Two years ago, when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited to see the devastation caused by the infernal summer fires, she pleaded for the immediate implementation of community projects and firefighting.
She also urged the authorities to incentivise communities to embrace sustainability from the Recovery and Resilience Fund, from which Cyprus was allocated €1.2 bln to restart its covid-stricken economy.
However, it took a while for the nearly 80 households and businesses to get compensation, having seen their life’s work go up in smoke.
Four Egyptian farmhands died that year and several firefighters have lost their lives over the years.
The Fire Department was promised €18 mln in firefighting equipment, while the Forestry Department has seen its arsenal grow, with a handful of small aircraft now in its fleet.
There was even talk last year of using Cyprus as a regional firefighting hub, part of a European airborne unit that would reach blazes on the island and the immediate region, helping to contain natural disasters until ground forces reached the front line.
But to manage such crises and monitor the situation in our forests throughout the year, we need more foresters, with no vocational or other institution available to train these professionals.
The head of the Forestry Department, Charalambos Alexandrou, rightly said this week that the biggest hindrance facing his service is the dire shortage of human resources and lack of boots on the ground, part-timers or permanent.
The Forestry College in Prodromos was the only institution that offered a three-year undergraduate course and shorter vocational courses since 1951.
Nearly 900 foresters have graduated from there, with a third of those from overseas, all of whom secured jobs in Cyprus or their home country.
Unfortunately, the two state universities are eyeing control and want to revive the Forestry College to add another trophy to their mantelpiece.
The government must reopen the college immediately, keeping it independent from any other institution, so it does not get embroiled in the micro-politics of the University of Cyprus or Tepak in Limassol.
This college has a ready and proven curriculum; it has its own grounds and could open its doors this September if there is political will.
This is where the Forestry Department would get its regular annual supply of professional foresters, trained in conducting technical forestry work, collecting forest data, and ensuring the health and management of forested lands.
With ‘climate change’ now transformed into ‘climate crisis’, as we witness the daily fallout from a rapidly warming planet, environmental studies and forestry have become crucial.
Foresters now need to be able to assess timber, estimate volumes, interpret aerial photographs, and coordinate felled-tree studies while providing the Fire Service with much-needed know-how and advice throughout the year.
Instead of upgrading the college to a proper environmental university, which would help the government develop its nature and green strategy, the college struggled because there were not enough votes for politicians or ‘jobs for the boys’ to place party-affiliated candidates.
An upgraded Forestry College would provide the lifeline so desperately needed by surrounding communities, with job creation for locals, engaging youth and contributing to the rural and mountain economies.