A local community grapples with increasing social and environmental pressures that are changing the balance between rights and responsibilities.
WORDS Léa Denieul-Pinsky | IMAGES Thomas Ravessoud
The right to have responsibility, the responsibility to have rights. This is what emerges when I reflect on the moments shared at kitchen tables, on the phone, in bars, and fields with Kalamos islanders. In November of 2017, as an eager master’s student, I set out to document how residents of this small island in the inner Ionian Archipelago of southern Greece associated with the local environment and how such multi-layered associations related to their experiences of well-being. The project was conducted in collaboration with a local conservation organization, the Kalamos and Kastos Sustainable Development Project (KKSDP), and its affiliate, the European Rewilding Network.
The island and its inhabitants were facing increasing amounts of pressure. Being sparsely populated, Kalamos was perceived as a goldmine for large-scale wind and solar farms. Furthermore, industrial fish farms were competing to gain a foothold in the area, backed by corporate interests and government policies that critics accused of negligence and corruption. In 2011, most of the Natura 2000 GR2220003 biological reserve, in which Kalamos is included, was designated as an industrial aquaculture production zone — a designation that was met with strong protests by the local population. From public assemblies of local communities to academic studies on the management of fisheries, there has been a call for stricter legislation concerning the marine reserve. To this end, the KKSDP wanted to involve the community in environmental management decisions. To accomplish that, the project needed to find out which natural areas mattered to the people living on Kalamos and why.
So, there I was, trying to find my small way to contribute to this effort. Interviews usually happened around a map on which islanders identified areas they perceived as culturally significant and then linked them to different aspects of well-being, such as relaxation, social connections, or spirituality. Residents were invited to identify places where they felt the island’s ecosystems were threatened and the restorative aspects that would potentially be lost. I would ask: “Why have you selected that area?” “How do you feel there?” “What does it allow you to do?” As it turned out, people’s responses steered the interview process in a different and, admittedly, more interesting direction.
It became clear that islanders were not really talking about well-being per se but more about their ability to maintain a healthy relationship with the ecosystems around them. As a “nona,” or grandmother, explained, “Growing up on Kalamos I learned all about nature. The different species of flowers, their smell, how to use them in cooking or for medicine. I also learned about the different animals that live here and how they feed themselves. From buying fresh fish every day, you learn about which are resident, which are migratory. You understand food much better this way when it is put in a wider context.”.
People explained that the benefits from being on the land or sea resulted from a balance between responsibilities (what we are giving) and our rights (what we are taking).
People explained that the benefits they drew from being on the land or sea were neither linear nor set in stone. On the contrary, they resulted from a balance between responsibilities (what we are giving) and our rights (what we are taking). In this connection, positive place-based associations, such as purity or cleanliness, were tied to care-oriented cultural practices like gathering olives, lemons, firewood, or camping out on the land without leaving anything behind. The quietness, residents explained, was a way to connect with the landscape but also to themselves. “The blue of the water, the green of the trees, everything comes together, and that makes it wonderful and unique,” explains a retired restaurant owner nearing his eighty-first birthday. “Being in these places helps me reconnect with myself. It’s like meditation.”
Beyond aesthetics, islanders described a sense of affiliation with their surrounding environment. “It’s always inside me, wherever I go,” says one fisherman. A native farmer also described her house and land in such terms. In the shade of an olive tree on her farm, as she looked around at her goats and chickens grazing, she said, “The land has been passed down from my father. I put my heart and soul into this land to raise livestock and feed my family good clean food. On a very personal level, it is everything for me.”
The balance between rights and responsibilities, however, was shifting with changing social and environmental circumstances. The older native residents I conversed with were adamant that responsible practices must be tailored to the needs of the land so that they may continue to exercise their rights. Conflicts over jurisdiction, on the other hand, are making it harder to maintain this delicate balance, as the deprivation of rights prevents people from exerting their responsibilities. Several different laws have usurped the rights of Kalamos residents over the years, so they cannot perform their responsibilities toward the local ecosystems as they used to.
Deprivation of rights prevents people from exerting their responsibilities.
In particular, the fact that the Greek government has leased part of the seascape to corporations has been perceived as culturally alienating and destructive. One man who had been fishing for almost fifty years asserted, “The local government doesn’t care; they get subsidies from the European Union and slip the money in their pockets. Meanwhile they let foreign workers take over our seas and drive the wild fish away.” Impeding residents’ access to, and responsibilities toward, their native ecosystems was perceived by many as a loss of purpose and accomplishment. Fishing, as a native fisherman explains it, “gives me a purpose in life. I never went to school. The only thing I’m good at is fishing.”
The depletion of the sea and the arrival of the fish farms have led to intense competition of fishermen for the best fishing spots. One resident discloses, “Some fishermen even fish illegally in breeding season, so the fish populations don’t have time to regenerate. I know because my father is one of those fishermen. Sometimes, he brings home fish with loads of eggs inside them. He doesn’t care, he likes them because they are bigger.” Although the fishermen interviewed denied this, they did talk about a disconnect from older fishing traditions, when people did not fish all year round and worked more in harmony with the patterns of nature. In turn, the native fishermen accused the new residents of the island of illegal fishing activities, such as night fishing, when the fish are easier to catch. The rising tension reached its peak a few weeks before my arrival, when the school teacher’s dog was poisoned. In the village, word was that this act was a warning to put a stop to her reckless fishing practices, such as fishing in breeding season, night fishing, and poaching. “That’s how they settle things here,” sighs one fisherman.
The challenge for Kalamos residents was how to reclaim communal land-based rights and responsibilities. Should it be through the legal quest for rights or through the physical enactment of land-based responsibilities? Could one do both?
“Fighting for something takes energy and I don’t think that anyone is willing to do that,” says a nurse whose parents still live on Kalamos. This sentiment of inertia and powerlessness was echoed by many. “They just continue to do what they do, and if people react, they even bring in security forces. That is not very just, is it?” observes one man who claims he has moved away from his native island because the tensions with the local government made him feel disrespected. The mistrust in the municipal government that residents described seemed to arise from a 2011 government reform that grouped Kalamos with the municipality of Lefkada, a larger neighboring island, instead of recognizing it as an independent municipal unit. Lefkada has forty-five times more residents than Kalamos and a different culture.
The challenge for Kalamos residents was how to reclaim communal land-based rights and responsibilities.
Many residents expressed their skepticism that an outside government would even understand their concerns. They told me stories of failed construction projects, such as the installation of mud-retaining barriers, which were meant to protect the main road from landslides coming down the mountains during stormy weather but were promptly ripped apart by the wind. The barriers were not made robust enough, people claimed, because the Lefkada municipal government was unaware that the weather conditions on Kalamos differ significantly from those on Lefkada.
Even more problematic was the illegal trash site, located right along a seven-kilometer traditional pilgrimage route to the Church of the Virgin Mary in the village of Kefali. According to residents, this trash site was supposed to be for temporary storage until the waste was shipped away to the permanent disposal site on the mainland, but that plan never materialized. The trash just accumulates until someone sets it on fire deliberately or it catches fire because of constant sun exposure. The smell of burnt plastic is perceivable for kilometers all around, but the community council and the local government have failed to address the problem. The lack of trust and disappointment in elected officials is felt by native and recent residents alike. One baffled homemaker shares, “In the village, there are so many ideas for a better life: Can we do something about the fish farms? Can we do something about the trash? I’ve been here for five years and nothing has changed. What are they waiting for?”
Returning to land-based practices and enacting and maintaining responsibilities seemed to be a more promising avenue, especially in the eyes of the older generation of people still living on Kalamos. The problem was that this generation, who had been keeping cultural traditions alive on the island, was passing away, and the new people moving in from the mainland didn’t have the same connection to the place. According to many of the older residents, islanders are free to do as they please, but the newcomers and the younger generation of residents don’t protect things because they don’t appreciate their value. “Growing up on a small island, you learn to respect other members of the community and the nature around us. Because so much of our lives depended on working the land, we had a greater respect for nature,” reflects the nona.
The new people moving in from the mainland didn’t have the same connection to the place.
When asked, the younger residents argue that they don’t disregard nature but would rather see money invested in making Kalamos a more comfortable place to live. Tending the land is time-consuming, and most of the younger generation has left the island to find work in Athens. Those who remain are not numerous enough to care for their own land and that of their neighbors. Furthermore, gaining a stable revenue from fishing has become increasingly precarious due to the interference of the commercial fish farms on the island. Those who do not work for the commercial fish farms are pushed farther and farther away from the island in search of wild fish. One twenty-seven-year-old man who recently moved back to Kalamos from Athens commented, “You know, it’s not easy to live on Kalamos, in the sense that it’s not very practical. We don’t have more than a school here, so kids have to wake up very early to catch the ferry for the mainland that leaves at 6:30. We have no hospital, no firemen, no police. If someone needs help, they cannot find it on Kalamos.”
My conversations on Kalamos made it clear that there wasn’t a unanimous, coherent picture of the issues at hand and that community perspectives were shifting. While most residents agreed that the fish farms and the trash site should go, they had different opinions on what the future should look like. Most notably, there seemed to be tensions between those attached to reviving traditional practices and those who felt they would benefit more from new infrastructure developments. This disconnect hinders biocultural resurgence efforts. As one livestock owner puts it, “There is a loss of community feeling, which is linked to how people treat the environment.”
Enacting our responsibilities will inevitably be limited if our decision-making rights are not recognized and valued by larger governmental entities.
Land-based rights and responsibilities may appear to be separate elements. Yet, what I heard from Kalamos residents — older and younger, native and new — suggests that, in reality, rights and responsibilities are better thought of in relation to each other. A quest solely for rights may sap our energy and prevent us from exercising our responsibilities toward the land. Meanwhile, enacting our responsibilities will inevitably be limited if our decision-making rights are not recognized and valued by larger governmental entities. Moreover, this relationship is dynamic, evolving as it does according to changing environmental and societal pressures. A strong community, one that bridges the gap between the older and the younger generations, and native residents and new arrivals, will likely be more resilient and better equipped to re-envision and re-assert their relationships to rights and responsibilities in response to those changing pressures.
Léa Denieul-Pinsky holds a master’s in cultural geography from the Wageningen Research Institute in the Netherlands. Increasingly conscious of the pressures that Indigenous communities face from governments and industrial development, for her PhD research at Concordia University, she is working with Kanyen’kehà:ka (Mohawk) activists to map land dispossession from archival records and amplify Land Back campaigns.