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Greeks reclaim the land to ease the pain of economic austerity

Beatrice Yannacopoulou

10th January, 2012

A group of community-minded gardeners have turned a former Athens airport into a blooming vegetable plot, showing how Greece's eroded soil holds the keys to a revival in farming and a way to buck the jobless trend

'If we want to survive on this land we must first help to heal the earth,' said Nicola Netién, agro-ecologist, teacher and co-creator of the NGO Permaculture Research Institute Hellas. He was talking to a group of some fifty people of all ages who had gathered for two days of workshops on self-sufficiency, how to self-organize, agro-ecology and composting. This small gathering was taking place on a beautifully sunny autumn day at the former Athens airport, Ellinikon.

When the airport moved to another location 10 years ago in preparation for Athens hosting the 2004 Olympic Games, there was the hope and the State's promise that this now available land would become a park. Then the ‘crisis' landed and rumors began spreading that the site had been sold to an international developer who would pour yet more concrete on the chaotic sprawl that is Athens. This is when a small group of local residents, bearing seeds and armed with shovels, moved in. Their mission: to create a communal and productive agricultural space that will encourage an exploration into antidotes for the ecological-economic-educational and cultural crisis.

'Thirty percent of Greece's arable land has salinized and every year Greece looses 750,000 cubic meters of topsoil as a result of erosion and poor land management,' Nicola continued as his demonstration compost pile grew. Just a few kilometers west and the political drama of a failing government and national bankruptcy was unfolding. The world watched the theatrics of politicians scrambling for self-preservation, while the contagious and desperate fear of being ejected from the Euro spread and the markets turbulently responded.

'Topsoil is wonderfully complex.' One meter squared of healthy topsoil is bustling with hundreds of thousands of life forms. In fact, one teaspoon of good soil can contain 5 billion bacteria, 20 million fungi and a million protoctists. Another way to consider this awesome diversity is that in each gram of soil there can be 4,000 distinct genomes and these differ greatly from one location to another. Topsoil is alive and symbiotic, binding land-based ecosystems. It is another example of nature's resilience and creativity emerging through a dynamic process of cooperative diversity- a process we can learn from so as to maximize the creative potential and resilience of our work, our communities, and how we organize. Topsoil is also what makes land agriculturally productive.

As the Greek government struggles to put its accounts in order, its efforts seem to be dislocated from the daily reality of the land we live on and live by. This is where the real false accounting has taken place. Poor land management, perverse subsidies and un-enforced laws have led to the impoverishment of the soil in Greece and to an ongoing decline in its productivity. Despite being one of the most biodiverse areas in Europe, little has been done to account for this natural wealth and to protect it.

Natasha, one of the first to start working this small plot at the Ellinikon, told me that since the beginning of the current crisis, more and more people are visiting this small edible garden. She understands why. A year ago she was anxious that her future and her basic needs were dependent on the State that employs her. She had no survival skills. Now, she says, she feels empowered by being proactive in forming her community and learning how to grow food.

There are other examples of Athenians taking matters into their own hands to reclaim small plots of land so as to create communal green spaces; sometimes quietly and peacefully and other times after long drawn out battles with riot police. An example of the latter is Navarino Park in the centre of Athens. This again involved a broken promise by the State. One of the most densely populated areas of Athens was hoping for a park, so when the plans changed to build a parking lot, the local residents organized and resisted. Despite the violence and threats by police, residents stood their ground and cultivated this small plot that is now a budding potential of urban agriculture.

All these examples are neighborhood initiatives. It would be wrong to suggest this is a single coordinated movement. Often confused by the scale of change that is needed and starved for stories of hope, there is a tendency to inadvertently prescribe meaning to and inflate such examples so as to enthuse optimism in ourselves and in others that we are well on our way to dismantling ‘business as usual'. But this would be doing these small groups of activists a disservice. This is not their story, at least not for now. They are in the process of finding their way.

Life in Greece has gotten harder and people are quite literally going hungry. The cultural and the economic reality on the ground and the systemic rot that is so pervasive demand an exploration into context relevant ways of organizing, empowering, sharing knowledge, and redefining our values and our identities.

Riots in Athens have become common; albeit an expression of discontent, the dynamic that has developed between rioter and State seems to maintain the status quo. As I understand it, these local activists are not interested in head on combat against the ‘business and politics as usual' that is largely to blame for the erosion of land and values, but rather they undermine the status quo by actively participating and investing in their own communities' potential.

Within each small neighborhood group there is a collective evolving, sharing knowledge, learning, building and growing together. Perhaps these small groups and their gardens will be catalysts for change-maybe they will become nodes in an emergent network of urban farmers-maybe not. Regardless, this is an account of people proactively engaging the challenges and opportunities they are faced with. When Greece's dominant narrative, particularly of late, has been of bankruptcy, corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and violence, it is important to recognize that this is not the whole story. With respect for others' work, as well as our own, and as a defense against the infectious cynicism of such depressing dominant narratives, we must conserve and in fact cultivate the space for hope to articulate itself.

'We can compost anything that was once living. Soon we will be able to add our Euros to the pile,' Nicola said with half a smile. For a brief moment the group became uneasy and nervously laughed. This unease though quickly dissipated. 'A healthy compost pile should never smell bad...'

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