Vocabulary for squatters: Burn, divide, buy, build and legalize

Anyone can grab forestland. The lower the trees, the better. It isn’t easy to classify land as a forest. Only forestry maps show that an area requires protection. So you build, and by the time the house is discovered, it is a fait accompli. Costas Diakos, a lawyer who has handled such cases, says there are five verbs that describe the land-grabbing process: burn, divide, buy, build and legalize. Burn: Burnt land is easier to appropriate and build on because it is not visibly a forest. Only if you seek out forestry maps will you see that the area has been listed for reforestation. And culprits usually only pay a fine. Divide: Subdivision of forest and woodland is not permitted, But when more than one owner appears, division seems necessary, and it is major step toward changing the classification of the land. Buy: Lawyers, engineers and notaries public all help land-grabbers acquire titles of ownership to the land they have encroached on. In Greece, usucapion – acquisition of property after long uninterrupted use – applies; and someone who uses land for 20 years automatically acquires ownership. Many people produce documents showing that one of their forebears used to graze sheep on a certain piece of land. It works like this: A supposed land-grabber deliberately plants a few trees on the land that has already been encroached on, whereupon the original land-grabber goes to court to claim the land, and presents such documents in support of the claim. The fake land-grabber never appears in court, and the one who files suit wins the case and acquires ownership by a court decision. Build: A very common tactic for constructing a house on forest or woodland is to build a church. Around a church, it is permitted to build an area for common use and a small dwelling for the needs of the church. This small dwelling later acquires the dimensions of a house. Another method is to set up a canteen as a temporary refreshment stand and gradually enlarge it. Legalize: Once the land is built on, legalization is easier, because nobody wants to pay the political price of demolishing a dwelling. Offenders almost always pay a fine and wait for some amendment to the law so they can fully legalize their situation. It really is easy to acquire forestland because forests are not protected except from fires (though often with little success), and much emphasis is put upon fighting forest fires. Proper forest management requires a separate study of each forest, its protection and use. In Greece, this cannot be guaranteed because responsibility is shared by many agencies. The Environment Ministry is responsible for Natura areas, the forestry service for forests (but staff cutbacks have left just two or three people in charge of vast areas), and the fire service is responsible for fighting fires. Greece does possess one advantage in the variety of its forests. As Dimitris Karavelas, director of WWF Hellas, says, «Greek forests have a varied mosaic of plants and trees.» Yet WWF’s assessment of forestry care in 19 European countries lists Greece in 15th place. Complicated legislation According to the report, the greatest problems concern scrubland, which comprises 26 percent of the total area of Greece. Ownership is not clearly defined, the national land register and forestry maps have been in abeyance for 150 years, and the legislation covering land-grabbing, illegal building and like matters is under fire almost every month from new amendments and draft bills. Most countries, notes the report, have forestry ministries, but in Greece the general secretariat for forests is continually being downgraded. «The necessary conditions for the protection of the forests are clarification of the legislation and an irrevocable forest register,» says Anastassios Papastavrou, professor of forest policy in the Forestry and Natural Environment Department of the Aristotle University. «Nothing is more complicated than the Greek legislation on forests,» he adds.

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