Rising from the ashes

By Argyro Nicolaou
Published on September 4, 2011
The Cyprus Mail

ON June 29, 2007, Cyprus saw one of the biggest, and fiercest forest fires in the island’s modern history devour 12 square kilometres of plant life in the Saittas area on the Troodos mountain range.

Four years on, efforts to reforest the area are well under way, carried out by a dedicated group of Forestry Department workers that are passionate about the forest’s restoration.

It is only after one looks at photographs taken just after the fire and compares them with the current state of Saittas, that the full import of this project becomes obvious. Thanks to the swift intervention of the Forestry Department and its sustained efforts to regenerate plant life in the area, the site is almost unrecognisable today.

Eight kilometres away, another Forestry Department project is breaking ground. The formerly barren Amiantos asbestos mine area, once described by novelist Lawrence Durrell as a “moon-landscape…against the side of a mountain which has been clumsily raped” has began blooming with green shrubs, cedar trees and wild bushes.

Assistant regional forestry officer Marios Christodoulou, who leaded the department’s fire fighting effort in 2007 and who is part of the Amiantos project, gave the Sunday Mail a tour of both sites, exhibiting the Forestry Department’s handling of two equally difficult, yet radically different cases of reforestation.

Efforts to regenerate the Saittas forest began immediately after its destruction, according to Christodoulou.

“Our first concern after the fire was to avoid the problem of erosion, a necessary first step towards reforesting the area,” Christodoulou said. He explained that the surface run-off of water and other hard materials caused by the fire not only threatened private properties in the Saittas valley below but also affected the soil’s fertility. This made the planning of anti-erosion works the department’s top priority.

“The anti-erosion techniques used at the Saittas site were unprecedented by Cypriot standards,” Christodoulou said. The Forestry Department avoided using artificial means to contain run-off, and preferred using natural materials that were less invasive and left nature to its own devices. “We used tree trunks to stop erosion on the slopes and near river banks, and we also employed a method that consists of filling wire containers with rocks that act like filters and stop any hard material from running off,” he added.

The same attitude prevailed in the department’s assessment of seeding options. “We chose to employ environment-friendly methods of reforestation, avoiding the use of mechanical means of cultivation,” said Christodoulou.

The only exception to this was the use of mini diggers, which were used to create furrows that helped farmers restore their crops. The techniques otherwise followed were random sowing, where seeds are thrown in areas where digging is not possible, and targeted sowing, which entails depositing seeds in specially-made dug outs. Some areas were even left untouched due to the existence of mature seeds which facilitated natural seeding.

Reforesting Amiantos is a different matter altogether. Eighty four years of extracting asbestos - the mine began its operation in 1904 and shut down in 1988 - turned the site into a barren wasteland, making the ground toxic to all plant life. The imminent threat of landslides also meant that the plan drawn up for the site’s restoration provides first for the stabilisation of the tip slopes and then for the reforestation of the whole area, with the aim of bringing the environment as close as possible to its original condition.

To do this, fertile topsoil is brought in to cover the terraced surfaces of the slope, which are then sown with a mixture of seeds, often using the method of hydro-seeding. Hydro-seeding utilises a slurry of seed and mulch and is a particularly effective planting method since it makes the seeds ‘stick’ onto the mountain’s steep, inaccessible slopes. The soil brought to the Amiantos site is usually taken from land plot clearing sites or road-widening works, something that adds significantly to the cost of the project.

“We spend approximately 500 to 600,000 euro a year on the rehabilitation of the Amiantos mine, and this sum covers the restoration of around seven to ten hectares of land,” Christodoulou said.

Up to now, the Forestry Department has completed the rehabilitation of approximately 100 hectares of the total 332 to be reforested.

Reforestation, however, is only the beginning of the development of the Amiantos mining site. The Forestry Department is set to receive a two million euro grant from the European Union and Norway that will go towards further improving the site, and will also reinforce reforestation efforts. The recently inaugurated Botanical Gardens - housed in what was formerly the mine’s telegraph and communications building and made possible by a donation of the Leventis Foundation - is a great example of the forestry department’s ingenuity, as well as of its dedication to conserving and protecting the island’s flora. There are also plans to set up a ‘geo-park’ on the site, which will act as an information centre on Troodos’ biological and geological importance.

“The Amiantos restoration project is a very ambitious programme. There have been no similar projects in Cyprus, and so the Forestry Department has had no prior experience with such cases. However, the results are extremely encouraging and we have received positive feedback from abroad,” Christodoulou said.

Part of the Amiantos site is also being used for the development of genetic material of two species - the cedar tree and the juniper tree unique to Cyprus. Sites exclusively dedicated to these species are used as genetic material procuration labs as a preventative method.

There are currently 16 forestry officials working exclusively at Amiantos, while twelve people and two to three water tankers are employed at the Saittas area.

What is particularly remarkable is the surrounding communities’ contribution in the effort to rehabilitate the forest and mine. Most notably, shortly after the fire took place at Saittas, the Forestry Department dug 20,000 small pits which were then planted by independent organised groups and members of the village communities near Saittas.

Driving through the fire-ravaged Saittas area, Christodoulou remarked that five years ago before the fire, what is now a scorching hot route was completely under shade - indicating the severe damage caused to the forest in 2007. Yet hundreds of tiny pine trees shyly making their way out of the soil and into the sunshine are proof of the success of the Forest Department’s dedication.

“A second failure in the area will degrade it completely. We are now focusing on fire protection and preventative methods, particularly since a lot of the growth in the Saittas mountains and valley is highly flammable, and the conditions are not the best,” Christodoulou said.

“It just goes to show how great a loss it is when there is a fire in the forest. A forest, which takes 100 years to grow, can be destroyed in under an hour,” he said.