ECOCLUB

ISSN 1108-8931

INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY

Year 5-Issue 53, Oct 2003

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The ECOCLUB Interview
Index of Interviews

Ms Eleni Svoronou
Capacity Building Officer, WWF Greece

Eleni Svoronou is responsible for the Capacity Building program of WWF Greece. A major part of her work in the organisation is devoted to ecotourism as a vehicle for nature conservation. More specifically her work on ecotourism, for WWF, has included:
- The coordination of a study commissioned by the Greek National Tourism Organisation on ecotourism in Greece
- The design and organisation of an international conference in Athens on the concept of carrying capacity
- A manual on ecotourism for the Management Bodies of the National Parks of Greece
- Design and implementation of workshops on ecotourism, addressed to local communities and other interested parties.
- Articles, papers and conference presentations on ecotourism in Greece.
- This work is based on the experience of the conservation projects of WWF Greece in the field.


Eleni is also the author of children's books, guidebooks and articles on ecology, archaeology and conservation. 

WWF Greece, an independent national organisation of the WWF international network, was founded in 1990. Its mission is the conservation of the Greek natural heritage. WWF Greece works on multiple levels including (a) field work in selected ecologically sensitive areas, (b) advocacy and policy work and (c) awareness, communication and environmental education. WWF Greece, with the support of its approximately 15.000 active members, has achieved major successes, such as the protection of endangered species and habitats under threat, the halt of destructive development projects. It has also contributed in the rationalisation of the management of Greek protected areas. WWF Greece views and uses Ecotourism as a means of conservation and as an alternative to unsustainable development of protected areas.

 

If you were to choose three main achievements of WWF in Greece, what would they be, and what obstacles had to be overcome?

E. Svoronou: I would choose the most long term achievements, the ones that are less visible and, unfortunately, the most difficult to communicate to people:
(a) The long-term field projects of the organisation in wetland, forest and coastal ecosystems. The two more successful ones could be considered to be the projects in the Dadia forest (N.E.Greece) and in Prespa (N.W. Greece). These projects managed to achieve high standards in conservation work, involvement of local communities and ecotourism. Considering the fact that 10 years ago local communities in Greece were uninformed and sceptical about the ecological movement, it required a lot of effort, time and ongoing work to make these projects work and to develop a sense of ownership in the local communities. An element of these projects, which is easier to communicate, concerns the protection of species. When the organisation started working in these areas, the numbers of the birds of prey in the Dadia forest and of pelicans in the Prespa National Park were decreasing. WWF, through its long term work in these areas, managed to reverse this tendency and secure healthy and sustainable populations of these species.
(b) The organisation's contribution to people's awareness of the ecological issue. WWF Greece has managed to mobilise, one way or another, more than 50,000 supporters in various conservation efforts and "hot issues", such as the campaign against the diversion of the River Acheloos, the campaign for the protection of the forests, the campaign for toxics, etc.
(c) The organisation's contribution to the establishment of the first 25 National Parks of Greece, with their respective management bodies.
WWF Greece has achieved to become a player in various decision and policy-making bodies. Its voice is being taken seriously. However, there is still a long way to go to see its advice and recommendations taken seriously and being implemented in public policy.

In your view, how protected are Greek Protected Areas today from: arson, hunting, property developers, pollution (chemical, light & sound)? What could prevent new protected areas, such as the so-called "Natura 2000 network" ending as little more than paper parks?

E. Svoronou: The questions are very relevant at this initial stage of the Natura 2000 network and the National Parks in Greece. To answer the first question about what is happening today, I would say that up until now Protected Areas were not protected in a systematic way. I do not mean that there was no protection at all. But protection fell into the responsibility of different competent authorities, there were no coherent management plans, guarding systems and conservation strategies. As a result, the degree of protection depended upon the specific conditions of each Protected Area. The general picture is that Protected Areas were insufficiently protected from all the threats you mentioned. Illegal hunting, illegal building, road construction, and, in general, uncontrolled development (often related to tourism) are the commonest threats. The laws to protect the environment exist. The implementation of the laws is the problem. In the Marine National Park of Zakynthos, to give one example, there are still illegal buildings in the habitat of the sea turtle, Caretta.
The Natura 2000 network and the recent establishment of the 25 National Parks (under the E.U. Directive 92/43) is a very positive step taken by the Ministry of the Environment. WWF Greece, with the collaboration of other environmental NGOs has pressed for the establishment of these Parks and their management bodies. It was about time. Greece has been extremely late to rationalise its Protected Areas management. Now, to what degree these management bodies will succeed in their role to protect the natural heritage of the Parks and to stimulate sustainable development in their areas remains to be seen. WWF Greece is represented in some of these management bodies. We will make our best to help these institutions work effectively. There are serious constraints, such as the availability of funds and the lack of sufficient expertise in conservation work. As long as the priority is the conservation of nature and the well being of the local communities, they will succeed. If, however the, well known in Greece, clientelistic practices and bureaucracy prevail, the results may be disappointing. The organisation will contribute and work for the management bodies, but it will keep its independent judgement and voice. We hope for the best. We will work for the best.

Tourists in Greek Protected Areas: on horses or trojan horses?

E. Svoronou: Horses, if properly managed, Trojan horses if left in the "law of the market". With the recent trend of ecotourism, tourism in Protected Areas has increased. It is mainly Greek tourists who visit these areas in the mainland. Fortunately, the numbers are not frightening. The 50.000 annual tourists in the Dadia forest do not compare to the 600.000 tourists of the Marine National Park of Zakynthos! The mainland is still relatively safe from a large influx of tourism. However, even these relatively small numbers, if not managed properly, can become a threat. What is more important, is to prevent the uncontrolled development that even a few tourists can stimulate. Hotel and rooms construction has to be rationalised. Environmental standards in tourism infrastructure have to be introduced in the tourism business sector. Visitor management tools have to be applied. Marketing and "de-marketing" policies to address seasonality have to be thought of. Capacity building opportunities for local communities have to be developed. If we start thinking and acting about all these aspects of tourism in Protected Areas, we might head towards the right direction, towards the "on horses" and not the "Trojan horses" role of tourists.

Each time wildlife conservation makes the news in Greek TV stations, it is when the obligatory 'local' is 'confessing' live to credulous TV reporters that "The Ecologists" arrived from Athens and released wild animals (wolves, snakes, bears etc.) who then harmed our live stock and crops". Is the problem just a lack of personal financial interest for locals out of wildlife conservation, or a deeper political-cultural resentment towards central authority, and affluent, urban-types who do not like hunting?

E. Svoronou: It is amazing how much widespread is this story about ecologists releasing wolves and snakes! As if ecologists could put wolves in a bag and release them in nature! The fact that these stories are believed by many locals shows that there is still a mistrust towards the "ecologists". The mere word "ecologist" in Greece has a negative overtone. It describes conservationists as fanatical people who care for nature and hate people. It is true in the past the conservation movement made mistakes. It did not take enough into consideration the human aspect of nature conservation. Now things have changed. We talk about people and nature, about sustainable development, not about the pelicans and the black vultures. And if we do talk about them, we use them as "indicators" for a healthy ecosystem where man and nature are in harmony. Still, however, we have not found the proper "language" to communicate with local communities. Every local community and every sector of local community has its own values, needs and fears. We have to understand them and "put ourselves in their shoes" before we communicate our conservation message. Very often it is a lack of time and resources that prevent us from doing this thorough investigation. Local communities are not homogenous and have varying attitudes towards ecology, conservation and protected areas. Not all of them believe in stories like the ones you mentioned. Some of them are asking to enlarge their Natura 2000 sites to include greater areas! Therefore, we have to work with every local community on the basis of their specific values, needs and fears.

Greek Environmental Organisations: cooperating or competing for limited funds and limited government & public attention?

E. Svoronou: We certainly cooperate, especially in major issues, like our campaign for the case of Schinias (against the construction of the rowing center for the Olympic Games), or the case of the Natura 2000, the establishment of the National Parks and the management bodies. WWF Greece takes an active role in coordinating the collaboration of NGOs in these campaigns. We believe in joining forces. On the other hand it is true we are competitors in raising funds from the government, the citizens, the European Union etc. It is a time of economic crisis and financial resources, especially from the private sector, are limited. Sometimes we join efforts there, too. We may collaborate on a project and submit it for funding by the E.U. In this case we collaborate mainly because we want to share expertise and secondly because we increase our chances to get the funding. No matter if "the pie" is limited and if it has to be cut in smaller pieces, we believe that each NGO has its own niche and expertise. At the end of the day, our final purpose is the environment and the sustainable development. Our survival as organisations is the means to this end, not an end in itself.

2004 Olympic Games in Athens: the last opportunity for a greener city gone to waste? WWF and other Greek NGOs were unable to stop Olympic construction in the Schinias marsh, an important bird & archaeological area, despite an international campaign. Were any lessons drawn that would allow for better NGO tactics / coordination in the future?

E. Svoronou: We might not have stopped the construction of the rowing centre altogether, but we have improved the plan considerably. Some of our proposals have been taken into consideration. The lesson learnt, in this case, in my opinion, is that our society still values development at any cost more than nature, history and quality of life. What could we have done better? This campaign, as you say, gained international support and still the project went on. The failure of the rowing centre to function properly due to strong winds, last August, proved we were right. The only lesson to be learnt is that our society has a long way to go before it places real ethical values and, after all, reason above the short term interests. Meanwhile we, NGOs, have a lot of work to do.

Transboundary Protected Areas in the Balkans / the Mediterranean: Mission Impossible? Do national & security sensitivities affect conservation, and your organisation's work in border areas, or do you overcome this via cooperation with your colleagues across the border wire?

E. Svoronou: I was wondering whether I should put it as one of the three successes of the organization's work, so I am happy you raise this question now. WWF Greece has worked systematically for the establishment of the Prespa Park, which is a pioneering effort of collaboration between three Balkan countries for the management of the Prespa wetland ecosystem. The three countries are Albania, FYROM and Greece. The Prespa Park was established in 2000 and the transnational coordination committee has already started to work effectively and take action on the protection of the common wetland. So it can be done! It requires a lot of effort and in some cases transboundary collaboration for nature protection might not be possible if political issues are very hot. We hope the case of the Prespa Park will become a promising precedent for other collaborations.
The international WWF network has a special section that works on cross-Mediterranean issues and is based in Rome. It puts emphasis, among other sectors, on capacity building and exchange programs between the Mediterranean countries of the North and the South. This program is called "Across the Waters" and is worth a visit in their Internet site. [ www.atw-wwf.org ]. So there are opportunities for transboundary collaborations. Let us start from the "easy" cases where there are no strong political tensions!

A few years ago the Greek environmental movement succeeded in briefly installing a vice minister for the Environment, (a former head of Greenpeace Greece) who later confessed it was not many actions that he could get through. If you, or a colleague, from WWF Greece, were to be appointed as Minister in a future government, what would be your Nr. 1 priority and how would you go about it?

E. Svoronou: I will speak for myself. As a Minister of Environment my Nr.1 priority would be to rationalise the spatial development pattern, the land use and building regulations throughout the country. Illegal building and anarchy in spatial planning is a major problem. Since I do not know enough about this complex issue, I will elaborate on my priority Nr. 2 which would be to make the 25 National Parks and their management bodies work effectively. I would try to raise some funds to support their start and I would make sure the management bodies start prioritising their actions according the conservation needs of each area. My initial action plan would include:
1. A conference addressed to the 25 management bodies on the issue of their "financial sustainability". I would call directors from a few National Parks of Europe and experts from Greece to share their experience with them. I would organise the conference in small workshops so that the managers of the Protected Areas would get a chance to practice on various scenarios on their financial sustainability.
2. I would stimulate the "Commission Nature 2000", an independent advisory body that has been established to support the management bodies of the National Parks and the Natura 2000 network, to take an active role in supporting the managers of the National Parks through advice, guidelines, capacity building, proper evaluation systems, etc.
3. I would make sure that all management bodies function with transparency in all sectors (hiring staff, prioritising action, etc.)
4. I would ask a 3 year plan from all the management bodies making it clear that priority should be given to nature conservation and not to peripheral activities (communication, promotion of tourism, etc.) I would add more but since it is not probable I will be asked to become a Minister of the Environment, I will stop here!

The WWF in Greece has an active Volunteer Program. This may be good for motivating urban, cafe-dwelling affluent youths, but wouldn't it be wiser in the long term, to employ poorer rural youths in and around protected areas?

E. Svoronou: Our Volunteer Program is not for the urban, café-dwelling affluent youths. It is open to all youths. Especially in our summer camps, there are participants from all over the country. They live on very low budget, they share the everyday housework and they work together on a common task that involves manual work. Very few café-dwelling youths, of the mentality you imply, can give up their comforts. So, by definition, our volunteer camps address youths who are active, have an ideology, can share responsibilities and work together. No matter what is their background, we cultivate an ethos of living together, sharing and protecting the environment. Our volunteers come from all different parts of the country and they enjoy it a lot. Having said that, young people who are inhabitants of a Protected Area have less interest in spending some time of their holiday to work in the same area. It is natural that this type of activity is more attractive to young people from other areas who take the opportunity to get to know another part of Greece. But in terms of social and economic background, we have all kind of young people.

Environmental Education in Greek public schools, does it exist? Should it exist within schools and taught by public teachers, or should it be left to NGOs and taught by enviro activists outside schools?


E. Svoronou: Environmental Education exists in the Greek school system on a voluntary basis. Teachers and students who want to participate in Environmental Education projects, they can do it outside the official curriculum and they get a small financial support from the Ministry. It is good that schoolteachers teach it but it is also good if NGOs (no matter how much activists they are) support their work through material, transfer of knowledge and direct participation. Students should be exposed to the work of NGOs and judge by themselves their credibility. I sense in your question scepticism whether public teachers are appropriate to teach Environmental Education and whether they would deprive it of its "activist" aspect. Maybe you are afraid that they implement Environmental Education in a mild, passive way. Well, we are clear about it: all environmental education projects should lead to some kind of action. Whether teachers lead their teams to do it or not is a matter of their personal attitudes and values. NGOs are not necessarily the best to do this because they have got very limited time to work with the students. Unfortunately, there is a scepticism on behalf of the Ministry of Education towards the NGOs and their involvement in the school program.

What do you find most appealing about your job, and what keeps you going?

E. Svoronou: The cause I work for: people and environment. Mainly the fact that we have a philosophy that includes alleviation of poverty, equal distribution of wealth and natural resources, sustainable development, peace and respect to the "other". We envisage a different pattern of development of the world. What else is more rewarding than working for a cause and your personal ideology? Major source of motivation is also people: working with people of the same philosophy.

Is there anything else you would like to add, such as future events / initiatives?

E. Svoronou: I will mention the plans of the capacity building initiative. Capacity building initiatives include workshops, seminars, "schools", publications etc. Our future plans include, among others, a 7-day school on wetland management and ecotourism. Anyone who is interested in getting more information about capacity building may contact us. Thank you very much and congratulations for this excellent work you do through ECOCLUB. It is based on solid views and ideas!

Thank you very much.

for further details please contact

Ms. Eleni Svoronou
Capacity Building Officer, WWF Greece, 
26 Filellinon St.,Athens, 105 58 - Greece
Email: e.svoronou@wwf.gr
tel: +30 210 33 14 893
fax: +30 210 32 47 578


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