To the People of Cyprus, though our land may be divided between the north and the south,

As we prepare for Christmas this year, I want you to take a moment to acknowledge the reality. 2024 will mark half a century since our island was split in two – families separated, nature divided. For many years, every elected politician has promised to do everything to bring unification closer, and where are we now?

I will tell you where we are now. After the collapse of the 2017 peace talks, there seems to be no more hope. Cyprus has been coined the “graveyard of politicians” because, you see, politicians got tired, even though it’s their job to continue no matter what. Yet Cyprus is worth fighting for.

It is worth fighting for because, much like snowflakes, no two islands are alike. All of them have unique ecology, and Cyprus is no exception. It is a gem of the Eastern Mediterranean that, to this day, is broken into two parts with a Berlin-type wall that goes even through Lefkosia, the last divided capital in the world. And after five decades, there’s no rewind button, and there never will be. We can’t change the past, but the future is open to change. Even if not for us, then at least for the wildlife held hostage by our conflict.

Turn your attention to the buffer zone nearby, and you will find the simple truth. There can be nature without humans, but there can’t be humans without nature. In the buffer zone, time stops neither for the abandoned Greek and Turkish villages that deteriorate year after year nor for nature that slowly takes over them. Like a phoenix that rose from the ashes, the buffer zone became an unofficial wildlife refuge for endemics from iconic mouflons to small Cyprus tulips. In recent years, environmental scientists from both communities, notably Iris Charalambidou and Salih Gücel, have recognized its significance. Because deep care for the island is what all of us share.

While UNFICYP oversees the buffer zone, preventing it from human-caused degradation, there is neither formal recognition of its biodiversity as a natural reserve nor concrete plans, including climate change mitigation strategies, securing its future. Conservation efforts have been primarily centered around research, lacking proactive measures. What’s urgently needed is the next step, a joint strategy agreed upon by both communities to formally recognize and protect the biodiversity of the buffer zone.

Most likely, you would tell me it’s impossible. I challenge that notion. Consider the European Green Belt in mainland Europe – a great example of a similar project but on a bigger scale. It once divided the Communist block from the Western nations and, devoid of all human activities, became a perfect refuge for numerous vulnerable and endangered species. Don’t you see the parallels? Ecologists and environmental scientists recognized its significance in the 1970s and 1980s, sparking a conservation movement that would gain steam with the reunification of Germany. In the case of Cyprus, even if the re-unification prospects prove to be elusive, immediate actions, such as drafting plants within the existing framework, are imperative.

Yet recent trends tell us we’re running out of time. The violence among people might have faded for a different one to emerge – the one against nature itself. Today, Cyprus is at risk of being overrun by concrete jungles. Remember this past August? UN Peacekeepers clashed with Turkish Cypriots over illegal constructions in the neutral zone. This is just one sign of the uncontrolled and illegal development that, together with the changing climate, will make the island inhabitable if we don’t act decisively and in unity.

We already see our island consumed by fires and gasping in smog, with the sandy beaches disappearing into the sea and the water reservoirs leaving behind barren beds. Amidst the climate challenges this century will prepare, a divided island serves neither its people nor its wildlife. Ecosystem health relies on interconnectedness, just as resolution depends on unity among us.

In the question of the health of the island, it no longer matters how different you are. My own life spans cities, villages, and seas. My heart is broken into five pieces and three continents. Having lost the place I could call my home in a matter of days and leaving everything behind post-February 2022, I now comprehend the agony of those who experienced the explosive events of 1974. Please believe a stranger when he says Cyprus has become a cause close to his heart. It has been two years since my family has been living in Cyprus while I pursue my passion – blending Environmental and Social Sciences – far across the globe. Different places, yet similar challenges – a reminder of unity akin to the one found within Cyprus, where high mountains meet the deep sea. The further I go, the closer I become to this island.

This is my story in a nutshell – a nomad, a foreigner, a migrant, a stranger, and, to many, a nobody. Yet, in being a no-one, I find the voice to speak for everyone. And in speaking of everyone, I want to make a Christmas wish.

May this Christmas serve not only as a time of joy but as a catalyst for change – a change rooted in our shared commitment to protect and cherish our natural heritage. Despite the island’s tensions, our biodiversity found its refuge away from conflicts in the buffer zone. However, this sanctuary faces a looming risk of illegal development. The status quo has to go. It has to be replaced with a new plan that recognizes the buffer zone as an official and protected natural area for both sides of this divided land. Let’s unite under one shared commitment – protecting our island.

Thank you,

Steve Lemeshko

Bachelor’s Student in Environmental Science

University of Idaho