Sunday, September 4, 2011

Impossible is nothing

When you are that close to give up for good, and become unequivocally and utterly hopeless in the search of a plausible solution to the abysmal problems facing Greece these days, there comes something like this and turns your world upside down. You suddenly feel that you see a trace of light, just a few promising rays of hope, at the end of the tunnel. A great friend of mine with deep knowledge of the Greek situation from within, one I actually respect most among my compatriots for her judgement, character and work ethics, told me this story; I initially thought she was kidding, but then I found out for myself by surfing to the sites she pointed me to.

Google Earth view of Anavra
The man on the YT clip is Dimitris Tsoukalas, and he is a living proof that there is indeed one (at least) exception to the universally accepted axiom that in Modern Greece there is a severe lack of political leadership, and an abundance in corruption and incompetence. Tsoukalas is the 'koinotarxis', the elected community chief of a little mountain village, Anavra, in the Greek prefecture of Magnesia a few hundred km north of Athens. Located in a mountainous area at 1000 meters elevation above sea level, Anavra was a place falling apart only twenty years ago. Inhabited by a few hundred people, most of them animal farmers with their houses built next to their stables, animals and people chaotically intermingled all over the village. They had mostly sheep and goats, with only a small cattle. Stats talk of 20 thousand sheep and only a thousand cows back in 1980. Thirty years later that relationship reversed; sheep and goats halved, where cattle grew fivefold. There were hardly any paved streets in the village, common facilities or med care, and the elementary school was one class for all pupil ages. Young people were leaving in flocks to find their 'fortune' elsewhere. Winters were cold and snow would cut off the community from the rest of the civilized world for many days. This was the last place on earth you'd expect people to come to and build their life of prosperity. The village was on a course to extinction. A few more generations and the entire community would simply cease to exist, like so many hundreds of other communities of similar fortunes in mountainous and rural Greece. (Less than a year ago I visited such a place, Koila, in the Prefecture of Evros in the North-East of the country, where the only useful activity you could find today are a few young German delinquents, who are being 'reformed' before sent back home, to their communities, after serving time in that remote and abandoned North Greek forrest. Oh, yes, there were two retired couples there too, resting and counting their days to heavens, enjoying the merits of a simple and stressless life.)

In a TEDxAcademy hosted presentation shown in the clip above, Mr. Tsoukalas himself explains the story of his work. Needless to say, he was singlehandedly able to transform his community in less than 20 years in something that this achievement alone would make him a highly probable Nobel Peace Prize laureate, very much like Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi banker who, years ago, came up with that hugely successful micro-loan concept.

In a nutshell, Mr. Tsoukalas moved the animals out of the village in the neighboring mountains and built with the support of different development programs, funded nationally and/or by the EU, a series of modernly equipped stables, where animals grow by means of bio-farming methods and techniques (hormones free, etc). He eventually managed to create a community, where in terms of household income they've reached an astonishing average of 70K euros annually (close to 100K USD). With a financially prosperous community, a visibly happy population and continuous funding from different sources, who obviously saw the effectiveness of their funding, Mr. Tsoukalas actually further managed to transform the village to unimaginable extent, by adding all sorts of facilities and buildings, streets, common community areas for sports and cultural activities, large theater facilities with modern projection equipment, and even a two stories parking building. He invited doctors and teachers to work in the village, paid them almost twice they earned elsewhere, and offered them free accommodation. He solved all the community's energy problems by creating a windmill renewable energy park (with more parks under construction) that provide electrical power to every village citizen for free. For heating, he created a central processing oven that burns biomass (in abundance because of the cattle available) and that is enough to provide hot water to all households for heating purposes. It's a common sight these days seeing animal farmers carrying, instead of their traditional glitsa and comboloi, a laptop for surfing the net at high speed broadband connections. And there's much more. Needless to say, the village's population has doubled ever since. In itself, 'village growth in Greece' universally being accepted as an oxymoron. Unbelievable feat and achievement even by First World standards. And, yes, all this is done in... Greece! True story.

The things that shook me though in his story is his personal philosophy about tackling community problems and delivering results. Mind you, his approach is not just good enough for civil servants managing smaller or larger communities, rural or urban, but for every commercial company I have known, and every government in the four corners of the planet. The man is plain and simple an extraordinary role model to clone, inside and outside of Greece.

His thoughts: There is no secret to my success, he claims. Just hard work and integrity.

On the question of integrity he said that three things are really important:

a. Don't accept kickbacks; make the best decision for the community and not for your personal income.
b. Don't act only thinking about your personal progress in your next career steps. It's not about you, but it's about the community.
c. Do NOT affiliate yourself to any one single political fraction, left or right. Anywhere political parties put their tails in, effectiveness suffers.

In fact, Mr. Tsoukalas admits that the only way to rebuild successfully rural communities, and not just them, but the entire country as well, is through hard work, great character, integrity and absence of selfishness and of seeking personal gains. You got to work for the community and not for yourself. Eventually you will be successful too, because you'll stand on the shoulders of giants and "look further than the rest", like Isaac Newton admitted.

If you come to think of it, Tsoukalas applies in practice what Plato wrote about the ruling class in his Utopia imaginary state. Problem is, the Ancients knew all that, and described it for us, modern Greeks, to read and abide by in order to achieve and enjoy a prosperous life. And they did that 2.5 thousand years ago. However, the national culture, educational systems and political leadership that dominated the stage in Modern Greece for many years has led to a situation where people like Tsoukalas are practically impossible to find. Therefore, the country has currently found itself under severe financial, social and political strain, and it will unfortunately take much more time of further aggravation before it gets better. If there's any hope at all, it should be found among the desperate and apolitical youth. Political parties have shown very little competence in sorting out the country's problems, and have been severely discredited by scandals of corruption and lack of character among their 'leaders'. In the meantime, the party and its PM managing the country today should better engage Tsoukalas himself in its cabinet. In a leading position. He could then start doing something useful for everyone, instead of just trying hopelessly to please Toika's irresponsible and unreasonable requirements that could achieve nothing really other than push the entire country even faster down the drain.

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1 comment:

zenovia said...

very interesting story with contribution from an architect/ professor and also wife of mr. tsoukalas.
from what i've read in wikipedia, anavra has been associated with livestock in mythology too!