Τετάρτη 22 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

A dazzling ecosystem around Lampeia

Three weeks in Greece as an 
Erasmus student 

It’s January the 22nd, 15:30 in the afternoon. The sun has just started to set, and greyish clouds are gathering around the hill-tops covered in snow. I am riding a bus in Western-Greece, on the Peloponnese peninsula, just passing the ancient oak forest of Foloi on the southwest, which is followed by the bulging mountains of Arcadia. As I am looking out of the window, I can see the peak of mount Erymanthos in the north, but it soon fades into the coverage of lower cliffs, because the bus is heading down on the 111th National Road. Approaching the valley, I see the village and its houses, capped with orange rooftops, the disappearing sun still shines a light on the solar panels. About 460 people are living on these peaceful hill-sides, 803 meters above sea level. I arrived in Lampeia. 

This was my first experience with this village, resting around beautiful nature. The area is highly rich in natural resources, that can be seen at first sight. The serpentine streets and the neighbourhoods enjoy crystal-clear water from the nearby mountains, and the streams enmesh the whole settlement. The currents are joined together at the bottom of the valley, where a little dam is generating electricity from their flow. Sadly, it is privately owned, so the energy is not used here. 

The houses are traditionally made from cob, more specifically, from limestone. I was surprised when I noticed, how many buildings are equipped with sustainable technologies, such as solar panels, which are mainly used for generating hot water. At first glance, with these ecological solutions, the stories seem to be true about the people of Arcadia, the part of which Lampeia used to be in ancient times: locals lived in harmony with nature, only took as much as they needed and were completely self-sufficient. Later, as it turned out, the situation is a lot more complicated. 

In the centre of the village one can find a post office, pharmacy, several markets and catering places. You can try the brilliant local bakery products, purchase meat or dairy products from locally raised animals in two butcheries, or just buy your groceries from the three mini-markets. The daily lives of the people are concentrated here, in the centre. “Agora”, they call it in Greek. 

They are charming people, especially if we are open with them and take the effort to greet them with a friendly “Kalimera” in their own language. Then there are three Greek restaurants, where you will find delicious, traditional food and hospitality. I highly recommend visiting them, if the dear reader comes to Lampeia. Sadly, credit card is not accepted at any of them at the moment, but they are the best places to regain our strength after a hard hike in the mountains. 
The visitors of the area are clearly attracted to the natural aspects around the village, but besides the few outdoor activities, such as mountain climbing or fishing in the Erymanthos river, there are not many other free-time activities, especially in winter. The substantial potentials of the region clearly lie in its location, so all development direction must be determined in light of this. The hills are filled with wildlife, history and religious places. Considering chapels alone, there are about 120 scattered in- and out of the village. The natural and the built environment are equally captivating. This is one of the reasons why the mountains and forests around Lampeia are Birds Directive sites by the European Natura 2000 network, so their preservation is not just beneficial, but necessary. 

Right after leaving the edges of the settlement, fir forests surround the mountain slopes and adventure finds you straightaway. The terrain is beautiful, the air is refreshing. Stepping into the woods is a heart lifting experience, I found my inner peace right away and became very inspired about my work here. Exploring these environments made me more sure that it’s our responsibility to actively work towards preserving them for future generations. After all, we inherited this planet from our ancestors, so we ought to keep it as pure as we received it, at the least, but in this case, better to strive for a little more. 

There should be even more organized trekking opportunity, and a wider palette of outdoor opportunities to choose from, so the visitors would more likely spend extra time here. Still, the carefree enjoyment of the nature here is overshadowed, one could even say, -spoiled-, by a very important matter, that I quickly observed: the situation about garbage handling. 
When one takes a closer look, the seemingly untouched nature is not nearly as well-kept as it should be. Lampeia’s inhabitants’ problem comes from the lack of environmental awareness. The waste management in the countryside, and the general attitude about it is drastic. I believe it is neglected from both the side of the government and residents also. Walking through the streets and neighbourhoods, I have seen courtyards and fields where proper waste disposal is not solved nor dealt with. 

This can seriously damage the fertility of the land, human health and the natural habitat of animals around the area. It harms the integrity of the entire ecosystem around the village, can lead to extreme soil degradation, and is a bad impression to visitors, coming here to enjoy nature.  
Furthermore, I have seen many unused fields and gardens, where the soils are waiting to be cultivated. With these endless supplies of water from the mountains, the settlement really has the potential to be more self-sufficient and economically strong. As I found out more information, I learnt, that this was not always the situation. 

Lampeia functioned as a bustling trading centre in the past, selling a great deal of local goods, ranging from a significant amount of livestock products, to the fine crafts of the local artisans. With globalization and the migration of youth towards cities, the village became isolated and lost its strong economic position, which further increased population loss. Between 2001 and 2011 the number of the residents decreased by 30%. When asking about this situation, a local business owner stated: “The main reason behind this is the fact that there are more people dying than being born. Young folk nowadays are afraid to start a family because they either think they do not have enough income to support themselves, or are just afraid of being committed to someone and possibly miss out on experiences at a young age. This I blame on our modern world, and on the mass media.”  
Until now, I have seen two types of very distinguishable people. A significant part of the locals are very simple, rural people, the other part consists of modern people who sadly are more frustrated about the often-tedious life in the village. 

Our vision for prospective projects should be well-balanced between connecting the village more to the world, while not letting in the negative effects of capitalism/globalism. Mass media and global marketing should not set its foot in such a village where the simple local values are already increasingly unpopular, but worth preserving and promoting. 

Furthermore, the fact should also be considered, that Lampeia can also benefit from certain globalization effects. We can’t rule out technology, from which locals could surely benefit. Maintaining the peaceful and simplistic life is just as important, as the diversification of local economy. 
If awareness is raised about the unexploited opportunities, provided by their environment, the locals can achieve a higher level of economic independence and diversity, thus the probability to settle here would become more appealing. This way the youth would be more attracted to stay here, and work for their own household, rather than rent a flat in the city. I see that the idea of staying in this rural area is nowadays more unfavourable than desired. Development goals should be set, so that people would prefer to live and work here, by creating sufficient opportunities for all age groups. 

I think the best way to look at the situation is that we need Lampeia as self-sufficient as possible, while at the same time connecting it to a higher level of globalization. If we want the youth to live and work here, or at least, live here and work elsewhere, we need them to feel like they can always retreat here to enjoy the peacefulness, but at the same time, they are still in an area of civilization. The businesses need the global view, which can direct local action. 

Now, there are few things that are holding back the younger generations from moving to the cities. The current job opportunities are just not enough to occupy everybody. Large families and the strong communities still have strength to keep the youth here, but -in my opinion- if they are not satisfied with their way of life here, or do not have a sense of purpose, they will continue leaving the village. This is a common problem in remote villages, where keeping yourself busy and creative is often problematic. 
From 2010 to 2011 the overall number of suicides increased by 27% in the whole population of Greece. The number is so high for that year because deaths by suicide doubled among women. What is troubling is, that these occurrences are rising by 5-6% every year, based on data published by the Hellenic Statistical Authority. I find also that these numbers are closely related to the growing unemployment rate, even more to long-term unemployment difficulties. To work against such problems, meaningful purposes must be set, towards which people can work with heart. Because to my mind, happiness comes from useful and helpful work, as a result; not when happiness itself is the purpose. Fortunately, I believe this village is in a privileged position, when these kinds of goals need to be set. It is filled with positive values. 

Being objective, I had my negative experience also, with the host of my accommodation, during my first week of staying here. The owner of my housing showed very unprofessional behaviour regarding our financial agreement. After settling on the monthly fee of my accommodation, I received multiple harassment about overusing heating and electricity. Two days went by, and even though we agreed on an “all costs included” deal, after shutting off the central heating firstly, he kept asking for more money, now, for electricity. For the sake of transparency, let it be said, that heating oil prices are through the roof now in Greece, so his concerns were not for nothing. Yet, I think they were incorrect and this attitude is amateurish. It ruins the overall experience for someone staying here, and hurts the local economy, because visitors are less likely to return if they receive this kind of treatment. In this case, I am assuming it comes from the lack of professionalism and wrong attitude about hosting. 

Due to the terrain’s asymmetry, the distance or height between the 7 neighbourhoods of the village can be significant to some people. Because of this, they became both closed and open communities at the same time, having their own chapels and social gatherings. Therefore, this can be an obstructing factor when expecting cooperation between neighbourhoods in the way of public work. Some level of ignorance could be expected, but so far, the locals were very welcoming towards new faces.  
With an upcoming survey, the village’s social structure and opinion about social, cultural, economic and ecological matters will be analysed. It will provide important information for development directions to align local needs with global demand. I consider the bottom-up organizing in the village very important; in the history of humanity, most significant changes were always achieved by small and local initiatives, willing to approach matters from new perspectives. I believe Lampeia has this potential. 

To start working against depopulation and environmental degradation, I set three goals towards my work which are completely interconnected with each other: 

-Employment growth, through diversifying the local business and entrepreneurship palette. Introducing new standards in business creation, through promoting and unlocking the existing opportunities that are provided by the natural values of the area. Business consulting to help small and medium-sized enterprises increase the efficiency of sales, local product marketing, entry of new businesses, producers' organizations. Restoring local industry and handicraft. Promoting the need for ecological, social enterprises, companies which would provide additional outdoor services, transportation providers, hiking organizers, bicycle and other transportation vehicle rental businesses. Organizations for conducting religious tourism. Sports and event planning entrepreneurs and activists. Household farming production, local product creation. 

-Improving the life-quality, via further distributing implementable sustainable technology ideas, designing youth and adult alternative education, training for higher quality universal knowledge. Providing alternative education about local needs: animal husbandry focus, harmonized land use, food production for capacity growth. Lobbying for further infrastructure expansion. Human resource growth, network building in health and social projects, culture and heritage conservation and the promotion of them. Inviting or even training new social workers and caretakers. Preventing isolation and purposelessness through strengthening community cohesion. 

-Conservation, development and promotion of the environmental values of Lampeia: We need to discourage inappropriate current activities, such as the incorrect disposal of trash, to ensure that environmental systems can continue to function and sustain future generations of humans, as well as other creatures. Promoting more organic agricultural production, organic farming. A new whole professional sector can be built, on the obligation of protection and passing on the landscape for present and future generations. 

These three should be our pillars, on which we will base our more specific objectives with “Dione”, the local development centre under which I came to Lampeia as a Project Management Assistant for a 3 months project, to realize the dimensions of rural development in collaboration with the social enterprise "Eco Divri", my fellow Erasmus interns and the people of Lampeia. Our first step in this will be building relationships with the locals, and assessing their needs through a detailed survey. 

  • Norbert Tóth, Erasmus Intern from Hungary, University of Debrecen, Faculty: Business and administration / rural development, agricultural engineering, in collaboration with "Dione" Local Development Centre in Ancient Olympia 
  • Copyediting: Alexia Karageorgis, Cultural & Natural Heritage Researcher 
  • Supervisor: Vaso Charitopoulou (Head of “Dione”) 

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