Small Mountain Village is a Greek Success Story

Protests rocked the city of Athens for a second day Thursday, as tens of thousands vented their anger at the latest round of austerity measures pushed through by the Greek parliament.
But in the mountain village of Anavra, 150 miles north of the capital, there are no angry protesters blocking the road into town – just the occasional cow.

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Anavra has been hailed as a Greek economic success story, a model of small-scale sustainable development.

It didn't used to be that way.

Dimitris Tsoukalas was born in Anavra. He moved away when he was 12, and went on to work for 30 years for a Greek power company.

When he retired, he needed a project.

"I realized my birthplace, the place that I love, wasn't doing so well," Tsoukalas said. "We had 30,000 animals and 300 people living together in the same space. People in the area called it 'The Stinky Village'."

Tsoukalas made it his mission to change things. He moved back to Anavra and ran for mayor in 1990. The first order of business was to get the livestock out of the village.

He got the Greek government to give the town some unused forest land outside of Anavra. Then he had to persuade farmers to move their livestock.

"Most of the residents were against it at first," Tsoukalas said, "but we insisted."

With some European Union and Greek government money, he helped them house their animals away from the village. Productivity went up, and mud, muck and incidents of disease in the village went down.

Soon Tsoukalas was tapping into other EU development programs. He persuaded the farmers to grow organic, which brought in even more EU funds. He got money to pave the streets, and the main road into town. Tsoukalas built a town square, a library, and a new school. He advertised on the Internet for teachers, doctors, and even a grocer.

Sprios Magrianis saw that ad, and contacted Tsoukalas.

"I tell him, I know you want a market there. I have a ready market, so I can bring it there," Magrianis said. "He told me if you can do it, do it."

Magrianis did, arriving with his wife and two kids.

Now when people talk about the Greek crisis, Magrianis said he thinks, Crisis, what crisis?

"We are doing very nice. The people here support us very much. I'm in a situation I couldn't believe. If you would've told me a year ago that you will go in Anavra and your finances will be great, and everything would be cool, I would've said I don't think so."

Tsoukalas also got EU money to develop green energy projects for the town, including an "ecological park." He said the village's future might be environmental tourism.

He also built a small soccer stadium, a museum and a library – all for a town of roughly 500 people.

According to critics, Tsoukalas has milked the EU system for projects that the town doesn't need. But many in Greece applaud him for actually getting things done. Tsoukalas speaks at events throughout Greece, where he uses Anavra as a model for small-scale sustainable development.

"Unfortunately, Greek politicians have taken one of the world's most beautiful countries and made it the beggar of the EU," he said. He added that if Greeks leaders were better managers, Greece could follow Anavra's lead.

At the beginning of this year, Anavra was incorporated into a neighboring municipality for budgetary reasons. Now, Tsoukalas said, the Internet's not working because that municipality can't pay its bills.

Disgusted, Tsoukalas recently quit his post as mayor. But he's formed an NGO that he hopes will keep development in Anavra humming along until the economic crisis runs its course.

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    Dimitris Tsoukalas is the former mayor of Anavra (Photo: Clark Boyd)

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    Sprios Magrianis moved to Anavra to run a grocery store after seeing an online ad. (Photo: Clark Boyd)

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    Anavra's village square. (Photo: Clark Boyd)