Protecting our shores is our right (Cyprus)
Melissa Hekkers talks with Maria Hadjimichael for the Cyprus Weekly
A draft bill under discussion in Parliament seeking to include the sea in the definition of the term ‘real estate’ so as to assist coastal developments, has prompted multiple concerns that go further than fears our public beaches and natural heritage will be ‘privatised’.
At one level, the concern may justifiably be an ecological one. But for people such as Maria Hadjimichael, it’s not just an environmental issue but also a matter of social justice and democracy.
As a graduate of environmental sciences and PhD in Marine and Fisheries Governance, Hadjimichael soon realised that environmental destruction is a political problem. This led her to follow a social sciences approach and call herself a political ecologist.
“I try to understand and critique the politics of environmental destruction and focus on the marine environment and the politics around it,” Hadjimichael tells the paper.
At the same time, she see people’s environmental and social rights being inter-related, yet, as she attests, “the problem today is that we live in a world where the word ‘growth’ (economic growth) is being thrown at us as a necessity for our lives to be fulfilled and in order to be happy.”
Her decision to reach out to the general public about the bill and its consequence is driven by the conviction that as people, “we end up in a vicious circle where we work to produce things we don’t need, destroy the environment in the meantime – since we need to find more space or materials to produce these things and help a few rich people accumulate more profit”.
Admittedly, this is a difficult circle to jump out of, but, as she says, the first step to taking action is primarily, to understand it. “My work as a political ecologist but also as an active citizen tries to combine both, fighting for environmental and social rights,” she affirms.
The bill at hand
The specific bill entitled ‘Regulation which Amends the Town and Urban Planning Laws of 1972 to 2013’, essentially aims towards the fragmentation of marine space into pieces which are for sale, by the state itself, in order to attract and satisfy private investments.
“This is not just an environmental issue, but also a matter of social justice and democracy. For example, the bill repeals the public’s right to direct consultation as the Minister of Interior has the right to give ‘development decrees’ bypassing any obligation for environmental impact assessments and public consultations,” explains Hadjimichael.
“With the granting and the institutionalisation of superpowers to a minister and circumventing the role of parliament as the representatives of society, it is indirectly legalising acts of corruption, which are already so widespread in Cypriot society,” she adds.
In a recent article, Hadjimichael writes that seashores are one of the clearest manifestations of what is generally considered to constitute “the commons” — a place where access is free and all has derive the same pleasure, irrespective of the size of their pay cheque. Unfortunately, in real life this is not always the case. A seashore undisturbed by humans represents for many (even unknowingly) a utopian vision of what society can be in that gray area which is neither private nor state-owned.
Acknowledging this reality is increasingly becoming scarcer, she says Cyprus is in a determining role as it can be one of the countries that strives to sustain this reality.
“I want to start by explaining what I mean when I talk about “the commons” as I feel it is very important. ‘Common goods’ are those goods which have been inherited from previous generations, that were created collectively or which are part of our natural heritage. At the same time, I see ‘commons’ in the sense of a ‘common space’ and not just in the sense of it being the physical space. Ways of being and physical landscapes are inter-linked; creating a version of a space is a very important aspect of a person’s lived experience within that space. Imagine that seashores – our experiences there, in combination with the natural environment and the non-human beings that share that space are what connects us to them. And I am talking about our experiences that are not part of any profit-making machine. In Cyprus now, everything gets a price in the name of exiting ‘a crisis’ created by the banks and a system that prioritises economic growth over our wellbeing,” concludes Hadjimichael.
And this comes hand in hand with Hadlimichael’s urgency for Cyprus, now more than ever, to protect its few remaining socio-ecological spheres — as a basis because there aren’t many left but also for a wider perspective; to maintain our well being.
“I use the term socio-ecological sphere rather than ecological because I see us as being inter-connected to our environment. We either take an ‘eco-centric’ approach (think of ourselves as part of the environment) and with that idea we protect the environment, (and of course the non-human-beings that are also part of it) and consequently ourselves, or we allow to be swept by this dangerous river that is called economic growth. It is important that we appreciate the limits to growth and start thinking of new ways to build our lives,” defines Hadjimichael.
The local take
According to Hadjimichael, the privatisation of public wealth has become a priority for many governments, in their attempts to appropriate citizens’ rights, not solely of nature, but also other vital rights, such as water.
“Greece has become an example of what we are experiencing in Cyprus, from the foreclosures bill to the privatisation of our common resources. The difference with Greece is the reaction from the citizens, which is massive in Greece,” writes Hadjimichael.
Her underlying stance implies that locally, people don’t tend to stand up for their rights. “Let’s take the bail-out as an example; people did not react. There was a call for a protest against the foreclosure bill a couple of weeks ago, the turn-out there was low and the atmosphere lifeless,” reveals Hadjimichael.
“People in Cyprus do not seem eager to fight for their rights. On the contrary, it seems that we are expecting to be saved by someone else; the parliamentarians, a new president, politicians, the EU. And when things go wrong we just blame someone else. The clientele-like relationship with political parties that’s existed until now has numbed people who are shutting up and wait until they or their children get a job ‘through their contacts’. I realise that this is oversimplifying things, but I really do believe this is relevant to the reasons people in Cyprus have succumbed to many injustices,” adds Hadjimichael.
“We are living within a political and economic system that teaches us that we have to choose between having a job (a wage) and the protection of the environment. And often, as we cannot see the alternatives we are being made to chose for example accepting a big development which will destroy an important socio-ecological system in order to create jobs in the construction sector for a while longer… and then another development, and then another.”
Taking proactive measures
The online petition which has been circulating is the first step towards instigating change, says Hadjimichael.
“Those who have already signed the petition can disseminate and spread the message of the campaign. We have already exceeded the 2,500 signatures – imagine if each person who signed, would get another person on board…,” states Hadjimichael.
And in the meantime, the body Hadjimichael supports, the Cyprus Natural Coastline community, is in contact with environmental NGOs and relevant scientific or other bodies, informing them of the situation and asking them to make their positions clear.
They aspire to demand to be in the Parliament when the bill is discussed and express their opinions. “But what is equally important, is to also be out there in order to make our voice clear. Democracy is not about voting once every few years. Real democracy is to actively demand that our social and environmental rights are respected,” says Hadjimichael.
The bill is still to be discussed by the Interior Affairs Committee at the House of Parliament. For more information about this initiative and the petition visit https://www.facebook.com/coastlinecy0