Rewilding Greek Islands: an interview with Ted Karfakis from Terra Sylvestris
4th June 2017 by Marta Noblejas
Off the west coast of mainland Greece are found two small islands, Kalamos and Kastos. Ted Karfakis and his organisation are trying to preserve and restore their biodiversity, bring environmental justice and ensure sustainable development through rewilding.
Kalamos and Kastos are in the heart of a marine Natura 2000 site, and the area has been considered one of the most important bird areas in Greece by BirdLife International. Both islands are inhabited, but have small human populations. Ted Karfakis is the head of the board of directors and scientific advisor of Terra Sylvestris, a non-governmental not-for-profit organization focused on the sustainable development of these islands.
Ted is a local ecological scientist who worked in scientific research and consultancy in areas like the Amazon and Atlantic forest for years, and decided to take action alongside the local community when the future of the islands was put at risk. “In 2011, the government decided to declare most of the area, which is the second largest marine protected area in the country, as a zone for the development of industrial aquaculture. Since then, Greek environmental legislation has only served to catalize this further.
Terra Sylvestris was created because of this situation, and is a local grassroots organisation. The local people here have historical rights to the resources of the islands which they should claim and we want to be the catalyst behind that.”
One of Terra Sylvestris’ main goals is to rewind the tape. The islands have a huge potential for habitat restoration due to the very low population combined with the almost non-existent agriculture, with the main economic activity being low impact tourism. “We want to stop the advancement of aquaculture in this area. There are threatened ecosystems and threatened species, and this is probably one of the last strongholds of marine megafauna in the continent.
Unfortunately, because of the important natural fisheries and areas suitable for the development of aquaculture farms, combined with a large relatively recent coastal population in the adjacent mainland and modernization and intensification of fishing in Greece and the Mediterranean in recent decades, this area is a pressure point. We want to stop that and bring back the fish stocks and the wildlife through a sustainable development project.
In addition, the islands are also under pressure from the wind farming industry, especially in the more sensitive mountainous areas. This activity does not have the consent of local communities despite repeated efforts by the government to promote it. We believe the mountains should be rewilded and not converted to wind farms. This is in an area of great importance for biological diversity and should be treated as such.”
Terra Sylvestris has the support of the local communities, and these islands are at the frontline of the expanding aquaculture farms in Greece, while also dealing with pressures on land. "Our project has a lot to do with solving conflicts. These lands were and still are ultimately abandoned family agricultural plots, except for small patches which were always forest or scrub.
We are trying to find a way to help the forest and species come back. In the sea, we want to protect the ecosystem that is still here, but we can already see the lights from the fish farms - in the distance - from where we work here on Kalamos."
One of the things Terra Sylvestris wants to encourage is ecotourism. "This area had almost no tourism 30 years ago, but now it is starting to increase. We want to put the area on the main tourism track and promote more tourism which also benefits biodiversity. This area still has whales and dolphins. On some of the boat trips people say that they see whales, seals and dolphins very frequently.”
These islands are rich in biodiversity and Ted Karfakis wants to do more research, to know exactly what they have to protect. “We are mapping ecosystems on land and sea using GIS and direct observation. There is also an old scientific peer reviewed publication with results that suggest the presence of a colony of monk seals in the area, and we are trying to find this colony. We are collecting evidence that will help us to protect this area in a variety of ways - including legally."
The Kalamos and Kastos islands sustainable development plan includes developing sustainable alternatives for economic growth.
"The whole area is now rewilding, since the islands used to have many more people, and now there are only around 300 of us; relatively large areas have been given over to nature and the forest is coming back.
For the people who are still here in the islands we would like to have a more sustainable model of living, do some forests gardens, develop some agro-forestry systems and promote permaculture.
This will also provide viable economic alternatives for the people of the mainland involved in aquaculture and other destructive fishing practices such as trawling, and in the long term we believe it can replace destructive practices."
Kalamos and Kastos sound fantastic, and Terra Sylvestris accepts volunteers to help them out with their research, so if you are looking for things to do this summer, check out their website and help spread the word about their work!
Website: Terra Sylvestris
All photos are credited to Ted Karfakis and used with permission.