How Greece was forced back to the land

As the politicians debate their future, the people are doing all they can simply to survive. By Patrick Cockburn in Naxos
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The Independent Online

"People are coming back to farms around here that they abandoned years ago so they can grow potatoes, cabbages and vegetables to help them survive the crisis," said Petros Citouzouris, as he pruned his vines high in the mountains of Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades. The financial catastrophe in Greece is engulfing the most isolated parts of the country.

Pointing to newly cultivated terraces close to a long derelict leper colony at Sifones, Mr Citouzouris says that since the crisis began, "unemployed builders, miners and pensioners have started returning to family farms they inherited a generation ago, but never worked". He reckons that 10 out of 20 nearby farms belong to the new arrivals. "They don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. They won't be able to grow enough to live off farming alone, but it will help them get by."

Economic disaster affects every part of Naxos, creating a mood that varies between half-hidden anxiety, open despair and a general dread that, however bad things are today, they will be a great deal worse tomorrow.

The island remains extraordinarily beautiful, filled with ancient Greek remains and Venetian towers, its whitewashed villages and well-watered terraces clinging to the sides of mountains that soar above deep green valleys. Olive trees and vineyards flourish in the fertile soil that for 5,000 years has attracted settlers.

Tourists still came this year, much to the relief of the owners of hotels and tavernas, but the rest of the economy is shrivelling by the week. Katarina Sideri, who runs vocational training courses in the mountain village of Chalki, says: "People here think that their children will be worse off than they are." She has 48 places in her training course and has received 200 applicants, many highly trained people speaking two foreign languages, but who have been unable to find a job.

Contrary to the north European myth about Greeks wallowing in comfort at the expense of foreign banks and EU loans, what is most striking about the 18,500 people living on Naxos is how hard they work. Many have always had more than one poorly paid job. Construction workers have traditionally also been farmers, owning sheep, goats, olive trees and vines. The extra money often goes on paying for extra tuition for their children so they can go to university and get better jobs than their parents.

These expectations are now collapsing. Naxos is full of highly qualified but unemployed young people who cannot find a job of any description. "Young people beg for work," says Manoulis Koutelieris, a builder who still employs 10 people. "Last night somebody called me to ask for a job and was crying over the phone." He says that the official unemployment rate for the island is 20 per cent but believes the real figure is around 35 per cent.

He does not see things getting better. Holding up a pamphlet advertising holiday homes he has just finished building but are still unsold, he says: "Greece never had much industry, but relied on tourism and construction, but construction has collapsed."

Ms Sideri says the impact of the crisis is gradual but inexorable. People work unpaid overtime and sometimes accept IOUs instead of a salary. Andonis Manios, a primary school teacher in Chalki, says that while his monthly pay before tax used to be €1,550 (£1,350), his post-tax pay is now €880.

As the tourists depart, nobody is spending money and shops and tavernas are depressingly empty. Greeks have a strong shop-keeping tradition, but Ms Sideri says: "We try to dissuade people from opening another shop."

The first victims of the crisis are those who were in trouble before it began. The better-off suffer from having borrowed too much money and the poor from loss of jobs and ill health.

Ten years ago, Ioannou Verikokou opened a successful business catering for foreign tourists wanting to live the life of a Greek villager. "We had people from all over the world," she sighs recalling the good times, but in the last few years bookings have dried up.

Her husband, Manoulis, says: "Whatever they want they can do with us now. I've worked for 22 years at a cement plant, but I have not been paid since February. When we do get an order nobody pays the company I work for so they can't pay me." He said his elder son had trained as a mechanic but had a low-paid job in a winery.

Complaints of Byzantine bureaucracy are everywhere. Yannis Karpontinis, a marble quarry owner, failed for two years to open a quarry belonging to his family because they had previously rented it out and he needed a whole new set of permits. Michael Diskalakis, an electrical engineer, complains that "if you want to get a permit to open a little kiosk to sell newspapers it will take a very long time to get it".

Mr Karpontinis and Mr Diskalakis see Greece careering towards economic and social collapse. "The middle class will pay more taxes because they are frightened of state bankruptcy and the loss of their bank deposits," says Mr Diskalakis. "But the moment they feel that the bankruptcy will happen anyway, they will stop paying up and take an axe to the government."