In Greece, an Untouched Paradise Is Under Threat

Paradise comes in many forms, and on the Greek island of Corfu, it comes in the form of Erimitis. This forested peninsula on the northeast coast is the island’s last virgin ecosystem—a hilly headland of pines, oaks, strawberry trees, myrtles and wild orchids, along with seals, otters, turtles, frogs, cormorants and harriers. Its immaculate beaches—some of the island’s most beautiful—are accessible only by sea or by short hikes through the woodland.

Yet this natural paradise is currently the focus of a long-running dispute between locals and developers, one full of surreal twists and turns that involve everything from the British naturalist Gerald Durrell to the war in Ukraine. When I ask Xenia Tombrou, a local activist about it, she simply shakes her head and laughs. “It’s incredible,” she says. “You couldn’t make this up.”

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Our story begins in January 2013, when around 49 hectares (121 acres) of Erimitis were sold to investment firm NCH Capital for the remarkably low sum of $23 million. The area included pristine forest, an important wetland and several beaches. In return, NCH would have a 99-year lease on the land and commit to $120 million of investment in turning part of it into a private tourist village.

“When we first saw the plans, we were horrified,” says Xenia. The proposed development included the construction of a 90-room five-star hotel, 76 rental bungalows, 40 villas, a 57-berth marina, a 5-km road and several car parks. “It would be the end of Erimitis as we know it,” she says.

Like many beautiful places in Greece, Erimitis owes its survival to good fortune rather than good judgment.

Between 1945 and 1992, the area was a restricted military zone due to its proximity to the coast of Albania, which is less than 3 km away. This had the unintended effect of sparing it from the post-War tourism boom, which saw the island’s coast gradually swallowed up by a series of increasingly garish hotels and villas.

But even before that, Erimitis had a strange knack for avoiding human intervention. For instance, it’s one of the few places on Corfu with no olive trees, which were mass-planted by the Venetians during their four-century rule on the island. “It really is a paradise,” says Xenia. “For a piece of Mediterranean coastline to have remained so unexploited, unsettled and unchanged for so long is rare.”

As a result, Erimitis became a haven for hiking, swimming, or just enjoying nature. There are no hotels, villas, restaurants or beach bars. You bring what you need and leave nothing behind.

The sale of a chunk of the peninsula was likely to change that—and threaten the area’s diverse ecosystem. “Erimitis is part of what makes Corfu special. Without it, the island loses a piece of its soul,” says Xenia. “We had to fight it.”

At this point, the Save Erimitis Group sprang into action. The loose coalition included environmental activists, local residents, the mayor of Corfu, and the regional government of the Ionian Islands, of which Corfu is the capital. After their flurry of legal challenges to annul the sale were dismissed, they turned to the Environmental Impact Assessment which NCH was required by law to produce for their bid, and which they considered to be highly flawed.

They argued that at least five points in the study contained misleading information, particularly regarding the area’s wetland, which they claimed would be irreversibly damaged by the construction. The three wetlands of Erimitis are protected under Greek law due to their ecological importance.

In April 2016, the urban plan study was approved by the relevant Greek ministry, a decision that was immediately challenged by the regional government, which sought to have both it and the EIA annulled. However in December 2016, the contracts were signed and the first installment of 10 million euros was transferred.

Kapareli lighthouse, part of Erimitis.

Ernestos Vitouladitis

For their part, NCH said that only a small part of the purchased land would be developed, that the development would be ecological, and that it would benefit the local economy and create jobs. But Iphigenia Apergi, a campaign coordinator at Save Erimitis, disagrees.

“Most residents are against the project because they already have a high quality of tourism in the area, the value of which is a direct consequence of the Erimitis ecosystem,” she says. “Furthermore the resort is designed as a closed loop where everything is catered in-house and tourists wouldn’t need to leave the complex. Therefore, local businesses would not benefit.”

In August 2017, heavy machinery began widening the footpaths to access construction sites. The mayor of Corfu succeeded—temporarily—in halting the works by literally stepping in front of the bulldozers. Meanwhile, representatives of the regional government, environmental groups, and local associations reported the issue to the European Parliament and to the Greek Appeals Court.

The coalition managed to frustrate the development but by the end of 2019, all necessary permits had been squeezed out of the Greek state. Horrified, environmental groups again appealed to the European Parliament.

In February 2020, the local mayor managed to stymie the development by refusing to approve the project’s elevation study. This obscure procedure is often the only recourse local municipalities have to deny construction rights for a national project. Just two days later, the government passed a law removing this responsibility from local municipalities.

Every tactic used by the Save Erimitis coalition was being absorbed and abrogated by the state, whose determination to push through this development—which they had sold for a song—was bordering on the monomaniacal.

“We felt like an Asterix village trying to hold out against the Romans,” says Xenia.

Then came some help from two surprising sources.

The first was the island’s expat community, a group not known for their involvement in fiery local affairs. Among them is Lee Durrell, the widow of famed naturalist Gerald Durrell. His 1956 book My Family and Other Animals, an account of the years his family spent living on Corfu prior to the outbreak of World War II, is credited with birthing interest in the island as a travel destination. The book was adapted into an enormously successful TV series in 2016 which ran for six seasons on PBS. Much of the show was filmed on location in Corfu, with Lee Durrell acting as consultant.

From her home in Corfu, Durrell—herself a widely respected naturalist—tells me how she first became involved in the Save Erimitis campaign. “I’ve been running nature tours here as part of the Durrell School of Corfu since 2011, and Erimitis was always the highlight,” she says. “It’s such a diverse and beautiful biosphere, one of the last untouched places on the island. To take that away would be sinful.”

Whether Gerald himself ever visited Erimitis is unclear, although he would have certainly passed by it and his brother Lawrence lived with his wife in a house just a few kilometers south, but Lee believes he would have been besotted with the place. “Gerald loved Corfu, and Erimitis is Corfu at its best,” she says.

Durrell wrote two open letters, first to left-wing Greek PM Alexis Tsipras in 2017 and then to his successor, the right-wing Kyriakos Mitsotakis in 2021. Neither got a response, but the cherished Durrell name gave the movement some much needed international coverage in The Guardian, France24 and others.

Other expats also got involved. Richard Pine, a British journalist who writes regularly for Greek newspaper Kathimerini, announced that he was ending his relationship with the publication, claiming that they repeatedly tried to censor his article criticizing the Erimitis project. The full article was later published by Corfiot daily Enimerosi. The same month, the billionaire financier Nat Rothschild, who has a house near Erimitis, tweeted that he was opposed to the development. He was pounded upon by Greek Twitter trolls and right-wing politicians (the distinction is not always apparent) and was forced to defend himself with an article in Kathimerini.

The second addition to the Save Erimitis campaign came from an even unlikelier source: millionaire capitalists. As an investor at private equity firm Permira, Jörg Rockenhäuser is not exactly your typical ecowarrior, but again good fortune comes into play: Rockenhäuser’s wife is of Greek heritage and they have a house in Corfu. In an interview, Rockenhäuser comes across as remarkably lucid and magnanimous. Shortly after Erimitis went on the market, he bought 50 hectares of it for $6 million, which he has left untouched and freely accessible. “We can’t allow nature to be sacrificed on the altar of the destructive force that is mass tourism,” he says.

Following the sale of Erimitis to NCH—a “madness” as Rockenhäuser puts it—the conscientious German began assembling an informal team of millionaires and billionaires who had connections to the island. They included Rob Lucas, a fellow financial investor at private equity firm CVC, and Jacob Rothschild, father of Nat, who also has a villa on the island.

With a new financial war chest, the Save Erimitis campaign was able to ramp up its efforts, including hiring top lawyers to replace the idealists working pro bono.

In July 2020, as domestic and international attention converged on a small patch of forest in Corfu, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, traveled to the island. Despite a protest of around 800 locals, Mitsotakis visited Erimitis to show support for the project, declaring that the development of the land was necessary because “if we do nothing, at some point it will burn down anyway.”

The following month, a fire burned through Erimitis. The cause is suspected to be arson, although no one has been charged.

In January 2021, bulldozers began to tear through the Erimitis forest, leveling a thin strip of land between the sea and the wetland. The following month, a British hiker walking in Erimitis was arrested and charged with trespassing, despite it being a public footpath, further aggravating the expat community. More protests and legal challenges followed. Five protestors, including the deputy mayor, were taken to court by NCH for obstructing their work. They were found not guilty.

And then Russia invaded Ukraine, and all work on Erimitis stopped.

Demonstration at Erimitis after the fire.

Elena Kipriotis

On their website, NCH Capital proudly claims to be “pioneers… among the first Western investors in Eastern Europe and Russia.” Today the company manages $3 billion in assets, a large part of which is real estate. According to their own figures, NCH Capital hold one of the world’s largest agricultural portfolios. A large part of their holdings are in Russia and Ukraine.

Did NCH suffer financial trouble due to the war? Did they realize that their plan for Erimitis was unprofitable? Were they shaken by the negative publicity they had received? Perhaps all three? Or none?

In June 2022, the company’s managing director, Andreas Santis, insisted that NCH would complete the development it had promised. But in November, reports emerged that NCH were now looking to sell the land. The investor blamed both the pandemic and “the rise in the cost of raw materials and other issues caused by the war in Ukraine.” Potential buyers include Rockenhäuser and his crew of philanthropists, though there appears to be a gulf between the asking and offered price.

A few months ago, I visited Erimitis with Iphigenia. Though the burnt scars of the landscape were still visible, I was surprised to see how much regrowth had occurred. The crude roads that had been cut through the forest were now overgrown and collapsing. There was no sign of bulldozers, and no security to shout at you. Wandering through the forest—thankfully most of it was spared from the fire—we emerged at Akoli beach, long and pebbly, the coastline of Albania so close that you could make out the individual contours of the houses. Our lazy swim was interrupted only by a shipment of rowdy Italian tourists, dropped off on one of the many boat tours that play on the unparalleled beauty of this area. None of them, I imagine, had any idea of the ongoing, decade-long struggle to save Erimitis from disaster.

On his last visit to Corfu in the 1980s, Lee Durrell tells me, Gerald was so depressed by the rampant development on the island’s coast that he would turn his back to it while out on his boat. Just a few kilometers south of Erimitis, the headland of Dasia has recently been decapitated by a hotel development, replacing the woodland with a large concrete runway. On the island’s west coast, the famed beauty spot of Palaiokastritsa—where Odysseus is said to have disembarked and met Nausicaa—is now predominately car park.

The Corfiot coast still has a lot of beauty, but it’s getting harder and harder to find, squeezed in between the megahotels, villas, and tourist towns that seem to expand with each passing year. At this rate, it’s not hard to imagine the coastline of Corfu becoming one long conurbation. And when that happens, what will be the point anymore?

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