Environmentalists skeptical about protected area management mergers

The recent decision to merge Greece?s protected area management agencies, reducing their number from 29 to 14, has raised concerns among environmental groups in the country.

The Environment Ministry has tried to quell fears by saying that the mergers were carried out in line with environmental, geographical, administrative and historical criteria in a bid to contain government spending.

In addition, officials at the ministry have told Kathimerini there will be a transitional period before the new system comes into full operation and that they will make sure that any programs still running will be concluded.

However, environmental organizations counter that the mergers will not reduce costs and, more importantly, that they will damage ties with local communities.

They also warn that the government has failed to hammer out a comprehensive plan that would take into consideration those Natura 2000 protected areas which are currently not supervised by any special agency. These are estimated at 77 percent.

The idea of merging the country?s protected area management agencies, which were first introduced in 2002 in response to European Union warnings of environmental negligence, started to emerge toward the end of the last decade. The idea resurfaced last year when the leadership of the Environment Ministry at the time requested the opinion of the FYSI (Nature) committee, a national organization that is responsible for the coordination and evaluation of all management agencies.

In April, the ministry requested draft legislation that would streamline and improve the agencies? operations.

On July 24, the Administrative Reform Ministry announced that the 29 agencies would be merged into 14. Since then, one more agency has been set up for Kastoria Lake in northwestern Greece, while a second one, for the eastern Aegean island of Samos, is expected to be formed in the near future.

?It is not that we reject the mergers altogether. It?s that we don?t want them to take place in a makeshift and hasty manner,? said Ioli Christopoulou of the local branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Greece), adding that if one agency is left for every region, as government officials have suggested, that could create problems.

?The agencies were created in order to strengthen ties with local communities. If there is one agency for every three or four protected areas, this connection will be lost,? Christopoulou said.

Other critics have described the merger decision as an impulsive reaction on the part of the government.

?[The merger] will hardly save any money as the agencies will until 2015 be financed mainly with EU funds,? said Despina Vokou, FYSI chairwoman and ecology professor at Thessaloniki?s Aristotle University, who was also skeptical about the future of yet-to-be-completed programs under the EU-backed National Strategic Reference Framework (ESPA).

However the main issue, she says, is not about the management agencies, which have jurisdiction over some 23 percent of Greece?s protected areas, but about the remaining 77 percent which have not yet been designated to any management authority.

?The funding of the current model until 2015 allows us enough time to come up with a comprehensive solution,? Vokou said.

Last November, FYSI made a proposal to the Environment Ministry for a reorganization of the entire system. The main point of the proposal was the creation of coordination committees for the protected areas. The only sites to keep their management agencies would be the country?s national parks and other sensitive areas.

A year earlier, WWF had suggested that the country?s forest agencies should undertake the supervision of all protected areas. All of the agencies should be accountable to one central authority, the Environment Ministry.

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