By Elena Becatoros,
ARTEMIDA, Greece – The smoldering trunks of olive trees stretch across mountain slopes and valleys, their precious fruit lying like pellets of charcoal on the blackened ground. As far as the eye can see, the groves that produce one of Greece’s best known exports have been devastated.
A week of forest fires have not only killed 64 people but have laid waste to at least 454,000 acres of land, most of it in the Peloponnese, the glove-shaped southern peninsula where about a third of Greece’s olive oil is produced. And the fires still burn.
The flames might not devastate the overall olive oil industry in Greece, the world’s third-largest producer: Initial estimates indicate about 4 percent of average annual production will be lost. But thousands of farmers face ruin, and villages already struggling to survive an exodus of young people have taken another big hit.
“This may not have a big effect on the macro scale, but on a micro scale, the impact is huge,” said Gregory Antoniadis, chairman of the Greek Association of Industries and Processors of Olive Oil.
The Finance Ministry reckons half the farm production of the fire-hit areas has been destroyed.
In a culture where olive oil is sometimes called liquid gold, the spectacle of gnarled old olive trees going up in flames is especially painful.
In this mountainous region 40 miles from ancient Sparta, olives provide 60 percent of farmers’ income. Newly planted trees need 7 to 10 years to bear fruit, and farmers “won’t have any income from olive cultivation during that time,” said Antoniadis.
Nikos Bokaris, head of the Greek Union of Forestry Experts, calls it “an irreparable social and economic catastrophe” that has left its survivors “unable to meet their daily needs.”
One survivor, Theoni Kostandopoulou, stood among the blackened stumps of her trees and wept.
“What will we do without oil?” she cried. “Now they’re burned and we’ve lost them, what will become of us?”
When Kostandopoulou arrived in the mountain village of Artemida more than 40 years ago, her field had just five olive trees. She and her husband planted dozens more, as well as fruit trees, vines and a vegetable garden on the edge of the village.
The 77-year-old woman said she sat outside her house all night splashing water on it and managed to save it while others burned to the ground. But her crops were destroyed.
The government has announced a $400 million aid package including an initial $4,100 for each family that lost belongings and a $13,600 payment for those that lost a house. Farmers are to get $818 for each acre of burned olive groves, while private donations from Greeks for fire relief total over $52 million.
In Makistos, a few miles from Artemida, up to 50 of the 65 houses were gutted, residents said, and a vast expanse of charred earth surrounds the village, from the valley below to the mountain peaks in the distance.
The village’s main source of income was olive oil, said Dimos Kokaliaris, 42, whose father lives in Makistos. Now he fears the inhabitants will simply move away.
“I had olive trees I had planted as a child. Now there’s nothing left. Nothing,” he said. “Now we’ll see what we can do. Replant perhaps.”
Yiannis Pothos, 19, is one of many whose family long ago abandoned village life for the city, but his father had returned to Makistos and restored his ancestral home.
Now the house is rubble, gutted in flames so intense that the windows melted.
“There is absolutely nothing left of agricultural land. All the olive trees are burned, all the vineyards, and the animals that survived have nothing to eat,” he said. The family made wine and two tons of olive oil a year to supplement its income. “This year, we’ll have nothing.”
But others in Makistos are much worse off, he said.
“There are people who are 80 years old whose houses were burned. They can’t leave, this is their home,” Pothos said. “When someone lives off the olive harvest, what will he do now? If someone has animals, what will they do — What will they eat, charcoal?”
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