A Victory for the Environment: For Birds and for Us by Carol Christ

On February 20, 2018, the Greek government issued a Presidential Decree mandating the formation of government bodies to monitor and protect the more than four hundred bird and wildlife habitats in Greece designated as part of the European law Natura 2000. This decision came after decades of government inaction regarding the enforcement of the Natura law it accepted as part of its entrance into the European Union.

Whether the Presidential Decree will result in protection on the ground remains to be seen, but it is an important step in the right direction. The Presidential Decree was issued after years of negotiations initiated by the European Commission to compel the Greek government to comply with the law. A Complaint to the European Commission regarding failure to protect the Natura wetlands of Lesbos on which I was the first author formed part of the basis of these negotiations.

a ditch drains a wetland to produce agricultural land

Almost as soon as I became a birdwatcher in 1999, I began to notice the degradation of bird habitats by dumping, drainage, and building, especially in wetland areas. Wetlands are seasonal bodies of water created by winter rains that dry out in the summer heat. Generally, they are shallow, which means that they are a perfect stopping over place for migrating birds. The most common visitors to wetlands are wading birds that stand in shallow pools and puddles without immersing their bodies in the water. Lesbos, the island where I began to watch birds, has some of the most important wetlands in Europe, visited by birds migrating from Africa to Europe in the spring for rest and feeding. Because of this, Lesbos is also a destination for birdwatchers.

Wetlands are not only important for birds. In rainy periods they act as a sponge between rivers and the sea and dry land, absorbing water that otherwise could cause flooding. The devastating flood damage to New Orleans in recent years is the result of building on wetlands. Similar damage occurs regularly wherever wetlands are drained, including on the island of Lesbos.

In 2001, I wrote a petition that was signed by over 600 birdwatchers and others urging the Greek government to protect the wetlands of Lesbos. I presented it at an open meeting in May 2001 organized by the Mayor of Kalloni, Lesbos, Aris Eleftheriou, to explain the plan to protect the wetlands of Kalloni which had been funded by the European Union. Instead of being congratulated for his work and vision, the mayor was met by an angry mob. Many of the Natura wetlands are privately owned fields traditionally used for grazing sheep and goats. As local economies were transitioning to tourism, landowners did not want any restrictions placed on their ability to drain and build on their land.

flamingos are now permanent residents of Lesbos

It was in this context that John Bowers, a longtime birdwatcher in Lesbos, an environmental economist, and the first to sign my petition, formed Friends of Green Lesbos, an international internet-based group dedicated to protecting the wetlands of Lesbos that soon counted over 800 members. I became its Vice President. In 2003, Friends of Green Lesbos, in co-operation with Idatinos, a local environmental group, drafted an internet letter and petition, that was automatically sent to the Greek government every time it was signed, asking the Greek government to fulfill its legal responsibility to protect the wetlands of Lesbos. The government responded that it was required to enforce the Natura law even though no specific Greek law had been passed specifying how this was to be done. A committee in the department of building and land development in Lesbos was created and charged with the responsibility of protecting the local wetlands.

We did not understand that this committee would not be monitoring the wetlands on a regular basis, but would only respond to complaints. This was clarified at a meeting organized by World Wildlife Fund in Athens in 2005. I was then put in touch with a new local environmental group, Nautilos en drasi that was also formed to save wetlands. Together with WWF, we began to draft complaints about the degradation of individual wetlands. These complaints, numbering well over fifty, were all decided in our favor. Fines were issued, but there was no mechanism to ensure compliance. Numerous meetings with the Governor of the island resulted in promises that were not kept. We finally realized that he was more interested in currying favor with landowners and developers than in enforcing the law.

In 2008 while lecturing at a conference in Ireland, I met a Green Party member of the European Parliament who encouraged me to write a complaint to the European Commission. After six months of intense effort, I completed a formal complaint of over 100 single-spaced pages, supported by two large files of documents, detailing the government’s failure to protect the wetlands under the Natura law. It was immediately approved by Friends of Green Lesbos and Nautilos en drasi, but it took over two years for World Wildlife Fund and Hellenic Ornithological Society to revise and sign it.

The complaint was submitted to the European Commission in September 2011. After several requests for additional documentation, the Commission found Greece in violation of the Natura law in Lesbos in October 2014. In August 2016 the Commission informed us that it had made our case part of horizontal negotiations with Greece regarding its failure to protect all of its Natura sites. The February 2018 Presidential Decree is the fruit of these negotiations. It is certain that the European Commission will continue to watch the situation in Greece to ensure that the government follows through with the monitoring and protection mandated by the new law.

This has been a long and tiring and often discouraging struggle of nearly two decades and it is still ongoing, but if the end result is the protection of all of the Natura sites in Greece, it will have been well worth it.

Others involved in Natura struggles in Lesbos besides John Bowers and myself include Eleni Galinou, Michael Bakas, Costas Zorbas, and Stellios Kraonakis, and in Athens, Foteini Vrettou, George Chassiotis, and Elias Tzirtzis of World Wildlife Fund Greece, and Malamo Korbeti of Hellenic Ornithological Society.

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer and educator currently living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. FAR Press recently published A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess. Carol  has been leading educational tours based on the religion and culture of ancient Crete for over twenty years. She is active in the Green Party Greece and has run for office in regional and national elections. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.

Categories: Activism, Earth-based spirituality, Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, Feminism, Feminism and Religion

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12 replies

  1. Bravissima!


  2. What stunning work, Carol. Thank you! This story shows that sustained and truly grounded action can bring positive results. Inspiring.


  3. Thank you for your tireless work, Carol. I remember seeing the flamingos in Kalloni in 2015. What a sight!


  4. I think we need these organizations in the U.S. Friends of Green California, etc. Yes, we have similar organizations, and they’re fighting against the current anti-green administration. You’re doing splendid work.

    When I started my Ph.D. program in Carbondale, Illinois, I lived less than a mile from Crab Orchard Lake, a stop-over on the Mississippi River migration route. It was a wonderful lake. One night I heard birds honking and went outside. A V of Canadian geese was flying not ten feet over my roof. It was stunning.

    Does anybody else have the BBC Earth documentary Earth Flight (2012)? Two DVDs that show birds migrating across six continents. They filmed the birds with paragliders and drones and put minicameras on some of the birds. Watching it leaves me speechless every time.


  5. Thank you for your excellent work, Carol! I am reminded of Libana’s song: “The earth is our mother, we must take care of Her.”


  6. This is great news – for the birds and for renewed hope in political action! Your struggle shows us all how important it is to persist in the pursuit of a fair and just world for all, even though we are met with resistance every step of the way.


  7. Love that flamingo picture, and so happy they are now permanent residents in Lesbos. And I’m so proud of your work on behalf of the environment and your perseverance, Carol. Well done indeed.

    During the last decade, New York City reforested its parks and re-lined its streets with new trees on both sides — and so not surprising the city is now home to a huge variety of birds, as well. Hard to believe how exotic some of them are, for instance, a Monk Parakeet, a Red-Tailed Hawk, and a Laughing Gull, etc.


  8. Thank you Carol, for this bit of encouragement. I feel such grief for our earth these days as more and more land is torn up in “developments” and just plain stupid disrespect and greed.


  9. Thanks for your years of hard work, Carol! My hat is off to you and everyone who pushed to get the government to be in compliance with the Natura law.


  10. Just to add a thank you again, as Linda says, not just for a few things, Carol, but for your faithful years of hard work.


  11. Congratulations and thank you for this essential work. Your persistence and hundreds of hours of hard work show that protecting the Earth isn’t easy, but it can be done if we have the commitment and courage to do it. You are an inspiration!


  12. This is profound work and what an impressive result. Thank you for all you’ve done for our Earth.


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