By Martin Clark

What do we mean when we talk about ‘sustainability’?

A straightforward definition: “sustainability is about managing and protecting Earth’s natural resources, ecosystems, climate and atmosphere so that current generations and future generations will have the things they need to live a decent life,” says American scientist Pamela Matson of Stanford University.

For most people, they think first of environment: trees, woodlands, green areas, fresh air, clean water, no litter, no pollution. Having all these certainly helps us to live a decent life. The impact we have on environment can be measured and described as a “carbon footprint”. How much carbon do we personally cause to be released into the atmosphere? The amount depends on our lifestyle – how we travel, what we eat and where it comes from, what we buy and how much fossil fuel does the manufacturing process use. Having more than one car, a TV in each bedroom and wanting to eat asparagus all year round (even if it must be flown in from Peru) are all lifestyle decisions, and some choices are certainly not sustainable.

The village of Kato Drys joined the “Green Village” project (2009-2013), along with eight other villages in different countries; the purpose was to investigate true sustainability. Emerging from the work was a training course called “Sustainable Rural Development – Focus on Culture and Nature”. Now, almost 10 years later about 1,800 trainees, students and teachers have completed elements of the course.

Perhaps the most enduring thing to come from Green Village was a way to measure sustainability in a village or for a product or process, even a household. We soon all realised that sustainability was not just about the environment. You could live in the most pristine, traditional, low carbon footprint and biodiverse village, but if all the young people had left and those that remained never socialised, just watched TV all day, that’s not sustainable.

Also high value nature on its own doesn’t generate income. Whether we like it or not, money makes the world go round and the trick is to make money without compromising or losing good environment and culture and sacrificing social interaction between people.

martin in the coming weeks students will come to cyprus to learn about basket making

In the coming weeks students will come to Cyprus to learn about basket making

We need four things to be truly sustainable, we call them the ‘four pillars’.

Environmental sustainability

Using environmental resources but not damaging or degrading them. Retaining high nature conservation value in terms of biodiversity and protecting threatened (Red List) species. In all developments, products and processes, the carbon footprint (the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere) is considered, and all persons should work to reduce environmental impact and keep the footprint low. Local foods and crafts, non-industrialised production, sustainable building, making rather than buying – baskets, not plastic bags, fences and walls without concrete and wire, abundant and variable wildlife, from plants and insects through to birds, reptiles and mammals.

Cultural sustainability

Retaining a link to the past but accepting cultural additions and developments. The encouragement of intergenerational learning – grandparents, parents and children – all learning together with knowledge and skills passing on through the generations. The promotion of situations for the use of visual art that gives strong messages and performing arts that draw threads from the past but are innovative, new and exciting – drama, storytelling, singing and dancing. Finding new and contemporary ways to keep something going but in a context that involves and excites more people of all ages.

Social sustainability

Promoting fulfilling roles for all ages and encouraging multi-generational living. Choosing activities where people come together for learning, recreation, performance and general social interaction.

Welcoming visitors, whether they are tourists or refugees – it has always been the case, especially in Cyprus, that the most needy and victims of war and famine are welcomed and cherished. It’s a core principle of Orthodox Christianity and the Islamic faith. Embracing multi-culturalism but being aware and proud of your own roots and heritage, also recognising in many cases that you (yourself) are a product of multi-culturalism, and multi-ethnicity and it is a positive thing.

A simple DNA test will show that Cypriots are not only Greek or Turkish but have French (from the Franks), Italian (from the Venetians), British (from the colonial period), Lebanese, Egyptian, Maronite, Armenian, Coptic blood coursing through their veins; all or many of these people were fleeing persecution and seeking a safe haven.

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Economical sustainability Generating income within the village or local rural (or urban) economy through sustainable jobs which are meaningful and interesting but do not compromise the more subjective examples of sustainability (social and cultural) and respect and cater for high value nature and use of local products. If possible “sustainable products” are sold at a premium to give a more satisfactory income for producers, whether for organic beans or handmade souvenirs. To get higher prices for sustainable products is a dream, but it slowly starts to happen. It needs consumer education to promote the idea of paying more to save nature, culture and family.

With all four pillars, it’s necessary to adopt some principles – the first is that they all have equal value. Of course this type of thinking has been uncommon in the past and even today, society, and even governments don’t readily accept it. An example is industrial agriculture. Mass use of herbicides and pesticides has destroyed many rural landscapes and ecosystems. They have been sacrificed to make more money. You can’t eat money! And ultimately, if we kill all the bees or use up all the water and fill all the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, leading to irreversible climate change, mankind could face the ultimate price – the extinction we’ve bequeathed to so many other species.

So, we give all four pillars a comparable score of 1 (very poor) to 10 (excellent). The lowest possible score is 4 – it doesn’t really exist, likewise 40 is ‘Utopia’ and in 12 years of measuring we never found it.

Switching our attention to handicrafts and traditional skills, we can begin to understand more about sustainability. In the coming weeks, teachers and students will come to Cyprus to learn about basket making. I remember a time when ‘cane’/bamboo/Αρκοκάλαμον (actually a grass, Phragmites australis) was treasured if you had it on your land. If you stopped to cut some for your garden beansticks, you were likely to be chased off! Now, all over Cyprus, the cane is rampant and unchecked, often nobody cuts any from year to year and it becomes a fire hazard and an impenetrable barrier.

martin ancestral basket making 1928

Basket weaving in 1928

Our ancestors owned many kinds of baskets, for many uses. They didn’t use plastic bags or plastic fruit crates and they probably knew how to make a basket or certainly where to buy a basket. The village of Livadia near Larnaca was famous for cane products including baskets but especially the woven ceiling covers (psatharkes). Today, just three local women make the psatharkes, but in our work we have trained four others to make them in Pano Lefkara.

The group that will arrive in March, are supported by the EU Erasmus Plus programme and certainly the EU support sustainability and sustainable development. They will pay the costs of training people to make baskets and psatharkes. Super basket maker Petros Nikolaou, based in Choirokoitía, will be doing basket making training, with cane, pistachio and soft rush (Juncus spp).

Now, in terms of the four pillars of sustainability

Environmental All the natural resources are harvested locally, handmade baskets and psatharkes, so non-industrial, very low energy input, so low carbon footprint

Cultural Designs are historical, even ancient and we help keep them being produced but maybe for modern uses; for example the soft rush baskets were for straining anari cheese but are great for nick-knacks and keeping pens and pencils, etc.

Social People of varied ages and from different countries all working together, chatting, telling stories, having fun through learning together.

Economical Handmade traditional baskets are very saleable, and they are long-lasting and become sustainable

Maybe in terms of the four pillars of sustainability, Cyprus’ handmade traditional baskets are scoring 36/40, very impressive. The only loss of points is because not enough people are being trained and educated to make and/or use baskets rather than plastic bags!

Martin Clark (a professional forester and land manager) is director of Grampus Heritage & Training, the UK’s most successful EU wide vocational training organisation, with 26 years’ experience