also optimistic, even exuberant. Partly it’s because she has Isotech, working on rewarding projects in foreign countries that actually welcome her intervention. (Right now she’s dealing with microplastics, involved in developing bioplastics for the fishing industry.) But it’s also a question of her personality, which seems far too buoyant to dwell on disappointment.
She was always fearless, her quest for honesty being also a kind of fearlessness. Her childhood was marked by bumps and bruises from this or that mishap, indeed she still has a scar on her thigh from when she jumped off a roof and landed – ouch! – on a metal spike, “like souvla” as she cheerfully puts it. (A teacher actually lifted the child off the spike as if pulling a piece of meat off a skewer; no bones were broken, though 24 stitches were required.) Later, in her teens, she was an athlete, a sprinter – and she’s still a sprinter by nature, tending to work in short, fevered bursts, plunging in without over-thinking. Her energy is frank, proactive, ‘what you see is what you get’; it tends to elude both neuroses and spiritual epiphanies. Even when it comes to the sea – the love of her life – she doesn’t seem to have the near-mystical reverence it often inspires in people; there are no tales of swimming out for hours and communing with the vast turquoise emptiness, just chilling on the beach like a normal person.
She’s unpretentious, but not by design; she just is who she is. She quit a cushy job as a civil servant, almost unheard-of in Cyprus. She doesn’t watch TV, “we’ve been a TV-free house for 20 years now” (instead there’s a cloth screen on the living-room wall, where neighbourhood kids would gather to watch movies and eat popcorn). Her daughters were born a year apart – so she’d wear a special pouch, like a kangaroo or an old hippy, one baby hanging in the front and the other in back, “and we’d go everywhere, beach clean-ups, hiking!”.
She doesn’t seem to care about bourgeois ideas of being ‘normal’ – yet she’s also surprisingly traditional. Every day, before coming to work, she’ll stop by her mum’s and have coffee together; every lunchtime she eats with the family (today’s special is lamb with eggplant; her mum is Athenian, and tends to make hearty Greek fare), every evening she’ll go home and cook dinner. She doesn’t seem to care about the modern-day sacrament of being a workaholic as a form of virtue signalling, either.
Here, perhaps, is the most succinct way to describe Xenia Loizidou: she’s a virtuous collectivist when it comes to her philosophy (“I believe in communities”), but a happy individualist when it comes to her lifestyle. That perceived pushy streak translates into non-conformism. Simply put, she lives life her own way.
The notion of charisma is hard to pin down. Back in the 80s, in her student days, Xenia was idealistic and quite political; she joined Pasok while in Athens – and there she met Melina Mercouri, the minister of culture, who quickly became her inspiration. “She had an aura,” she explains. “You could feel that somebody came into the room before you turned and saw Melina.” Xenia too has an aura, in her warmth, her openness, above all in taking issues that someone else might make didactic – the Akamas, the environment, bicommunal links, climate change – and making them joyous, exciting, natural. “It’s AMAZING work!” she raves at one point, and smiles. I knew we’d be okay from the first moment I walked into her office.