Student - June 7, 2012

Nature conservation on a shoestring

The shortage of money in Greece is posing a threat to the country's already compromised nature management. How can you find creative ways of turning the tide? VHL students from Velp put their minds to this problem together with students from other countries.

Students explore Strofylia.
It is cloudy. Not quite what you expect in Greece at the end of May. From behind the hotel comes the rhythmic sound of the waves crashing onto the pebble beach. Esther Korteweg and one of her fellow students come down the marble hotel steps. The smell of blossom hangs in the air. The third year students of Garden and Landscape Design at Van Hall Larenstein (VHL) head straight for a big waist-high bush covered in orangey red flowers. 'In Holland it comes up to here', exclaims Esther, indicating knee height.
Esther is one of six VHL students taking part in a five-day workshop in Patras together with students from Spain, Albania and Greece itself. They are focusing on the nearby Strofylia nature reserve, unique for its sand dunes, wetlands and rare parasol pine trees. Yet this area is plagued by pollution caused by agriculture and tourism. Camping, hunting and tree felling go on here - all illegally. And dry summers increase the risk of forest fires.
On the first morning Esther and the other students go to see Strofylia for themselves. They interview a farmer, a hotel owner, a nature conservationist, the management of Strofylia and two deputy mayors. This gives them an idea of the problems and the conflicting interests at stake. The farmer, for instance, says he does not use strong chemicals but the park management says the water is polluted with toxic pesticides.
And there is not much money for addressing the problems. Even before the crisis struck, nature conservation in Greece was severely challenged. It got 80 percent of its funding from the EU, with the remaining 20 percent coming from the Greek government. Now the Greeks have turned the tap off, says the head forest manager. Esther's fellow student Rik Schrijver asks whether there are ways of raising funds, such as by permitting regulated tree-felling. 'Sadly, there are no possibilities for that in Greece', is the reply. 'The law prohibits us from making a profit from nature. Fishers, farmers and tourists do pay, but the money goes into the government's coffers and not to the management.'

Friction
Seated that evening at round tables in a conference room at the hotel, the students make a start on their assignment in three mixed groups. 'The Greeks and the Spaniards dive straight into the details, whereas we stay with the broad lines', explains Esther. A chat with the teacher helps. 'We have now hit on an approach in which everyone can make use of their talents. At first some people were very quiet and then you think, there go those dominant Dutch again, bossing everyone around. Now everyone gets to give some input.'
'We have been experimenting with these intensive workshops for some time', says Wim Timmermans, assistant professor of Green Cities VHL. 'It is a sort of pressure cooker in which we overload students from different programmes with information and leave them to come up with a solution.' His department organized this study tour in the framework of the EU programme F:ACTS!, in which 14 organizations from 8 countries seek to address climate change.
Esther was the first VHL student to sign up for this workshop. 'I thought, this is a chance I must seize. Climate change is the theme of the future.' It is not a holiday in disguise, as the student works from 9 in the morning till 9 at night, with one and a half hours for lunch. Only twice do they get the chance of a dip in the swimming pool.
One night they go out for a meal in the town. Deserted and sometimes derelict shops in the city centre bear witness to the economic crisis. But around midnight the restaurant is brim-full of young people. 'Greeks never stop going out. Only now, with the crisis, they go out less often and they make one drink last all evening', explains Greek student Christiana.

Heroic deeds
There is some stress in the air on the last day when the final presentation has to be ready. To an audience that includes a number of prominent dignitaries, the Greek students show a film with impressive shots of burning forests, floods and parched earth, accompanied by doleful music. 'But that was before the students came', reads a caption then, followed by images representing solutions such as reinforcing the dunes, a fire-fighting plan, and education for children.
The second group of students makes a plea for ecotourism and refers to an ancient Greek myth. The demigod Hercules performed most of his heroic deeds in the northern Peloponnese, where there are several nature reserves. Hercules would have built a huge wall around Strofylia to protect it against its enemies. If you present nature in these sorts of mythical terms, you can raise the profile of the nature area, think the students. The last group ends with a plea for a 'cradle-to-cradle' approach including more organic farming, rainwater harvesting and waste processing.
The director of NEA, the development organization for the western Greek region, Kostas Giotopoulos, is inspired. It was the NEA that asked for the students' visit. 'Young people see things differently and put things in a new perspective. We see the difficulties along the way, but the students see the goal at the end of the road. Your ideas have made the local politicians enthusiastic', says Giotopoulos.
Esther thinks it is a pity there was not more time. 'It could be hard to communicate at times and at the start, everyone had a different idea of what the issue was. Even so, it was a surprise that we could come up with this result in such a short time.' She has gained inspiration for the future too. 'When I graduate, what I would like best would be to set up these kinds of international projects.'

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