In divided Cyprus, UN sees environment as unifier

·3-min read

A broken plastic chair, a printer box, old tyres and other discarded waste are loaded into the back of United Nations pickup trucks in the buffer zone that divides Cyprus.

The initiative on Friday, which included young Greek Cypriots who have demonstrated a commitment to working with counterparts in the Turkish Cypriot community, helped to make the common heritage of a divided Mediterranean island just a little bit cleaner.

But it came as the politics of the island's division become messier, 47 years after Turkish troops invaded and occupied the northern third of the island in response to a Greek military junta-sponsored coup.

Since then the UN has maintained a buffer zone between the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot forces in the north -- which is recognised only by Ankara -- and the Greek and Greek Cypriot forces in the Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member.

Although they are divided, the environment has been one way the two communities have been able to cooperate.

"There is a common interest in protecting the environment on both sides of the buffer zone," said Aleem Siddique, spokesperson for the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

The buffer zone, 180 kilometres (112 miles) long and up to eight kilometres (five miles) wide, is home to unique species of plants and wildlife, Siddique said.

It has also become a dumping ground, and the UN works with local groups to hold periodic cleanups.

On Friday -- the final day of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow -- about 16 peacekeepers joined UN police and civilian members of the UN Youth Champions for Environment and Peace to attack piles of waste dumped in the buffer zone near the village of Troulli in the southeast of the island.

- Shared values -

The illegal dump is reached after several minutes of driving past olive trees down a stone track, with no signs of habitation other than what appeared to be two distant hilltop military posts, and a farm tractor that threw up dust as it worked.

Then the dry earth was littered with everything from bits of styrofoam to unrecognizable pieces of metal, abandoned beside the track.

"We have seen a marked increase in construction activity, in violations, in dumping," Siddique said.

A lot of the dumping is believed to be done at night, by contractors.

As he spoke, Joya Lahoud, 19, and other members of the cleanup crew packed the junk into black plastic garbage bags.

"We are all living in the same island, actually, and we share many similarities and many values," said Lahoud, who in August joined the two-week Youth Champions programme which brought together people from both sides of the island, with a focus on "environmental peacebuilding."

She previously helped to clean a beach in Famagusta, in the north.

"We really work with no division," said Lahoud, of Larnaca.

Victoras Pallikaras, 22, a Greek Cypriot and Youth Champions participant who works as an environmental activist, said the cleanup efforts show that "we want to be together."

But Boghos Avetikian, 23, an Armenian Cypriot who lives in the south, lamented that there aren't more chances for young people from the two communities to work side-by-side.

"If youth from both sides hang out I think they can create good things but they don't meet," he said, holding the second of two garbage bags he had collected.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in a July report to the Security Council, acknowledged the role of civil society, particularly women and youth, as "key to a lasting settlement and peace," while political tensions have been "steadily growing."


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