Each summer, Greece becomes filled to the brim with visitors from near and far seeking to enjoy the Mediterranean sun and Aegean Sea. But what comes along with this Greek summer is something locals fear and dread. Extreme heat that is further exacerbated by the Climate Crisis, sparking forest fires of vast proportions. As if the changing climate was not dangerous enough, illegal arson is also responsible for many of the fires that tear through the Greek landscape. After the devastating fires in the Eastern Attica town of Mati and neighboring towns, a new organization was formed in hopes of bringing light to a dark situation. We4All was formed in 2018 by two cousins, John Iliopoulos and Antonis Bogdanos.
Although there was great loss, this newly shaped group of volunteers decided that they would do whatever was in their power to rebuild. Their goal is to plant one billion trees in Greece by 2030. So far, they have already achieved an incredible milestone of planting over 50,000 trees. The established non-profit organization has several actions under their guidance. These actions include planting and tending to newly planted trees and plants, and also organizing clean-ups and educational seminars that aim to bring communities closer and incite lasting change.
People inside and outside Greece have been inspired and wish to convey a message along the lines of “thank you to We4All for the example they are setting for society at all levels. I encourage you to explore, follow, and listen to the messages of environmental action organizations like We4All.” Their guiding motto says it all: To help Earth heal and to remind people she is our home, before it is too late.
In conversation with co-founder John Iliopoulos, we got a deeper understanding of We4All and the future of environmental action in Greece.
The National Herald: When We4All was created, what was the goal of the project and how did the beginning stages of it look?
John Iliopoulos: We4All was founded after the destructive fires of Mati in Attica, Greece in July 2018. Me and my cousin, Antonis, decided that it was about time we made an organized effort to reverse the damage and to engage the people of this planet into a coordinated effort to protect Earth, our home. As in every beginning, things were not easy. We had to deal with the bureaucracy, with the lack of funding, and with every other detail of setting up an Environmental Organization.
TNH: How did the organization evolve over time, and how do you hope it will be in the future?
JI: We began by funding our initial actions by ourselves. We started planting trees in the fire-afflicted areas of Marathon and Rafina. We created the We4All bracelet where with each purchase, we planted one tree. This started making us known and many people began to embrace our organization as something new, something genuine and organic, something that was trying to make a change in the way things were going.
Soon enough, big companies started to support us and to collaborate with us on their Social Responsibility initiatives. We established collaborations with the state and with numerous municipalities, schools, organizations, and eventually here we are, having planted over 50,000 trees and educated over 4,000 children on environmental matters.
TNH: What have been the biggest setbacks in creating the organization and fulfilling its goals?
JI: The biggest obstacle was, of course, the pandemic which struck one year after we began operations. Right at the point we were about to take off, we had to be locked down. But the rest of the world was in the same situation, so we did not complain. We sat down, we organized, we prepared, we initiated projects in other countries such as Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, and we established relations with municipalities of Greece in order to do more tree plantings and to take action together. As a result, despite the crisis, we emerged stronger and more determined to continue our work.
TNH: What have been the biggest wins and accomplishments?
JI: Our biggest win has been our recognition by a majority of companies, state agencies, and people of our country, as an honest, helping, and innovating organization, with actual work in the field day by day. We did not content ourselves with one or two tree plantings per year. Instead we were doing 2-3 actions every week. Tree planting in the morning, school training in the afternoon, day in day out. Looking at our thousands of trees growing taller by the year and seeing our ‘family’ growing stronger, fills our hearts with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude. However, the work is just beginning.
TNH: As a new era of activism takes shape in Greece, what do you hope to see from governments, citizens, and other stakeholders? And how will We4All impact this new era?
JI: Our role is a peaceful one in this transition. We see the world is recognizing the need for change. It is only a question of “how fast is fast enough.” We are not protestors, we are not activists, we do not wish to take sides. Each environmental problem that exists today has multiple aspects, and one should not simply “blame the government” or “blame the meat industry” or “blame fossil fuels.” Because our social structure works like a chain, and at the core of it is “us”, each one of us, and the way he/she choses to live. Our own diets, our own ways of transportation, our own recycling habits, our own support of environmental initiatives. And this is what the governments and the corporations are listening to and adjusting to. Therefore, our role is to educate by example. To show people what we are doing and to show them that they can be a part of it. To show them that they are not alone when they desire to help our planet. They are part of a huge, global family, the family of We4All.
TNH: Trash pollution is a problem not often discussed. How is We4All tackling this problem and what is needed for a cultural-shift towards no pollution?
JI: Trash is another major issue. It seems to have been successfully dealt with by northern European countries who are leading the race for sustainability. I think the rest of the world should take their example, but then again it comes down to the sense of social responsibility of each one of us. When you see a piece of trash on the beach you are visiting, why don’t you pick it up? Yes, the person who discarded it was responsible initially, but if you don’t pick it up now, probably no-one will. Our solution to this is to educate by example, and to educate children at the period of their lives where such habits are formed.
TNH: How can environmental initiatives and groups secure a seat at the table and influence governmental and societal actions?
JI: This can happen either when NGOs are working in cooperation and as a united front, or it can happen when an NGO has the support of a lot of people. As we well know, in a democracy, people are the ones who should be listened to by governments. And even if sometimes it doesn’t appear to be so, in the long run, in the elections or when people get uneasy about situations, the government as well as the corporations always pay attention. So, the support of people, spreading the world about their favorite NGO, makes a big difference.