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A disastrous folly: the destruction of the Karpas
WHEN a family of nature-loving Germans took me on my first trip to the tip of the Karpas peninsula in the late 1980s, it took a whole day to get there.
Having left Kyrenia early one September morning, and stopping only for mittagsessen und pipi on the way, our ropey Volkswagen bus didn’t reach the beach that everyone now calls Golden Sands until late afternoon.
We parked on the edge of a dune and ran, our faces beaming ecstatic smiles, down the slope to be met by nothing but a vast expanse of sand and sea as far as the aqua blue horizon. We were totally and utterly alone with only nature to keep us company. The stars I saw that night were the brightest and most numerous I’d ever witnessed.
Apart from a ragged shepherd with a donkey, the last people we had seen were in the village of Rizokarpaso (or Dipkarpaz, as the Turks have called it since 1974). Beyond the village, on the road to the monastery of Apostolos Andreas, which lies a few kilometres short of the island’s most eastern tip, I remember being wracked with joy at finding myself in a landscape so miraculously unspoilt. Carob and olive trees laden with their fruits dotted gently rolling, maquis-covered hills that led step-by-step, terrace-by-terrace down to the sparkling Mediterranean. Even the road we drove on, which was barely more than a metre wide, seemed to speak of journeys made by men, women and beasts long since dead.
We had to drive slowly; we had to avoid potholes; we had to be careful. But we didn’t mind, because these were the things that slowed down the destruction we’d already seen devour once-loved places like Kyrenia, Famagusta and Bellapais.
Today the journey that used to take a day can be completed in just couple of hours on fast, wide roads that shrink the journey from Nicosia, and it’s only once you’ve left the last village of Rizokarpaso, heading towards the tip, the sea and Syria, that you can still imagine you are in a Cyprus before the advent of tarmac, concrete and the car.
Last Sunday, having heard of the Turkish Cypriot administration’s plans to repair that old road from Rizokarpaso and Apostolos Andreas, a group of around fifty concerned Cypriots (mostly Turkish, some Greek) travelled to the area to see for themselves what they feared was taking place. Their anxieties were confirmed when they saw that rather than repairing the road, huge mechanical diggers were now forging a brand new one designed to cut out the numerous meanders and twists of the old one.
“It is as if they put a ruler on a map and followed its line,” head of the Society for the Protection of the Karpas National Park Umut Akcil told the Sunday Mail. He added: “They have already torn down hundreds of carob, olive and juniper trees, and they have flattened two hillsides highlighted by [the EU’s] Natura 2000 project as important nesting sites for migratory birds”.
Akcil says he has learnt that the Turkish Cypriot administration is planning to build a ten-metre wide road between Rizokarpaso and Apostolos Andreas, and at it will be built in three phases. The first phase, which is already underway, takes the road a few kilometres out of the village as far as the Blue Sea Hotel, which lies at the boundary of one section of the national park deemed more sensitive to development than the areas including and surrounding the village of Rizokarpaso. The second and third phases will take it all the way to Apostolos Andreas, a distance of around 15km.
Last week’s mini protest may have bought one minor success for the demonstrators. The road-builders, under instruction from the north’s ‘environmental department’ now say they will limit the width of the highway to six, rather than ten metres. Akcil is of course not satisfied with this supposed compromise, as the width of the road is not the only issue at stake. Moreover, in light of earlier statements that the environment would not be harmed, he has no reason to believe them.
Sadly for Akcil, many of the residents of Risokarpaso don’t support him or others who put the interests of the environment before those of land developers, road-building companies, and, ultimately, job-hungry villagers. A group of them - prompted by loudspeaker announcements by the local mayor and Imam that “looters, Greek-sympathisers and infidels” had descended on the village to interfere with their road - turned up to scupper the demonstration.
They passionately informed the environmentalists that the existing road caused accidents, damaged their tyres and wore out their cars. Plus, they highlighted the fact that if the road was better, more people would come to enjoy the beaches and spend money in the shops and cafés and restaurants. In short, they want the road because they imagine the road would bring them an income.
One cannot really blame them for not seeing the benefits that living in a real national park might bring. Officially, there is no national park in Karpas – not even if one recognised the ‘TRNC’ – since the existence of the area as a national park has never been declared by the administration.
All that exists are yellowing proposal for a national park that no ‘government’ has ever had the political will or guts to implement. Moreover, local residents, who are all Turkish mainlanders (apart from a handful of aging and enclaved Greek Cypriots) generally oppose the idea because they see it simply as something that would restrict their development and their incomes.
Among the most defiant of the speakers on Sunday was ‘mayor’ of Dipkarpaz Mehmet Demirci, who arrived at the demonstration to announce that the road was “an urgent necessity” because of “a major festival” that would be taking place this summer in the Karpas. This festival, he boasted, to the horror of the protesters, “will do a great service for Turkish Cyprus by putting the TRNC on the map”.
The festival referred to by Demirci is the unfortunate brainchild of Turkish Cypriot businessman Hilmi Ekrem. Ekrem told the Sunday Mail that the ill-conceived event plans to bring around 30,000 techno music lovers to a place inside the park area this September.
A visit to the silkroute-festval.com website is yet more disturbing than what Ekrem told me on the phone, as it brags that the festival will host up to 80,000 people. It also gives the impression that the three-day festival will take place on Golden Sands Beach, which it won’t apparently. Ekrem says it will be staged in a field. “The beach will only be used for swimming,” he says, as if that made everything okay.
The website includes a countdown to the festival date, and as I write I can see the sane people of Cyprus have just 206 days, eleven hours, six minutes and 52 seconds to stop this disastrous folly from taking place.
Unsurprisingly, Ekrem says he has the sanction of the authorities for his festival. He denies however that the road project has anything do to him.
“Turkey is building it,” he says blithely.
If anyone is in any doubt about the value of the Karpas peninsula to the ecological wellbeing of Cyprus, they should go and see for themselves. There are more wild flora and fauna in a square metre of Karpas than in square kilometres of other parts of our sadly degraded island.
Failing that, one should look at data compiled by environmentalists working in Cyprus and the EU, which, incidentally, spent €5 million ascertaining what species needed protection in the Karpas, and making proposals for their maintenance and preservation.
Now those very species are being destroyed. Biologist Hasan Sarpten, in a letter to a Turkish Cypriot paper entitled “Goodbye Karpas” on Thursday, sought to remind readers of the area’s value and uniqueness, telling them that of the 1,410 species known to live in Cyprus, 75 per cent of them live in the Karpas.
And of the 47 endemic Cypriot plant types, 24 of them can only be found there. Twelve of the 16 reptiles under protection in Cyprus are there, as are 147 of the 215 bird types found on the island. Moreover, of the 238 types of fauna found in Cyprus, 166 of them thrive in the Karpas. Monk seals, of which there are only 400-500 left living in the Mediterranean, visit the Karpas coast regularly, and the green turtles’ third most important nesting site in the Mediterranean is in the Karpas. His list goes on and on and on and ends with the warning that “in a short time, the last bastion of nature in Cyprus will be changed beyond recognition - all because of a road”.