8 Female Activists in Cyprus Standing up for Environmental Justice.
Women are on the front lines of climate change as they are impacted first and worst, so it is not surprising that they are on the front lines of the fight against it. Around the world it is prominently women who are standing up for their communities, land, water, forests and biodiversity. They challenge projects of so-called development, from mega dams and mines to fossil fuel extraction. This is also the case in Cyprus, where strong female activists led the way in the struggle for environmental justice.
Cyprus, an island on the south eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, is well known for its beaches, sunny weather and tourist resorts. A less known fact is that it is located in one of the most sensitive “hotspots” and areas vulnerable to climate change. In fact, the impacts of climate change are already felt on the island with increasing temperatures and reducing rainfall exacerbating desertification and intensifying droughts, impacts which will only worsen in coming years. Life in Cyprus is further endangered by the neoliberal polices of the government that allow commercial developments to encroach on the coastlines and nature, threatening biodiversity and even protected areas.
Politically, Cyprus has had a tumultuous history marked by occupation, colonialism and conflict. Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided, with Turkish Cypriots living in the northern third of the country and Greek Cypriots living in the southern two-thirds, the Republic of Cyprus. This situation has the effect of side-lining any other social or environmental issue and is especially noticeable in the realm of action on climate change. In 2018 the Off Target report published by the Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe highlighted that Cyprus is falling short, coming 24th out of 28 countries, in adopting the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and in pursuing efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.
While this all paints a bleak picture, 8 female activists are fighting for a different vision in Cyprus. They are challenging mining projects, the privatisation of coastlines and protected areas, fighting international trade deals, and promoting sustainable lifestyles in their local communities. I talk to them about activism in Cyprus, their hopes and motivation and the interplay of gender and environmentalism.
Thea Christoforou and Evi Charalambous
“I think that we are equal, and we are strong enough, I see a lot of strong women in Cyprus.”- Evi
Thea, 27, and Evi, 31, are Greek Cypriots from Mathiatis, a small village in the foothills of the Troodos mountain range. After returning home from studying abroad, their love for their local area and home island was reignited. When news broke that Hellenic Copper Mines was seeking to re-open a mine to extract gold only 2km from their community, Evi and Thea jumped into community organising with members of their village to resist this project. One year on they have taken the lead in the local resistance group, The Historical and Environmental Protection group of Mathiatis, and have been successful in their campaign to halt the mine. While opposition to the mine emerged from their parents’ generation whose land for cultivation was threatened, for Evi and Thea their resistance is related to wider governance issues, a global extractive neoliberal agenda and climate change.
They work to highlight the risk to human and non-human life posed by reopening the mine. From rare and endangered bird and bat species to the 2,000 trees that would be cut down, decimating the unique ecosystem that has developed in this area as it rehabilitated from past mining. As part of the Troodos Mountain Ophiolite, and as an ancient mining site that operated from 600 BC, it is a candidate UNESCO monument. Evi and Thea further felt their sense of identity, which is so closely tied to the land, would be compromised with the loss of this local monument. As an archaeologist, Thea, passionately defends this important site where excavations have uncovered rare artefacts unique to the Eastern Mediterranean.
This first experience of activism has helped both Evi and Thea feel empowered and confident. As the only females in the team, and operating in a conservative village there were clear gendered dynamics to overcome, as Thea explains:
“At first, maybe because I was afraid to say much, maybe because I didn’t know. And I was feeling that most of the men were doing things and talking. Then at some point things started to change and I started to feel I was taking more initiative and doing things as girls. So it was at some point everything changed and in the end its us that do most of the organising.”
Despite this, they have still faced discrimination in their interactions during the campaign as Evi recounts:
“I went to the first meeting in the parliament and when I left, somebody said, “Oh my god, there was a crazy woman from that village who was screaming”. And other officials say, “Ok, she doesn’t know what she says, don’t take her seriously” it was very patronising. But after that I think that we proved that we are strong, and we don’t care about what they say.”
Thea and Evi have been strong in demanding a different view of development than that offered by the mining company, one of environmental destruction and profit for the few. Instead, they promote a vision of development that celebrates their natural and cultural heritage, educating local people and visitors and engaging in sustainable Eco and Agritourism. Evi and Thea have already begun work on this vision by holding the European Heritage Days in October 2017, comprising of two weeks of educational events around Mathiatis exploring the archaeological and geological treasures of this area.
“Living on a divided island not only fragments the natural environment in ecological terms, it also makes it impossible to come forward with real solutions. How can environmental issues be solved on a small island if we cannot have holistic picture of the situation?”- Maria
Maria, 34, from Ayia Napa is an activist who has a PhD in ocean governance. Currently she researches the oceans as a commons through a lens of political ecology. In fact, Maria’s activism goes all the way back to her as a nine-year-old roaming the fields with her friends in the “nature power team”. Together they would hunt out and destroy limesticks, which were illegal methods of trapping songbirds. An ongoing environmental issue in Cyprus.
More recently, Maria has been involved in an initiative to protect the coastline of Cyprus. This Initiative started in 2014 following illegal interventions along the coastline by municipalities and private actors in the Famagusta region. From the first direct action, turning the entrance of the Paralimni Municipality into a beach, the campaign gained momentum and coverage in the media. They were successful in blocking a number of bills to the parliament that sought to privatise the sea and coastline. One bill aimed to change the legal definition of “real estate” to include the sea, allowing the licensing of a number of high environmental and social risk developments.
They have joined together with another initiative in Nicosia, struggling against the licensing of a massive golf resort within and adjacent to one of the most important egg laying turtle beach in Cyprus, the Limni-Gialia area in Polis Chrisochous in Paphos. Their broader struggle for the protection of the natural and cultural heritage is diverse with people of many different backgrounds.
A crucial aspect of Maria’s environmental justice activism involves bi-communal action and solidarity. This takes shape in collaborative work through groups such as Sispirosi Atakton, and direct actions like the occupation of the buffer zone in Nicosia to demand a peace park. Maria explains why this is so important and how the divided island impacts environmental struggles:
“Living on a divided island, basically fragments our imaginary of what our ecological commons are and how we must join forces in order to protect them. This is probably the main impact living on a divided island has on our environmental struggle — the way the dominant narrative is using the environment to keep us divided rather than unified.”
“Greek speaking Cypriots will almost always highlight the issue of the quarries on Pentadaktylos mountain (on the northern side of the divide) when mentioning the environmental problems in Cyprus. Almost none will know that in the southern side of the divide, much of the quarrying is taking place and is destroying the land that belongs to Turkish speaking Cypriots (such as quarrying in the Turkish Cypriot villages of Androlykoy, Ayios Sozomenos etc.). This selective knowledge of environmental destruction facilitates the perpetuation of the categorisation of the ‘other’ as evil. Thus, part of the ecological struggle must also be the struggle for the reunification of the island.”
In the future, Maria would love to see a real bi-communal campaign starting to protect the natural and cultural heritage of Cyprus, from Akamas to Karpasia. However, as environmental activists struggle to keep up with the increasing number of development plans, thinking ahead becomes extremely difficult and activism is reactive rather than proactive.
When considering why so many grassroots environmental activists are women, globally and locally, Maria highlights that there is not one answer. It depends on the context in which activists are operating. However, she notes that it is related to the multiple discrimination women face in their everyday lives. Maria has felt this gendered oppression in her activism:
“I think it’s there most of the time, in Parliament, in a meeting with competent authorities, and sometimes even on the streets. I remember back in 2014 during the first big protest of the Initiative outside the Parliament. Myself and a comrade went inside the Parliament to hand a petition to the then vice-president of the Parliament. He simply spoke to my comrade (who was a male) and refused to look at me or even talk to my face. That was very frustrating.”
Linking these systems of oppression, Maria illustrates that while individual behavioural change is important as a self-empowering tool, only systematic approaches can foster real change:
“Choices such as being vegetarian or vegan, or attempts to live plastic-free are very important. However, I feel that the focus on what the impact each individual person can do, has led to the depoliticization of the environmental struggle. It puts the ‘burden’ on the ‘consumer’ and suggests that if we consume ethically, the invisible hand of the market will sort out all our environmental problems[…] if we do not take to the streets to demand a true decarbonisation of our society, such individual efforts might end up being in vein.”
Maria highlights the importance of local citizens’ collective initiatives which have developed in Cyprus in the last couple of years. Groups like the ‘Open Initiative for the Protection of the Akadimias Park’ and the ‘Historical and Environmental Protection Group of Mathiatis’ are led by the communities most affected by environmental destruction. And it is this type of community organising that creates hope for the future:
“Given the intense pressure put on the environment using the economic crisis as a pretence, things on the island has become difficult for environmental campaigners. These local initiatives have really given me hope and have helped my motivation.”
Ifigenia and Anthi Gavriel
“I really want people to understand that everything that they do, there is a connection between them and the carbon and water footprint and all the issues connected to climate change and link this to the economy and the society. Everything is connected.”- Anthi
Sisters, Ifigenia (34) and Anthi (32) Gavriel, are from Agia Varvara, a village in central Cyprus. Growing up in the countryside, the daughters of a goat farmer, they have developed a deep love of the natural world. It is this close relationship with the land that allowed them to witness first-hand the changes in the landscape due to climate change. Changing weather patterns, vegetation and biodiversity have motivated them to raise awareness in their rural area. Anthi, studied a MSc in Sustainable Environmental Development while Ifiegnia has worked with different environmental organisation in Cyprus.
Together with Ifigenia’s husband, Marinos, and a group of close friends, they set up Almyras Cultural and Environmental Workshop, an NGO that seeks to raise awareness of environmental change, protect cultural heritage and bring entertaining events to the countryside. Using non-formal education Anthi and Ifigenia go to schools to educate children from ages 5 to 18 about local biodiversity, geology, climate change and sustainable living. Almyras work in solidarity with many other environmental groups and NGOs in Cyprus and have been central in supporting the Mathiatis mine opposition, in their neighbouring village. For Anthi, this sense of community is what keeps her motivated when facing the enormous challenge of climate change.
Ifigenia, a geologist by profession, and passion, has been published in books and articles about the geological and environmental importance of the area. She believes this is where Cyprus should look when considering development:
“I visited all of Cyprus and I saw what mining has done, because we have a lot of Sulphite mines that were never restored because of the British colonial law which didn’t force companies to restore these abandoned mines. It helped me realise what mining can do! And I also discovered how beautiful Cyprus is and how important it is historically and geologically. A lot of jobs could be created through geological tourism which is a sustainable and environmentally friendly use of our geology and copper history. We have the Cyprus ophiolite, it’s very well known for geologists, studied in all universities, we have a lot of students from foreign universities who come just to see this, I think we should develop tourism in that way.”
“We like to look at the bigger picture and intersections of climate change and social justice, and it helped me see that it’s not just about trees and polar bears, it’s the system.”
Myrto, 24, from Nicosia, is an environmental engineer and activist with Young Friends of the Earth Cyprus. She has worked on a range of campaigns from Divestment to campaigning against CETA, an international trade deal that comes with disastrous human and environmental consequences. Her profound love of nature developed from childhood trips with her Dad. Turning into a young environmentalist, she sought to convert her class mates into adopting green behaviours. However, it was at university in London that Myrto got a taste for organising around social and environmental justice with the group People and Planet- from then she was hooked! She explains the roots of her activism:
“It all goes back to the story of how much love and admiration I have about life and nature, I don’t want this to be gone. When I talk about earth I don’t talk about the rocks, its life, you have to be blinded to not see how amazing it is. If this is what draws people into activism, great! I just go back to where it all started, I liked to go and walk in nature.”
Myrto realises her passion for renewable energy through her job at the NGO, Cyprus Energy Agency. Her vision for Cyprus is a 100% renewable island with decentralised energy, she emphasises it’s about more than a technological fix:
“Energy is easy here! And I believe in the renewable energy revolution because it can be a solution for a socially just world too. Because it works best in a decentralised form. We have so much technology now that we can use and make sustainable communities at the local level. You need communities, renewables work better at a community level, so does farming, resource management, circular economy… This will give people the feeling of being heard, having a voice and opportunity to communicate. So, this is my view of Cyprus. We often say in the EU and the fancy circles that Islands are test beds, in this case I would love for Cyprus to be a test bed because we are such a small island and already the way the government is built we have very small communities, municipalities. If people were more active in their municipality so much could change.”
Myrto notes the major challenges facing Cyprus, from public apathy to a political environment which side lines environmental and social issues, however, she is hopeful about the growing movements. The increasing number of young people getting involved are pushing these concerns from the periphery into the mainstream. Myrto and the 500 people who marched in April 2018 to save the natural heritage of Cyprus are a great example of this.
While acknowledging capitalism as the root of the current crisis, Myrto is cautious of critique without the discussion of realistic, workable alternatives to our broken system. She sees this system manifested in Cyprus from the mines and quarries, natural gas exploration and extraction, development in tourism and the construction of villas for the rich, destroying sea life and nature:
“It doesn’t take that much research into it to realise that this extractive mindset, it’s everywhere, spreading in all areas. I feel really sad because we are selling off everything, you know?”
When discussing environmental justice, the key word is intersectionality for Myrto. Recognizing that multiple identities and oppressions intersect, whether that be around gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, age or immigration status. Myrto is sensitive to how oppression and privilege has operated in her own activism. It is a researched fact that men often interrupt, mansplain and speak more in meetings. Despite Myrto’s high competence she has been talked over, felt unconfident to speak, underutilised, and told her voice was “too high pitched” to use the mega-phone during a demonstration. All these incidents highlight how gendered privilege and oppression operate, even within “woke” activist spaces. This tells us we need to take feminism more seriously in environmental campaigning.
“We can’t just concentrate on feminism or women’s activism, we can’t concentrate on just environment, on animal rights we need to combine everything and make a new activism. This is what I’m thinking, actually, to make a more peaceful world.”- Fezel
Fezel, 31, is a Turkish Cypriot environmentalist and feminist activist who has been involved in many initiatives in the north of Cyprus, including the anti-authoritarian NGO, Dayanişma. Cross border collaborations are central to Fezel’s activism, as she cooperates closely with an anti-authoritarian environmental and social justice group in the South, Sispirosi Atakton. As a biologist she has a special interest in protecting endemic Cypriot plants, as well as campaigning on issues such as anti-hunting, veganism, anti-stone quarrying, women’s health and rights issues.
Within the context of Northern Cyprus, a specific set of challenges exists. Turkey, the only country to recognise the Turkish Cypriot administration, are their only trading partners. Fezel highlights that the limited economic situation has far reaching consequences for activists:
“The government always say, “this is not the first topic that we need to solve” first we need to solve this one, then this one, and so the environmental issues and the human rights are always side-lined.”
And when it comes to climate change she feels the North lags considerably, even behind the Republic of Cyprus:
“Now everyone is taking about climate action plans and trying to go for alternative techniques for energy, electricity, also the south as wind turbines, solar panels, in the north it is not like this.”
Inspired by anarchist environmentalist Murray Bookchin, Fezel emphasises solutions lie outside of the government, with the environment and our communities:
“I’m very interested in the permaculture. I think the answer is in the environment so when we turn our face to environment, get off the buildings and go into the environment we can find a solution. Permaculture is one thing that could be done throughout the island.”
Fezel aims to focus on the commons as a people living in Cyprus, as not only to way to promote sustainability but as a way to highlight the commonalities between the divided communities, aiding in reunification processes:
“We need to focus on some key issues like the environment, like human rights issues. We have some core issues that have no division, like women’s rights issues, they have violence in North and South, in Turkey, in Greece, in any country. Or the environmental issue, climate change knows no borders, so we need to concentrate on some core issues and this will open a new gate for us maybe to solve the Cyprus issue as well. These core issues bring people together, a common, the commons, and the land, the environment is our commons.”
Building on this, Fezel was involved in a bi-communal action in March 2017, as a hundred protestors occupied a park in the UN buffer zone of Nicosia calling for reunification and demilitarisation of Cyprus. Demanding the area as a common Peace Park the community reclaimed this space, playing music, flying kites and sending a message to people and governments on both sides that common spaces are important and wanted.
Fezel is a fan of ecofeminism, the field devoted to understanding the intersections between gender and the environment. Rejecting an essentialist biological view of women linked to nature, Fezel sees the connection between women and nature as rooted in the reinforcing system of capitalist patriarchy:
“Actually, what I think is because women who are the ones who have the violence of the governments, of capitalism and of patriarchy, they suffer lots of different violence, so they are trying to survive and to change the world. Opposing patriarchy, this is what the women are aware of, they start to think, while I was facing these issues, the environment is facing the same issues from capitalism.”
“We need to take care of our environment immediately, yesterday we should have started. I think that the environmental movements should all the anti-capitalist and the anti-capitalist movements should be environmental, and not just see it as an add on.”- Athina
Athina, 38, is a socialist feminist originally from Greece who has been involved in anti-capitalist activism from the age of 17. Active in a range of environmental campaigns in Cyprus, she has worked on issues such as anti- gold mining, saving protected areas, and against natural gas extraction and infrastructure.
Believing strongly in the power of grassroots activism, Athina, has supported many campaigns which centre around the affected local community. One such example was the fight against infrastructure that was being built to clean drills from the natural gas extraction process in Larnaca in 2016. Two initiatives of local people living only 500m away from where the factory was planned to be built ran and won the fight.
Mining is another core area that Athina is passionate about. In 2011 the government gave permits to 50 companies for exploration drilling in Cyprus, leading to 25 sites being marked as potential mines to reopen. Athina remains critical of the government’s excuse that they are giving old mines to private companies to decontaminate the sites. She has been involved in the anti-mining cause on the Island, from supporting the campaign in Mathiatis, to organising around Skouriotissa copper mine. This mine, the only functioning site on Cyprus, has been operational since 1914. The introduction of cyanide to the mining process is of great concern to activists as it can greatly affect people’s health. In this case Athina has experienced many challenges:
“Here, it’s very difficult to organise on that issue because of the situation. I will explain, so the company apparently has connections with the church and with a lot of politicians, especially right-wing politicians. Local people feel threatened, intimidated — the company is paying money to some of them and threatening some others, that’s the problem. We are talking about a village beside the mine that is 80 people, it’s very small and most are pensioners, so we don’t have this youth element that would be more militant.”
Athina points out that Cyprus has so much potential to create their own energy with the 330 days of sun per year, but the capitalist system will never let this thrive. Instead the government is extracting natural gas from the sea. Athina highlights that this is not only a disaster for climate change but in an extremely tense geopolitical arena, it has pushed Cyprus to the brink of war. Athina would like to see grassroots movements pushing system change as a solution to our common ecological crisis.