New law threatens Greece’s forests

The government yesterday lifted the lid – partially – on new legislation that it says is aimed at solving problems concerning the ownership of forests and forested areas, denying opposition charges that it was opening the way to further shrinkage of Greece’s forests. But forestry experts estimated that about 5-7 million stremmas (500-700,000 hectares) of forest areas and 15-20 million stremmas (1.5-2 million hectares) of meadows will be declassified. «We are not talking about declassifying forests, under no circumstances,» Agriculture Minister Giorgos Drys insisted after a Cabinet meeting. He began a news conference, explaining the outlines of the bill that will be made public next week, by declaring what the legislation is not: It does not legalize the clearing of forests; it will not legalize illegal buildings in forest or forested areas; it does not solve the problems of housing cooperatives that have bought disputed land; it does not lift the protection of forests and forested areas. What the bill does introduce is the scrapping of aerial photographs from 1945 as the basis for defining forests, choosing instead photographs from 1960. Housing cooperatives, who possess 11 million stremmas (1.1 million hectares) of disputed land and are unable to build on it will be able to exchange it for public land elsewhere. There will be more committees aimed at resolving disputes over land. Conditions will be established for prefabricated buildings to be set up in forests for visitors. Also, shelters for abandoned animals and strays will be permitted in forests. A key part of the new legislation is that forestland will be defined as an area of at least 3 stremmas (0.3 hectares) of which at least 25 percent is covered by trees, from the current 15 percent. «This will help us know clearly what defines a forest and a forested area, so that citizens will not depend on the whims of forestry officials or have to seek recourse in court,» Deputy Agriculture Minister Fotis Hadzimichalis said. But it could also lead to Greece’s 78 million stremmas (7.8 million hectares) of forest shrinking. The new legislation will also try to settle issues outstanding since 1924, when large tracts of public land were given to farmers. Asked if the many villas that have been built illegally in forests will be demolished, government spokesman Christos Protopappas repeated a promise that has been made many times without effect: «Where they are built illegally, of course.» While acknowledging that «it is necessary that some order be established» with regard to forests, New Democracy’s spokesman for agricultural issues, Evangelos Basiakos, claimed the government was trying to win votes and was doing a sloppy job. «The government is panicky and confused. It does not even have the right figures,» he said. The Communist Party accused the government of «going ahead with a crime against the people and the country’s natural wealth.» The head of the Greek chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature, Dimitris Karavellas, told Kathimerini: «The bill is not a solution for the problems that have arisen concerning forests and forested areas. It is not even a first step in the right direction. On the contrary, it is the continuation of a series of mistaken actions which steadily move the border between housing settlement and forest to the detriment of the forest. Those who take over land illegally are rewarded while those of us who want to respect the laws feel like fools.» He said the Agriculture Ministry should have first charted forest areas.