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On the Other Side of Collapse: Notes from the Island of Cyprus

This is an interview with my cousin, Sofia Matsi. Sofia is a health campaigner, artist, permaculture designer and sustainability activist. She lives in Nicosia, Cyprus.

Last year, Sofia witnessed first hand the near complete collapse of the island’s economy--an event which culminated in a highly controversial bailout plan that included an unprecedented confiscation of up to 10 percent of customer bank deposits and the dismantling of the country’s banking industry.

The deal was the fifth Eurozone bailout in recent years--after Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain--that was orchestrated by the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB), together called “the Troika” in Greek and Cypriot slang.

Cyprus has been de facto partitioned since 1974, when Turkey invaded and forced Greek Cypriots out of the northern part of the island. In 2004, Cyprus joined the Eurozone, in part as a way to protect the island from further Turkish aggression.

In this interview, Sofia talks about her experience of the crisis, her efforts to develop her father’s land as a permaculture site, and her work to help build “The Movement of Life,” an organization that promotes ecological sustainability, resilience and economic self-reliance for Cypriots.

LP:  Can you tell me about the situation right now in Cyprus? What is the mood of the people now? How has that changed in the past year?

SM:  Well, almost exactly a year ago we gave our first presentation as The Movement of Life here in Cyprus. At that time, those of us in the movement were aware of the danger of a financial crisis; there were new elections coming up, and along with that was the threat of committing Cyprus to the Troika plan.  And that was going to happen with the elections in mid-February.

So we were rushing around, trying to figure out what was going to happen, what the outcome would be. What eventually ended up happening is that we were told as a nation to listen to what Troika was saying. And what Troika was proposing was a huge loan, and we wouldn’t really understand where would that end.

So that brought us to the bailout announcements in March. Some people were surprised, but those of us in the Movement of Life, were already talking about these things.

After that, though, the bailout gave a big push to many, many groups in Cyprus who wanted to to be more independent and self-sufficient. It gave power to groups that were already thinking of working in this direction, like people who were saving seeds, people who had always wanted to start organic farming.

So things started popping up from this -- lectures were happening all summer long, lectures on how to create your own organic farm, worm composting, and stuff like that. As a team, we decided to get more practical, and stop just lecturing people, and demonstrating how to. How to compost, how to do worm composting, how to do the seed saving.

What we observed is that before the bailout announcements, people were not so interested. People were like, “yeah, oh well, you’re saying what you’re saying, but I don’t think it affects me, and I don’t think it matters.”

But then after, we saw increased interest from people. People wanted more, wanted to be more independent and self-sufficient. Again, there’s a huge segment of the population who don’t really realize, even now, that there’s a tremendous need to be more independent as Cypriot citizens, and we cannot depend on the lifestyles we had before. Plenty of people keep going with that same lifestyle, but I think the majority, if not all of us, realize that we are in a very tight situation, financially at least.

What's been the impact of the financial crisis on you and your family?

Well, that’s ... a bit strange also. I don’t know if others from the States have heard my family’s news, but what changed for us was that we started realizing -- personally, I started realizing--that we cannot maintain the same lifestyle as before.

When the bailout announcement was made, the banks were closed for 10 days. That meant that cash flow got very tight, there were fewer and fewer products at the supermarket, so we started wondering, what does it mean to be sustainable? We couldn’t produce anything at home. Personally, that filled me with panic at that point. Because I realized, I don’t have anything to eat, I don’t produce anything, and I can’t trade anything with anyone.

So that made me want to be more resilient, more independent. And talking to my parents, they also slowly started understanding what was behind this idea of becoming more independent, so permaculture came into the mix. Permaculture was in my life as a concept, but at that point it became more of a need, to learn practically more about permaculture, because it seemed like a very good answer for many of the problems.

So I started searching for workshops [for a permaculture design course], I found one, I talked to you, we narrowed down some options, and I ended up taking a course in Greece. My dad did the same; after I came back, he was convinced that this was a very good solution for the future, because we decided that the land that we have as a family, could be utilized. And why not start very well from the beginning?

Just to be clear, this is land that from your father’s side of the family, in the foothills ...

And my mom. My mom has a field in Vysakia. So that land is sitting there, nobody’s using it. There are people who’s biggest problem is that they don’t have the land. So at least we don’t have that challenge. We only have the challenge of getting started!

So yeah, we understood -- I personally realized -- that we cannot maintain the same lifestyles as before.

And it’s not random. If I had a big job, if I had a big career job, then I would probably not be thinking that way. But I’ve been back from [graduate school in] the US for the three years, and I have been doing like three jobs in order to survive and it’s been exhausting. And I realized, there is no potential. And this was before the crisis. I don’t see any potential in big career jobs for us at this point. It doesn’t matter how many Ph’ds or how many Masters you have. That won’t get you anywhere. I’ve asked for a job, I’ve sent my CV out repeatedly. Every time the semester changed, I would send my CV to local colleges and universities and ask for an art position job, but things weren’t moving. And I realized that must be for a reason also.

Sofia and crew with their recently built greenhouse
Sofia and crew with their recently built greenhouse

So how’s it going with the land? What have you done so far? What do you plan to produce?

Ideally, we would like to produce as many things as we can fit on that land. That would be like a food forest, seasonal vegetables -- and because we have space, we would like to make an income out of that. We would ideally like to live off of what we make.

Do you know how much land it is?

It’s 7.5 hectares (about 18 acres).

That’s a good sized piece of land. I imagine a lot of people in Cyprus have some land. In the last generation, both of your parents grew up in villages where people farmed a lot as part of their livelihood. So people in Cyprus do have land. Maybe not everybody.

Yeah, I think most of families have at least a piece of land that they can use. It’s not like other countries where people live in the city and they have no contact with an open piece of land that they can use. That’s not the case with us in Cyprus.

Sofia’s father Alexis working the compost pile
Sofia’s father Alexis working the compost pile. Photo by Sofia Matsi.

So in a way, something like permaculture is particularly useful in Cyprus.

I think so, yeah! I think that it actually makes sense on a big scale. Of course permaculture could make sense in a cityscape too because you can do more collaborative projects in urban spaces. But it actually makes a lot of sense here, because there’s a lot of land that it could be applied to.

I have a lot of memories of  Cyprus, from when we used to go back to visit. There are certain traditional attitudes and  practices there that we’re trying to rediscover in the United States, like the importance of local food, and planting productive trees -- I remember the one time our grandparents came to the United States, our grandfather wondered why no one planted  productive trees. In Cyprus people plant olive trees, they plant lemon trees, it’s part of the culture. Do you think that permaculture and other sustainability ideals have an easier sell in a place like Cyprus?

I would say yes. I would say compared to other countries, we are very close to what our grandparents used to do. So functional is a part of our daily life. We have lemon trees and olive trees right down in front of the house over here. What I was sadly observing today though was that I passed by many neighborhoods and I kept seeing unpicked mandarins. It was all over the place, mandarins, mandarins, or orange trees, and they were full of fruit. That’s not a good sign! At least the fruit should be disappearing a bit, every time I pass by, but it seems like it’s the same! So the functional tree is there, but people don’t really care about it.

At least it’s there. Because it takes a lot of years to grow a tree.

Definitely. But that is also a sign that we’re don’t yet have serious hunger problems. That’s why those trees are full of fruit. Slowly, if we really had a problem, those would be utilized.

Last week you were telling me about the impact of the crisis on people’s lives-- that at the beginning the media presented it  like a horror movie, but after the bailout there was almost a news blackout, even as people were losing their jobs.

It seems really strange. At the beginning they told us if we didn’t sign the Troika agreement, we were gonna, you know, go without food, we wouldn’t have anything to sustain our country, we would lose everything. And so, they said, we needed to sign those agreements in order to survive.

Now we’ve signed those agreements, and taken steps toward those “logical” solutions. And people have been losing their jobs, ever since, continuously. Nothing has improved on that side. We do have food, now of course. The tragic scenario of not having food because everything is imported in Cyprus, that we don’t produce almost anything, that we cannot sustain our country -- those threats were, thankfully, solved, at least in some peoples’ minds.

But actually the situation has another face, that’s slowly leading us in that direction. We are losing our jobs at this point, and we don’t even know what to do with our spare time, because we’re not trained. We’re not trained to use the land, we’re not trained to survive. And we’re not told that that’s something that would be good to do.

The government is not really supporting ... even though I have seen that the government now at least has a sponsorship for young farmers. So that’s good news at this point. Pushing that way, at least. No more lawyers, teachers, all of these people who are now unemployed. We need people who know how to do useful things.

Can you tell me about the heirloom seed movement?

We have a local group, it’s called Kyprianou Sporoi, which means Cypriot Seeds. And they are active in saving heirloom seeds from their grandparents, uncles, whoever wants to offer seed to them. They first check whether the seeds are valid--they do it with this test of repeating cycles of growth, and when the product comes out the same two consecutive times, then they know it’s traditional.

seedsaving
Traditional seed saving and exchange. Photo by The Movement of Life

They’ve been active with this silently, but after last year, they came out much stronger, with more focus on creating collective gardens, community gardens in schools, showing people how to be more independent. And they always use their own seeds. They never use hybrid seeds.

We are lucky that we had the chance to collaborate with the largest heirloom seed group in Greece, Peliti. They came and gave us a good solid knowledge of the importance of saving seeds. Because we knew it was important but we didn’t have enough knowledge.

In the past, other local teams had planted community gardens, but with no thought of the seeds they were using; they were just buying plants, ready-made, from nurseries. Now, at least, all of the teams admit that it was a mistake to use all of those hybrids, now we know that we need to return to our traditional seeds. We actually had a meeting today and we talked about how important it is to start finding traditional seeds in Cyprus, saving them and learning how to reproduce them.

So, yeah, it’s an effort, and it’s a whole campaign to convince people -- not to convince, but more to make them more sensitive on this part.

To raise awareness.

It’s only a matter of realizing how important it is to not be taken advantage of by the big corporations that sell you seeds to keep you dependent on them. I think it only takes an hour or so for people to understand how urgent this matter is. I think we have made a huge step in making people more sensitive about this.

Winter lettuce in the greenhouse. Photo by Sofia Matsi
Winter vegetables in the greenhouse. Photo by Sofia Matsi

Can you tell me more about the Movement of Life?

I was involved in activating the movement. It’s like, say, the Transition Movement, which is a good theory, it says a lot on the need to change, but if someone doesn’t actually do something about it in their own towns, you can’t really grasp what is the Transition Movement about.

So that’s what we did in Cyprus. The Movement of Life was a good concept, it had a good goal, but nothing was happening, so we felt the need to activate it. We started with a few lectures, and then we started being more practical, with workshops and stuff.

What was the movement’s initial goal?

The original goal was to fight for food for all, water for all, energy for all, sustainable energy, unpatented water; food for all means organic, safe food, non genetically modified, so it’s all those matters that we’re worried about ...

I guess what I’m getting at is: Was that connection between financial problems sustainability always there in the movement?

As a concept it was. And we know that we’re not the only movement, and that’ s not the goal, anyway. We just try to act through an organized structure. And then from there on we join other movements so we can have our job done. So we can learn more things. We bring specialists in so they can talk to us about such and such, and I think they also appreciate our more organized action here in Cyprus.

Do you have any last thoughts?

I believe that -- what I personally understand, at this point--is that the power to change things is in the hands of each individual. We have the power. Before I was panicking and thinking “it’s all about our politicians, it’s all about the decision makers.”

But at this point, I really feel that we can shift things around. And we have the power. Each individual has the power to control and to change and to demand things. I believe that tools such as permaculture can give you the knowledge and confidence to demand changes.

I do really believe that while we might be unemployed as young people here in Cyprus, while we might be ignored, while we might not have the funds for the desired lifestyle that our parents started living ...  I believe that’s also a blessing.

I have been observing Greece a lot lately, and I’ve felt really fortunate to see how many young people react to this crisis in Greece. Many of them stick around Athens, they stick around, living miserable, routine lives, with no cash and working all day long.

But at the same time, you observe these professionals, very hard working young people creating societies from scratch, like the Free and Real. They made an entire community out of nothing. They make their own buildings, they’re engineers, designers, yoga instructors, all the specialties, and they all now live together very professionally and they thrive! They thrive without money, they thrive without anyone having to give them employment! So I feel very optimistic that this crisis/opportunity is actually a gift to us young people who actually want to change things. Because if things were given to us comfortably and with luxury, I don’t think we would easily comprehend the need for change. So, yeah, I think it’s a gift, at this point!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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