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Lessons from Cyprus: We can all pledge to not harm nature and make regenerative cities

My friend, remembers as a child visiting the north-west coast, near Polis, where the ancient forest stretched for miles.
My friend, remembers as a child visiting the north-west coast, near Polis, where the ancient forest stretched for miles. "It came right down to the sea," he said. As the fashion of the tourism spread from the south of France and Italy to Cyprus, he recalls locals chopping down these trees so that a beach could be exposed.

OPINION: The “Palau Pledge”, created with the help of an Australian advertising agency requires all the island nation’s visitors to sign — right in their passports — an agreement not to damage or exploit the natural resources.


We have two years to prevent an ecological meltdown that threatens the existence of the human species. That is according to someone who should know: Cristiana Pasca Palmer, the chair of the world’s secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Cristiana Pasca Palmer told a story recently about how on the beautiful Micronesian nation of Palau, tourists have polluted and damaged the coral reefs, poached the island’s tropical wildlife and caused much other environmental damage. She asked the question: “Can a nation continue to welcome tourists while simultaneously protecting itself from them?”

Her answer was the “Palau Pledge”, created with the help of an Australian advertising agency. This, she said, “requires all the island nation’s visitors to sign — right in their passports — an agreement not to damage or exploit the natural resources. A short video on the pledge is being run on all flights to Palau. The effort has been paired with law enforcement and reporting of destructive behaviour, and received global acclaim from celebrities and activists, winning multiple international awards.”

But it is not enough just to think biodiversity exists in some faraway beautiful spot. You have to think about it in your own backyard, your own city.

Ms Palmer went on to say: “How we convey this understanding of our connection to nature and nature’s connection to us will be critical for the post-2020 biodiversity framework, to be adopted… in 2020.”

Last week, she went even further, issuing the unprecedented warning: that the world has two years to secure a deal for nature to halt a “silent killer” as dangerous as climate change.

“People in all countries need to put pressure on their governments to draw up ambitious global targets by 2020 to protect the insects, birds, plants and mammals that are vital for global food production, clean water and carbon sequestration.”

The 196 member states of the convention will meet in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, this month to begin crafting a new framework for managing the world’s ecosystems and wildlife. They know the scale of the task at hand, for despite previous impressive-sounding global agreements to reduce biodiversity loss, the rate of that loss has continued to increase. Whatever is decided will be finalised by all nations in Beijing in 2020 and, she says, it had better stick or we are doomed.

What can you do?

You can start by downloading, reading and using the toolkit on communication, education and public awareness. It’s about getting consensus, awareness raising, working with Indigenous peoples, and getting politicians onside.

Then take action, in your own backyard. I want to illustrate how the war on nature happens by relaying the testimony, mixed with my own experience, of a friend from the island of Cyprus, in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It happens gradually, little by little, as individuals destroy pockets of nature that they think are in their way. It seems like not very much at the time. Perhaps it seems like progress. However, with everybody else doing it around them, soon very little nature is left anywhere, and a more sustainable way of life has gone forever.

My friend, let’s call him Eray, was a small child in the 1960s. At that time hardly anyone lived on the Cypriot coast; nowadays, of course, almost everyone does. His mother owned quite a lot of land, with plantations of vines, and trees bearing figs, almonds, olives, walnuts, carob, and more. They would eat and sell the harvests.

He remembers as a child visiting the north-west coast, near Polis, where the ancient forest stretched for miles. “It came right down to the sea,” he said. As the fashion of the tourism spread from the south of France and Italy to Cyprus, he recalls locals chopping down these trees so that a beach could be exposed.

“As a result, there was nothing to stop the sea at high tide coming further inland. The salty water soon also killed the eucalyptus trees that were growing there.”

This stretch of coast was where sea turtles would come ashore and lay their eggs, burying them in the sand. After they emerged from the eggs the hatchlings would crawl back to the sea to begin the cycle again.

“But local people loved smashing the eggs,” he said. “Eventually some of us had to mount a round-the-clock guard for three months on the beach to stop people doing it, or stealing the eggs, as these turtles had become an endangered species.”

Eray continued. “There was no reason to smash the eggs except pure fun. We had to explain to them the value of the eggs, which they did not recognise.”

The Palau Pledge requires all the island nation’s visitors to sign — right in their passports — an agreement not to damage or exploit the natural resources.

Call me a snowflake, but I’ve got to ask: What kind of fun is it that humans take in killing defenceless animals?

In the early nineties, Eray attempted to start a branch of Greenpeace on the island to stop the environmental destruction. “But nobody was interested,” he said.

For centuries, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots had lived a sustainable life as peasants. They carved terraces along the hillsides to manage the water flows and stop soil being washed away. They kept goats that grazed on the wild sage and rosemary, turning their milk into haloumi cheese and anari, a sweetened cottage cheese.

But after Cyprus was divided by the Turkish invasion young Greeks from the villages in the hillsides moved to the coast to build hotels and restaurants to make money out of British tourists. They abandoned the ways of their parents and grandparents. The peasant way of life was old-fashioned and too much like hard work. They would get rich quick and buy big cars, televisions and computers.

To the north of the green line, the population increased by almost tenfold as Turks from the mainland seized land that had belonged to the Greek Cypriots, and began building over their farmland too.

My first wife was Greek Cypriot, and in the early 1990s she took me and our first son to her mother’s ancestral village, Kilani, in the Troidos mountains. I recall the first time I met her uncle and aunt. It was about 10am and he was coming down from the hills with his donkey, which bore on a yoke two baskets containing pails of milk from their goats that he had been up early milking.

We followed him into their courtyard near the village centre where his wife had already prepared a fire in a stone fireplace. He poured the milk into an aluminium pot suspended over the fire and we watched while she made haloumi and then anari with the milk left over. She gave us each a delicious bowlful straightaway and I can still taste it today.

They were in their eighties, their faces as brown and lined as the cracked mud of the land. They were the last generation to live like this. Another aunt made wine from her grapes and there was a grappa still in her backyard.

My then wife’s sister and her husband had bought some land on the edge of the village and were trying to restore the disused terraces and farm the land organically. Everybody thought they were mad to eschew pesticides and herbicides and not use artificial fertiliser, because this was the modern way.

But all of the other terraces across the Troidos mountains were to fall into disuse and start crumbling away. Centuries of work gone in a generation.

Bulldozers removed the plantations

Bulldozers were removing plantations in Eray’s mother’s orchards at this time to make way for development.

Eray attempted to rally support to save the trees, but when the day came he was the only one to turn up. “I climbed to the top of the tree,” he told me, “but this did not stop the chainsaws. They felled the tree with me in it and I fell onto a nearby roof.”

Walnut trees are an investment in the future: it takes at least a decade before they begin to produce nuts. All his mother’s other plantations were soon gone too.

The ancient forest in the North West has mostly vanished also. Cyprus has a water shortage problem now, and its soils are washed away when it rains because the terraces no longer provide the same defence.

The now middle-aged generation who abandoned the terraces of their parents these days have their second homes in the old villages in the hills, where they come at weekends with their kids and complain about how stressed they are. Many do not live as long as their parents’ generation, who had a healthier diet and plenty of exercise.

Consumerist lifestyles can be reversed

I tell this short story to illustrate the connection between the loss of nature, and its simple consequences.

But it’s not too late. Trees can be replanted. Wildlife can return. Birds that used to be common like the Cyprus warbler and the Cyprus wheatear, both now endangered, could increase their populations were their habitats to be restored and protected, as could the Cyprus mouse, the only endemic species of rodent in the Mediterranean left.

This process of abandoning traditional ways for an urban, capitalist or consumerist lifestyle, has been happening for decades around the world and continues to happen. It is called “development”, and has always been assumed to be a good thing.

Through Cristiana Pa?ca Palmer’s lens we can reframe it as a war on nature, an attack on traditional ways of life in which people live in a kind of balance with their natural environments, that were more or less sustainable. As people became – and become – richer, they pour more concrete, cover more land, destroy more habitats.

I don’t see this process stopping deliberately any time soon.

So for the readers, I say this: use your power to regenerate nature wherever you live and work, even if it is in the city. We must make all cities regenerative cities.

It’s time to start paying back what we have taken.

Nature can thrive anywhere. It just needs to be given space.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, among other books about sustainability.

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