Interview with Apostolos Dimopoulos from Sifnos Island Cooperative

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On the Cycladic isle of Sifnos we talked to Apostolos Dimopoulos, the president of the Sifnos Island Cooperative. The cooperative aims at making the island completely self-managed and self-sustained by means of the generation of water and wind energy as well as by high quality local production.

 

“Our main goal is to become a self-sustainable island with renewable energy sources and to make sure the whole project is owned by the local people [of Sifnos].”

 

“My name is Apostolos Dimopoulos and I am the president of the Sifnos Island Cooperative (SIC). SIC was founded in December 2013. Our main goal is to become a self-sustainable island with renewable energy sources and to make sure the whole project is owned by the local people in order that the project is exactly the size it needs to be for this island. For Greece, this is an important objective since there is no other coop that has such a goal. We are not comparable with supermarket and consumer cooperatives in the rest of Europe, nor with the other cooperative in Karida in the north of Greece. The latter has a different view on energy: they use biomass as a renewable energy source. The difference is that we are not part of the mainland of Greece and that we are dependent on fossil fuels. We have one power station that burns diesel, so if the ship that brings the diesel doesn’t come to the island, the entire island doesn’t have power.

 

The idea of creating this coop with this specific goal came from Kostas Komninos from DAFNI, Network of Sustainable Greek Islands. He was invited to Brussels in 2012 for a presentation on renewable energy sources in the EU. Kostas came back to Sifnos and contacted me because I was involved in these ideas and we sat down to discuss for a year. We then invited people who liked this idea and said: the EU wants to promote this and at the same time we are dependent on this, so it sounds like a good idea but how will we do it? We united fifty people and we wanted to do it because it was worth trying. We would try until it happened or until we would’ve gotten very old. So we created the cooperation with 54 members. The Greek legislation says that you have to invest money and buy shares, but the maximum is only six shares per member and that created discussion what the price of a share would be so people could afford it and whether we would have enough capital to go to a bank or financier to ask for more money. 700 euros per share is not a big amount but it is for the people who want to invest in something that might happen. It is said that the legislation will change and we expect a new rule from the EU that will change the status from cooperatives owned by communities. If this happens, every energy community could have as many shares as they want without any restrictions. This means that we can drop the value of each share. As you can see, we’re really following the legislation here.

 

“[The people of Sifnos] said: “You can arrest us or beat the hell out of us, but you won’t get to the [Vodaphone] antenna.””

 

Sifnos is an interesting society because we have a mind of our own. We react in many cases. When Vodaphone wanted to install an antenna right above everybody’s houses the people said no to Vodaphone and tried to force them to put the antenna on a mountain or don’t do it at all. We are 2500 on the island, 450 children who go to school and only three police officers. 30 policemen came from Syros to protect the Vodaphone antenna and its installation process. But the people of Sifnos did not let anyone through to reach the antenna. They said: “You can arrest us or beat the hell out of us, but you won’t get to the antenna.” The police found this too crazy crazy and left. Although that was not the best solution, it showed people could work together and actually achieve something. In the 80s they also achieved the protection of the architectural environment. We are simple people; most of us are farmers, fishers or tourist workers without special education. In the 80s we wanted to develop the island for tourists because it would allow us to live in comfort. We agreed not to build anything more to protect the island and refused the boats of the architectural committee to arrive. After this, laws were changed. We made an impact.

 

“[T]he cultural traditions haven been maintained through the centuries, such as the festivals. If you go to the other islands, there are religious festivals that have become commercial.”

 

The creation of the coop is very much part of that spirit. People love this place and are very proud. Talking about self-sustainability makes perfect sense here. 60 years ago people were self-sustained. In the 1970s we had no garbage trucks but a donkey with two boxes. In the most populated village of the island, the donkey collected garbage once a week and the two baskets never got full because we did not have plastic and the import of today. Some people who lived in the 70s are still alive and the younger generation remember how their parents lived their self-sustained lives, which was the natural way of living. Now we are more dependent on what comes from the outside. We have a solidarity mentality and we are very proud of that. One example: the cultural traditions have been maintained through the centuries, such as the festivals. If you go to other islands, there are religious festivals that have become commercial. Selling goods around the church. Here it is not the same, after the church everybody eats and drinks and dances with local musicians and nobody is selling or paying anything. The only person who pays is the person who organises the festival and all the others are invited. Everybody is welcome.

 

We’re becoming an example for other island. For example Symi contacted us because they found out about our coop. They started talking about it among themselves four months ago and we’re helping them. It needs time, however, even though there is solidarity. People don’t always understand. To most people energy source is a button on the wall. They want to turn on the light, so they press a button and turn it on. How energy comes to them is not something people think about.

 

“[W]e don’t want to become an anonymous organisation funded by private investors.”

 

I have to say that we exist because of Dirk Vansintjan, the Belgian founder of the coop Ecopower, who is now the president of REScoop.eu. He has inspired us and me personally to spend all my time on our coop. He has helped the EU Coop movement tremendously. He helped to get us started by finding out the right conditions.

 

We accept private investors, but if you want to invest more than the six shares, we make up a contract so you can make profits without becoming an owner, because we don’t want to become an anonymous organisation funded by private investors. The good thing about energy is that we will forever need it. This project has a given demand that is rising and is not coming down, so profits are guaranteed. Still, everyone has one vote.

 

Initially we did not want to get subsidies from the Greek government. As far as we understand, historically our government has been quite corrupt and that means that there are always under-the-table negotiations. We want to avoid this. However, the minister of energy and finance and the overall ministry really want to help. Our goal is to get a loan from the EU investment bank since they declared that they support any action in the climate change issue. If we get a subsidy from the Greek government, it will be on our own terms.

 

“I think the Coop movement will grow, because I believe in what people can do if they work together.”

 

The cooperation in general is to get people involved to care for their own well-being. Instead of buying products from companies, we create them ourselves. If there are more people involved, more capital is collected and more things can happen. United the results are usually better. I’m apolitical because I don’t trust Greek politicians. Instead I trust people and I think the Coop movement will grow, because I believe in what people can do if they work together. The model of having the wind and hydro-turbines producing energy is such a smart concept that if this happens here, other people will be inspired because it makes perfect sense. Everything we use – plastic bags, energy, local production to improve quality and export – should all come from not a big company but from the people themselves.

 

“I want a logical, self-sustainable growth that follows the population growth. We don’t need to be rich, just happy.”

 

I believe that energy and fossil fuels are like water and water is a public asset, not private. Water is a spring, fossil fuel is a black spring. Wind is a public asset, so producing energy from this, makes the energy also public energy. Ideally citizens would come together and it should become a public asset. For me, in 50 years time Sifnos would be a community of citizens who don’t need to import and are therefore not dependent on anything except on incoming travellers. Tourism is of course not always a good thing as well if you look at other islands. It changes the character of the island and the people. I want solidarity and self-sustainability as much as possible. Ideally I would like a gradual economic growth, no need for peaks because then there are always downfalls. So I want a logical, self-sustainable growth that follows the population growth. We don’t need to be rich, just happy.

 

My hope for Europe is less attention to business and more to people, because that is the major cause of the problems: businesses are strong because of the lobbyists and they know how to promote their business with expertise. EU is not as democratic as it could be, but what is happening now is probably better then what is happening a century ago, so we are moving in the right direction although there are many obstacles. We strive for more actual democracy.”

Interview by Sonderland
Photos by The Caravan’s Journal