In early 2014, I interviewed my cousin, Sofia Matsi, a newly minted permaculture designer and sustainability/resilience activist who lives on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Last year, Sofia related her experience of the all-but-complete collapse of the Cyprus economy in 2013 and her attempts, with others, to spark a movement for resilience and local self-reliance.
In this follow-up interview a year and a half later, Sofia describes how the explosion of interest and activity in permaculture, natural building, sustainability, resilience and relocalization in Cyprus is giving her renewed hope for the island’s future.
Cyprus is a tiny nation, but when its banking system collapsed from overexposure to Greek debt, it sent a chill through through the world economy: for the first time in living memory, a percentage of bank deposits were confiscated as part an agreement with EU leaders to bail out the country. This precedent threw into question not only the viability of the Euro currency and the European Union itself, but of the security of bank savings for ordinary people across the world.
Cyprus is comprised of an 80 percent Greek, 18 percent Turkish population; it has been de facto partitioned since the Turkish army invaded in 1974, taking over the northern 40 percent of the country. In 2004, Cyprus became part of the European Union.
Over the past 40 years, the intractability of “The Cyprus Problem” has puzzled and and confounded generations of peacemakers and diplomats, as recurring talks between representatives of the two sides collapsed, again and again.
Recent developments, though, have raised the hopes of many residents on the island; new negotiations between Cyprus president Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, have been described by some observers as the most hopeful since the invasion. Others, however, are wary of what kind of deal might reached, especially since a major incentive for settlement is the recent discovery of large offshore gas deposits that could either revive the nation’s economy or subsume it to the interests of international oil and gas companies.
In this light, Sofia’s belief that — as with sustainability — political problems are best addressed at the common level, person-to-person, has particular resonance.
In the midst of her local activism and community building, Sofia has been busy developing a permaculture design for her family land in Cyprus that she calls “Petrera”. This year, she and a team of students and volunteers finished building “the first 21st Century Sandbag Earth-Dome in Cyprus,” on the property under the guidance of Iliona Khalili, a global leader in natural building who specializes in superadobe structures.
Sofia believes that the interest in and need for permaculture and ecological design in Cyprus has exploded to the point where it’s time for the movement to start cultivating its own core of teachers. To that end, she and her fellow permaculture designer Gabriel Pandelis are conducting an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to travel and become certified permaculture teachers.
The idea, she says, is to simultaneously build a solid basis and local knowledge for ecological design in Cyprus and to create another node for regenerative education that can spread regionally and beyond.
“Whatever we do in Cyprus doesn’t really stay in Cyprus,” she says, “It’s like the effect gets multiplied and spread, from here to the nearby regions, and from there on.”
Sofia Matsi: Do you have any clue how many people read your article? They search for Cyprus, and Permaculture, and they find your article first.
Lakis Polycarpou: Really? And then they contact you?
SM: There are a lot of people who found me that way — great people and great friends.
LP: I’m so happy to hear that!
SM: The feedback I get from that is that the Internet has amazing potential. It’s amazing how many things can come out. You can never anticipate what can come out. Just from an article being there …
LP: And sometimes it takes time! Anyway, tell me, since our last conversation, what’s happened with permaculture in Cyprus?
SM: Oh, God, so many things! When we talked, I was struggling to find people around me that I could communicate with in permaculture terms. And older people, experienced people who could guide us on how to farm without the very chemical approach, an approach that has existed in Cyprus only for the past 60 years.
It seems like there’s a gap, people don’t really remember how our grandparents farmed, so I was having a hard time finding the more experienced people, and then an even harder time finding people my age to communicate with on these terms to whom I could say, you know, “let’s not go for coffee or a taverna, let’s meet up at the xorafi and collect seeds!” It was a big challenge. But now, about two years later, its great. It’s an amazing transformation of Cyprus.
In that time, the first PDC [permaculture design certification course] came to life in Cyprus — it took place a year ago, October of 2014. I got the opportunity to assist, to be an assistant permaculture teacher, which was exciting. I connected with all sorts of interesting people in Cyprus — people who were a lot more experienced than I was — who wanted to get their PDC education; people who are experienced herbalists in Cyprus and who just wanted a holistic design for their projects, for their gardens — it was amazing. That course collected an awesome bunch of people, all sorts of people. And through that course I got connected with Gabriel, who I’m doing the [Indiegogo] campaign with.
It was a one-month long course. Peter Cow was the teacher, he came from the UK to do it. The people I met and connected with through that PDC — it’s priceless. Before that of course, we were making other connections, but I believe the permaculture course gave me a push. Through the Foundation work — I was collaborating with The Movement of Life — I brought in permaculture knowledge, and then I started putting subjects on our menu that a lot of people were interested in.
We were being asked to talk about composting, vermicomposting, compost tea, the problems of genetically modified food — all of these interesting topics. We didn’t really have all the answers, but with permaculture I learned how to start researching and figure out where the local resources were. That’s how we got many movements started, including the seed movement, which got a lot of attention.
There was a seed movement in Cyprus before, a seed-saving group calledKyprion Sporoi who were doing work. But after our event — which we did in collaboration with the group Peliti from Greece— interest exploded. So we’ve continued working on that subject. We gather people to do a collective seed saving … so that’s a big part of the movement.
There’s these people I connected with through the seed events that have a big interest in seeds, and they are helping set up the network of heirloom seed in Cyprus a little bit better. So all sorts of specialists are coming closer, coming together and we collaborate on different projects. That’s what I love, two years later. I love the people. I love the collaborations that we’ve started in all sorts of subjects. Its not only Sofia, or Gabriel, or individuals separated, trying to do something. It’s a platform, it’s all these Facebook groups, and Dropbox common folders that people are sharing and updating, and events, event gatherings that we have … these are the important things that are happening now, big shifts.
LP: It sounds like the movement has grown tremendously.
SM: That’s what I feel. From people who want to get more information, to get more specialized to people who don’t really have any knowledge, but have a real interest. Now that we’re doing more events, these people — they are everyday people who might have a small interest, but they’re not really ready to do a big life transformation yet — but they have events to attend. And that’s what I like. They can attend a gardening project on a Saturday, or they can attend a talk on seeds, or a movie projection on genetically modified food.
So we have the collaborations, and many many ideas — endless ideas! — to keep on going with some events. Similar ideas to what I read in Transition Towns, the book that we talked about — similar community events that the author was proposing, to get your communities engaged. Get simple spaces, don’t rent, don’t pay big money, just get some spaces and get together and watch movies, and have a feast —which makes it fun.
LP: Who are the people who are involved? Is it mostly young people? Is it all generations?
SM: The positive thing is that I’m meeting a lot of young people through this, people who are starting their lives now, they want to build their houses … so last year, the project we did with Iliona Khalili — now we have one more tool, we have one more way to build houses. People who want to design houses more ecologically, they have a how-to.
And it attracted professionals too — architects and civil engineers and others. We are getting a lot out of that, because it means we’re not on our own. We want to rebel against the system, as you know. But we also want to make it resilient. So if we are going to make a difference, we must start by getting this knowledge out there, by convincing people that this is a very legitimate way to build your house.
LP: This is interesting — there is the question of how do you engage the broader community. You’ve got to engage the professionals, the architects and engineers, people who are connected to the established systems in some way.
SM: That’s a difference that I see. Before, probably there were initiatives that were happening, like seed saving groups, but there was resistance on their part to collaborate with the system in any way. Which didn’t really help get it out there. And that’s what I love in the groups I collaborate with. We know where we stand, we know that we reject certain structures that are not working, but we’re not pushing that in a way that would block knowledge from getting out there. We’re using the resources we have access to, like television shows, radio shows, the papers, we’re using all of these fun resources to connect with people. And its working. People have the interest, they just need to see you doing it so they can start trusting.
LP: It’s great because you have some demonstration projects that are actually working now. Can you tell me about the Earth Dome building?
SM: It’s a superadobe sandbag technique that we used with Iliona— it’s still not finished yet, we still have work, the fun work, the plastering and the waterproofing to do.
The technique [superadobe] actually makes a lot of sense for Cyprus. Cyprus traditionally had cob [plithari in Greek], but in terms of earthquakes — Cyprus is in an earthquake zone —superadobe is a very safe technique, and it’s a very fast technique as well.
I was hesitant at the beginning to be honest, but after we built it, I sensed how safe that structure was, just because of the geometry. It’s a circle, and then a dome — it’s pure math, pure physics that it works out. And then you can just play with materials, use the earth that you have locally.
We wanted to make the building a seed bank, so we decided that it needed to go somewhere cool. We chose not to put in a lot of windows and light. All the props that we used while building were used to make shelving, to make it easy for us to build an entire library of seeds. That was it. And that just made complete sense.
We were thinking with Iliona that it was going to be a demonstration room, that it was going to be three meters in diameter — but on its way there, it just claimed its role. It just gave me that message one day. I have all these seeds that I dry, all over the place, my house is becoming a seed storage…they need a house! And that’s perfect. And it is actually — it’s insulated, it has thick walls… on its own as a structure it just keeps warmth and cool out.
The design needed careful choices. It needed also some decisions. We ended up using some cement. When we conducted a soil test, we found that the soil here is almost pure sand — like zero clay. So that is not as safe a structure. So do I want that? Do I want to create something that’s going to collapse very soon under the rain? Or do I want to build something that would be safe also for me to be inside? So it’s the balancing of things. Another option of course would have been to bring clay in. Which I didn’t have the time to search for. So, you go with cement. Anyway it was 7–8 percent cement that we used for stability.
So all the decision-making — you observe what will work, what won’t work. When Thomaso came — one of the architects who was co-teaching the course — we ended up making huge changes, because we encountered problems that we never could have anticipated, and we had to deal with them. So it was a great experience to work on that.
We attracted so many people who were enthusiastic about natural building — unemployed people, students, recent graduates from architectural schools — we had a lot of specialists, which was so exciting! It was people-people, everyday people, who want to build their houses, but also specialists who studied architecture, civil engineers, electricians, you know, people who could do this professionally and could help us in the future.
Not everyone has the physical power to build a structure like this. So we had an idea: what if we had a more specialized group in Cyprus that has the skills, has the knowledge, has a civil engineer, an electrical engineer? And then they know the natural building method we want to apply in our houses? An organization that dedicates its energy to natural building, without the priority being the profit. We pay for materials, we will pay a part for the organization, and maybe that team could run on volunteers, who want to learn … and then we don’t have to kill ourselves because we don’t have the physical power to do it, either because of age, or because … we don’t! And we get a dome, an Earthship — this is another exciting project that’s being run as we speak.
Profit needs to exist; we need to be sustainable, we need to be resilient, and people need to live, and live decent lives. So there needs to be an earning, and we need honor the services that we’re being offered. But it doesn’t have to suffocate people with loans and stuff for people to have a house!
So, there’s options — do-it-yourself completely, collaborate with others, do it more “professionally” — I believe it’s good to always have options. And to not just say there’s only way you can do permaculture. You can do it in different ways.
L: I’m really curious about traditional building in Cyprus. Did you investigate, for example, how our grandfather used to build houses? I always wondered what happened, why did that change … I remember some of those old houses in the villages …
SM: When you go and see them, like up on Fikardou and other traditional villages, you can see the cob, and see the roofs — some of them used… the roofs were like living roofs, almost! What happened to that? It’s ….
L: I’m sure it was cheaper to build them out of concrete.
SM: We replaced that style of building completely. There use to be an entire design on the placement of a house. Interior yards and gardens that would cool off the house, and help ventilate the house; there would be structures … the house in Vyzakia was a great example of a very wise eco-design of a house. You have the storage underneath because it’s cooler, you have the animals underneath, but you use all the resources that they produce, you cycle them … houses were designed to help you function, not to demonstrate your possessions!
It’s so sad, because I’ve lived my life in concrete houses — it’s so sad to see that we could, just with a little bit more careful design, be saving tons of money from warming up and cooling down our houses, just by placing windows in the correct place! That thinking is not really a priority in many architects’ work.
L: I was just curious, because in the United States its been more generations since people used traditional building.
SM: There is an organization in Cyprus that I connected with after we did Iliona’ course called Geodomo. And it is focused on natural building. And they’re doing an excellent job reviving traditional Cypriot techniques with local materials, cob. Maria Kosti is doing her PhD in collaboration with the University of Cyprus on cob. So there’s great people coming out with these solutions, and I’m positive that the traditions in Cyprus are not being lost.
L: Tell me about your Indiegogo campaign.
SM: Well I’ve been involved in organizing seminars for the past year. The first course I organized up on the land was an introduction to permaculture. And we attracted about 15–18 people — there was good interest. That’s when I understood that people are ready for this. People want to know more about permaculture. That was actually a testing course to see if we were going to organize a PDC.
Then PDC itself came up with a different group of people! Which again confirmed that people were ready for that. Then it was Iliona’s course, last summer. Through all these courses that I’ve been facilitating and organizing, I’ve realized that we have a need. We want to keep these courses happening. But we also want to keep them affordable for people to take, because the people who need them more are the ones who, most of the time, cannot afford it.
Usually we go through a big discussion at the beginning when we develop each course. We ask ourselves, who wants to take this course? Is it unemployed people? If so, the cost needs to be low, but it can take place through a week. If it’s people who have work, then they can pay a little bit more, but it needs to be on a weekend. So we always need to think, you know, of the audience.
But we’ve observed that if its affordable it’s much more attended and appreciated by people. If we try to source our teachers every time from the UK, or Spain, or other places where we have connections to teach the PDCs, it’s not really sustainable. This cannot really go on a lot, because we have to think about the teachers’ wages, which are usually high, and the tickets and stuff. So with Gabriel we were thinking wouldn’t it be great to have the knowledge, the teaching, start from Cyprus?
And we also had the thought that apart from organizing some seminars on our own, it would be a great idea if we were certified teachers, then we could start pushing this knowledge through schools, through the education system.
I’ve already been invited in multiple schools, high schools, sometimes elementary schools, to do either a practical workshop — seed-saving and gardening, that stuff — or a lecture on permaculture. And people get excited with it. I see the potential. And if I am certified as a teacher, I can officially push things. I can say I’m certified, let me teach an afternoon course in the yearly teachings that you do — like my dad did his gardening training for a couple of years. Why not have permculture be like that? And you can’t really bring a teacher from Spain to do that throughout the year. It needs to be someone who lives in Cyprus.
It’s even better when you start getting the network, and getting to know what works in Cyprus and what doesn’t. Start accumulating knowledge that is useful to Cyprus. Building methods, gardening methods, trees that work best. Trees that work beautifully in the gardens of my friends in Greece don’t thrive here. But again it’s accumulating that knowledge and sharing it with people.
We are trying to get the education to happen, but at the same time we’re offering some perks that people might find interesting, like a PDC in Cyprus. For the PDC in Cyprus, we want to aim for Cyprus and regions with similar climatic conditions, dryland strategies, water harvesting, which are techniques that we are not employing on our land in the current agricultural system that we have in Cyprus, and we need to start doing it.
So we really want to gather all that knowledge and give to people. So that’s one of the things that people could get. Another perk is a suggested design for their homestead, or resources that they need for their own design that we could share with them. So there’s all these interesting things that people could get out of this campaign, so it could be a worldwide thing. It could be someone who is really curious about visiting Cyprus, and they want to do it through the PDC, so they might as well support this campaign.
We tried make it more global. Because anyway, it is global. Whatever we do in Cyprus doesn’t really stay in Cyprus. It’s like the effect gets multiplied and spread, from here to the nearby regions, and from there on.
Spread the word! We’ve been very honored by the response so far.
L: You mentioned Greece — Greece is in the news all the time because of its economic situation; Cyprus was in the news a couple of years ago. What is your perception now of the current economic situation and how does sustainability and resilience activism play into that in Cyprus and in Greece?
SM: Good question.
It’s a big relief. Two years ago, when we talked, it was the beginning of that panic: where is Cyprus going? Actually now I have a lot of trust in Cyprus, and not because of our politicians! I have trust in the people of Cyprus. That is inspiring right now.
I get to meet the older people, the more experienced people who are so generous, sharing their knowledge with us, showing us how to make hallumi,yogurt… showing us how to dry fruit, showing us how to tie chairs and make our own furniture…they’re so generous with that, so open with that, I feel so privileged to find that, because that’s one of the tools we need to keep on going. To know how to live on our own, and be independent. Like the parents of our parents did. They needed to sustain a family with what they had. They needed to find ways to preserve food, to keep food, to maintain it, to transform it — to do everything, because those were the resources they had.
And that’s what I believe could be a good solution in this crisis right now; learn to live with a little bit less, learn to live with the seasons, the local — and learning how to do these techniques…it matters! It counts, as one of the steps you can take to be able to sustain yourself. So I feel very optimistic that I see people having that interest, people having the interest to learn more about these tools, and recognizing that it’s not necessary to have access to expensive cars or big, double, three-story houses in order to be successful as a young person today.
I’ve been connected to so many people who, either because they were forced to be unemployed for a long time, or they are paid very minimal wages to offer their very specialized skills and apply their degrees that it took them years and lots of money to acquire — if I see those people, those very educated and aware people resonating with as simple a solution as this, that’s what makes me feel very optimistic that the crisis is being transformed into an opportunity to evolve, to develop.
And I don’t think of these solutions as going back in time at all. I consider it going back in time only in the sense that we connect with our truer selves — we are a part of nature. So we just connect with that. But at the same time we employ all the cool technologies of the 21st century, and we make our lives easier. We don’t have to live in caves! We can have electricity, the Internet, all these good things, but just — making it work together.
So these are all these exciting solutions I see, both in Cyprus and in Greece! In spite of the image that is thrown out there. Yes, Athens as a big city — it’s tough to transform Athens. And because of the lack of willingness of people to collaborate or change things. But visiting Greece, in other areas, or a little bit outside Athens, I see a completely different image from what is shown on the news, or what people tend to emphasize.
This summer, I visited good friends that live in communities or are developing projects in different parts of Greece. So I passed through Re-green, where I did my PDC… two years later there’s a huge transformation of the land, and I can see how they make their lives, how they make a living through organizing and educating people.
Then I went a bit further and I saw how another friend is able to make his living with a more natural lifestyle, by producing food. And I went to other friends I saw how they save a lot money by building their own structures. So they put the labor in, they get the knowledge, and they apply it, and they have a shelter, which is important!
And then I have another friend up in Komotini, who is a guru of seeds, and I see how simple things are, and how simple things can be. And that you could be more or less self-sustained in food, using a small plot of land, just by saving your own seeds, year by year. You make them stronger, you make them more resilient in those climatic conditions, you learn more what works in your land, you just make it happen. And then throughout the summer you have tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, watermelons, and you can feed your family out of your garden.
And it’s not only people who have nothing else to do — these are people with jobs, a teacher and a nurse. And at the same time, they run this project at their house, in a very simple way. It’s inspiring to see all sorts of solutions that people find. There’s not just one way to respond to this crisis. People have found many interesting ways.
L: There are new talks in Cyprus between the Greek and Turkish side. What are your thoughts about this? Do you have any hope that things will change for the better? How is the sustainability movement in Cyprus connected to this issue?
There are some changes that are happening. We need to be a little bit careful. What will these changes mean? Now there’s a change in the strictness of the checkpoint measures — things are getting a bit easier.
But what I think we need to focus on is the people, again. Despite what our political leaders want to do, or what their thoughts are on the “true solution,” it’s the people that we need to focus on.
I have a friend who is a psychologist, and he currently lives in Kyrenia [in the Turkish-controlled part of Cyprus]. And he had this great idea of getting a plot of land, and getting actions happening there to engage the local community, which is very underprivileged in that area. And he has this great idea of giving them simple tools, gardening tools, knowledge of growing some basic things, and at the same time offering community counseling services to help support those families who are dealing with very serious problems.
More projects like this, I believe would make a difference, and build those bridges between the two communities. This is what we need.
From my perspective, that is how I see things moving along. Bringing the knowledge more to the people, and empowering them that way, in both communities.