In the Nation that Gave Birth to Democracy, the Environment is Sacrificed on the Altar of Greed and Political Clientelism

Greek summers are hot and extremely dry. Temperatures swell frequently into 40 degrees Celsius and you can feel the dryness in your throat. Ideal conditions for swimming, sailing and mountain hiking, or… for planning forest fires if you are part of the construction mafia in Greece.

Every summer entire forest regions are destroyed in Greece through willful arson. The fires are not an act of terrorists with an organized plan to destroy the nation’s forests, as certain government officials claimed following the tsunami of fires that ravaged Greece this summer. The best indication as to who may be behind the fires are the luxury villas that go up on burned forest area as soon as the last flames are extinguished.

Since the mid-1980s, Greece’s forests have been shrinking at an alarming rate and few forests retain their historic beauty and diversity. With summers becoming hotter every year and the craving for land development and construction ever more insatiable, wildfires are also growing more severe and destructive.

This summer wildfires raged through the center and south of the country, from the Peloponnese region to Evoia, near Athens, causing an environmental catastrophe true to proportions of a Greek tragedy. In all, some 300,000 hectares were burned, 65 people died, thousands of homes were destroyed, and entire rural economies vanished.

The crisis had been escalating since late June, when the most intense heatwave in Greece in over a century saw temperatures climb to above 40 degrees Celsius for six consecutive days. One forest fire spilled over Mount Parnitha, 25 kilometers north of Athens, and turned into ashes the last oasis of lush greenery and semi-wildlife to be found in the Attica region. The scene was an apocalyptic one of utter desolation and destruction, with blazing fires and billowing smoke rising high into the sky. Amazingly enough, the authorities had miscalculated the direction of the winds.

The fires that ravaged the Peloponnese region on the weekend of August 25-26 again exposed the incompetence of the state. Fire fighters were left alone to battle the fires, with no centralized coordination of any sort, and the armed forces were never deployed even when people were trapped and burned in their own villages. Even ancient Olympia was nearly consumed by the fires and the best that the conservative government of New Democracy could come up with, through the mouth of its caricature figure of Minister of Public Order Byron Polydoras, was to express relief that the site of the birth of the Olympic Games was spared!

Forest fires in Greece have become summer sport for land developers who take advantage of the existence of an appallingly incompetent and thoroughly corrupt state administrative apparatus. The Greek state lacks not only a forest fire prevention program, expertise and technological equipment to fight fires, but Greece is the only country in the European Union with no forest registry. In Greece, even the public-utility companies become part of the corrupt “exchange system” as in many cases they end up providing the owners of new homes on burned areas designated as forest land with access to electricity and water.

Neither the current conservative government (New Democracy) not the socialists (Pasok) who were in power for much of the 1990s and the early parts of 2000 have shown any concern for the environment. Both parties cater largely to the needs of the same vested economic interests, and while they may make plenty of rhetorical noises in support of the environment during an electoral campaign, once in power they rush to undo even what little protection still exists for the country’s forests.

Consider, for example, clause 24 in the Greek constitution which assigns responsibility for the protection of the natural environment to the state. In May 2006 the conservative government of New Democracy sought to amend clause 24, but it’s move was met with stern opposition by the main opposition party, i.e., Pasok, and the small parties of the Left, which claimed that any amendment to clause 14 would open the door to land development in areas designated as forest land. Yet, when Pasok was in power, it sought to amend clause 24 along the same lines that were proposed by the current government of New Democracy.

Corruption is endemic to the Greek political system and reaches the highest levels of the government, no matter which of the two parties rules. The pure logic of capital prevails. Little wonder why the conservatives and the socialists spend so much time debating on the parliament floor, as they did before the fires, as to which of the two parties steals more from the national treasury when in power!

On September 16, the Greek people will go to the polls to elect a new 300-seat parliament, six months before the current conservative government’s four year mandate ends. Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis cited the need for a “new mandate” in order to carry our further his reforms as the reason of calling for early parliamentary elections.

Following this summer’s ecological catastrophe, one hopes that whichever of the two main parties wins the elections, their policies of naked exploitation of nature and the environment will be replaced by measures that will reduce the nation’s environmental burden (Athens has the odious distinction of being one of the most polluted cities in Europe) and introduce a national plan for environmental education and sustainable development.

It is a genuine shame that a country that gave form and shape to democracy and civil virtue and once prided itself on the cultivation of aesthetics as the true meaning of life displays today such an astounding mental perversity in sacrificing the environment and its whole ecological system on the altar of greed and political clientelism. This is a true Greek tragedy.

Chronis Polychroniou is Professor and Head of Academic Affairs at Mediterranean University College in Athens. Read other articles by Chronis, or visit Chronis's website.

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  1. byron evyenopoulos said on September 12th, 2007 at 1:12pm #

    Dear Professor,
    Maybe all Greeks should stop pretending that ideology can solve their problems, including the environement. This winter will see the tragedy of the fires compounded by floods. Greek youth will once again demonstrate on a regular basis in Thessaloniki and Athens – plastering posters and painting ugly grafitti defiling the urban environment, instead of doing something constructive like planting trees. They throw molotov cocktails and destroy property as if it is a rite of passage. After graduation, they will learn to drink $5 cups of coffee, bitch and blame their government for everything that is wrong with the country, while throwing their lit cigarettes out of their SUVs into narrow streets designed for donkeys and pedestrians. Either the Greek youth rises to confront their environmental future and learns to tackle corruption in government or the nation will become a desert in the next 50 years. Greece has the potential to begin building windfarms and solar farms throughout the country but it lacks leadership of any kind despite the large numbers of Greeks who possess university educations. The nation wastes 80% of its water resources on inefficient farming techniques despite a looming water shortage on horizon. Meanwhile, the Minister of Tourism talks about building environmentally destructive and water wasting golf courses to attract a different kind of tourist. Greece should be building marinas on its islands and encouraging sailing vacations. Greece may be the birthplace of democracy, however, it is abundantly clear the heirs of that gift prefer to worship their past instead of building their future. So sad.