Greece: Forest fire destroys jobs of pine resin collectors

Elena Becatoros
Associated Press
Christos Livas, 48, resin collector uses a tool on a burnt pine tree in a burnet forest near Agdines village on the island of Evia, about 185 kilometers (115 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

AGDINES, Greece (AP) — For generations, residents in the north of the Greek island of Evia have made their living from the dense pine forests surrounding their villages. Tapping the ubiquitous Aleppo pines for their resin, the viscous, sticky substance the trees use to protect themselves from insects and disease, provided a key source of income for hundreds of families.

But now, hardly any forest is left. A devastating wildfire, one of Greece's most destructive single blazes in decades, rampaged across northern Evia for days earlier this month, swallowing woodland, homes and businesses and sending thousands fleeing. 

The damage won't just affect this year's crop, resin collectors and beekeepers say, but for generations to come.

"It's all over. Everything has turned to ash," said Christos Livas, a 48-year-old resin collector and father of four. 

Resin has been used by humans since antiquity and is found today in a dizzyingly broad array of products, from paint and solvents to pharmaceuticals, plastics and cosmetics. The north of Evia, Greece's second-largest island, accounted for around 80% of the pine resin produced in Greece, and about 70% of the pine honey, locals say. 

Satellite imagery shows the wildfire destroyed most of the island's north. The devastation is breathtaking. Tens of thousands of hectares of forests and farmland were reduced to a dystopian landscape of skeletal, blackened trees silhouetted against a smoke-filled sky.

For trees to grow back to the point where resin can be extracted will take more than two decades, and probably twice as long for the production of pine honey.

"In 10 years, the forest will become green again," Livas said. "But for tapping, it will take 20, 25 years. For me, it's all over. Even for a 30-year-old - what's he going to do, find a job and then come back when he's 50, 60 to tap pines? His legs won't even hold him."

Livas walked through the still smoldering remnants of the forest on the outskirts of his mountain village of Agdines, puffs of white and grey ash rising from beneath his boots as he surveyed the damage.

"This one, I remember since I was a young boy, from 15 years old," he said, pointing to a blackened pine, the strip of peeled bark where resin had been extracted still visible. "This must have been tapped for 32, 33 years." 

Most of his livelihood has literally gone up in smoke, lost in a horrifying roar as the giant wildfire raced toward the village. 

"You could hear a rumble....It was like an earthquake," Livas said.

The flames moved fast, leaving no time to collect the thousands of plastic bags pinned to the trees to gather the precious resin. Instead, local residents turned their attention to the village, ignoring an evacuation order and staying to save their homes. 

They managed. But they couldn't save the forest. And the villagers' anger - at the government for not sending more firefighters sooner, for ordering evacuations when they say locals could have helped fight the flames - is palpable.

Livas had been extracting resin from about 3,000 trees, producing about 9-10 tons per year at 27 euro cents (32 cents) per kilogram. Of all the trees he was tapping, just one survived.

He supplemented his income by farming olive trees, raising animals and occasionally logging. But there are no trees to log now, and most of the olive trees are gone too. 

"I have nowhere left. Everywhere I've been, everything is burnt," he said. 

With four young children to support, the eldest just 13, Livas said he'd look for new kinds of work. But with only a primary school education and unable to read or write, he seemed overwhelmed by the thought. The forest, farming, and collecting resin, which he's been doing since he was 15, are all he's ever known.

"What will I do now?" he said, stumbling for words. "I'll look for a job. What will I do? Do I know what to do now?"

Others were even worse off, he said. Some had several family members collecting resin, gathering around 30-40 tons a year. There were entire villages in northern Evia working almost exclusively in resin collection. 

Fellow villager Antonis Natsios felt the same. He started collecting resin at the age of 12, learning the technique from his father, who had learned it from his father before him. 

Now 51 and with three children, two of them in college, Natsios is unsure how he'll make ends meet. Some of his fig trees were singed but would probably survive and produce a new crop, he said, and about 20% of his olive trees remained. But of the pine trees, his main source of income, "zero. Not even a branch."

He sees few options. "Either the state, or God, if he helps. Or migration," Natsios said.

The government has vowed to compensate all those affected by the fire. But nothing can make up for the loss of the source of their livelihoods for decades to come, the residents of north Evia say. 

"We've lost everything for the next 30-40 years," said beekeeper Makis Balalas, 44, who relied on Evia's forests for pine honey each year. The forest's destruction, he said, was far worse than the loss of any beehives.

"I can create new beehives," he said. "But this that has been lost, you can't create that again."

For Natsios, it's the loss of the forest he grew up in that pains him the most.

"It's not the future, it's what we see. When you've been living something for 50 years and now you see this thing, this charcoal..." he trails off. "Now I, who was born in this forest, I have to breathe this blackness."