Redefinition of forested areas leaves loopholes for homeowners while 7.8 mln hectares may be lost

The fact that the full text of the forestry bill has not been released leaves room for misinterpretation and rumors, but it is immediately clear that the amendments allow for many loopholes for prospective homeowners, since they will effectively be able to have huge areas declassified as forest. At the same time, solutions are being adopted that will in practice be impossible to implement. A crucial part of the new bill concerns the definition of forest and forested areas. To be classified as forestland, an area will now have to be 25 percent covered in trees, instead of the current 15 percent, and the total area must be at least 3 stremmas (0.3 hectares). Although Deputy Agriculture Minister Fotis Hadzimichalis said this definition is supposed to «help us know clearly what defines a forest and forested land,» the fact remains that it could lead to Greece’s 7.8 million hectares of forest being declassified. Hadzimichalis also said the new definition would be a tool for users of forestland in order to have it declassified. One of the main measures included in the new bill is an increase in the number of Forest Dispute Resolution Committees, indicating an expected increase in the number of claims. According to the minister, the move is aimed at «speeding up decisions which have been unacceptably delayed, resulting in strong and justified complaints.» According to the guidelines announced on Thursday, the bill provides for analytical definitions of the cases in which the State waives any claim to ownership of forests and forestland, in such a way as to remove doubts pertaining to documents establishing rights. In practice (in an unspecified number of cases), this means that if someone has seized part of a forest for his own use, he does not need to prove ownership, as was the case until now, but it is the State which will have to lay claim to the land. An amendment to this effect with regard to land outside zoned areas is being prepared by the Environment, Planning and Public Works Ministry (YPEHODE). Housing cooperatives Housing cooperatives, which possess about 1.1 million hectares of forestland, will be able to exchange it for State-owned land elsewhere. However, the latter has not yet been found or even defined, making the successful implementation of this provision questionable. The bill also settles outstanding property transfers made over to farmers between 1924 and 1979, when the existing forestry protection law came into force. These transfers, made to enable farmers to supplement their income, is being treated in the same way as the other transfers under the Farming Code. However, another bill passed in June regarding agricultural land already includes a definition of forestland as that with at least 25 percent tree cover, already enabling the declassification of a number of forested areas. Another loophole is included in a provision which seems just, but is open to interpretation as it is not clear how many areas it refers to or where these are. According to this provision, landowners whose property has been judged as not being on forestland by the Forest Dispute Resolution Committee, but which for some reason had been designated as due for reforestation, or for which fines or special compensation had to be paid, are now free of any obligation. This also applies to those whose cases have been in the courts for some time, unless a binding ruling has already been issued by a court. The Agriculture Ministry keeps insisting that the new bill will not legalize land grabbing or the illegal construction of homes in forests. Yet this cannot be verified, since the full text has not been released, and those that are known are devoid of any real content. According to the new bill, no fines will be payable by those who demolish homes built illegally within a private forest or hand them over to the relevant forestry service within six months from the day the law is passed. If they do not do so, according to Hadzimichalis, the existing legal conditions will apply and the case will be dealt with by YPEHODE along with all other illegally built homes. «Special attention» is given to the mapping of meadowland, which then can be used as «reserve land,» not for farmers or livestock breeders as one would expect, but for «development projects» such as industrial and manufacturing buildings, cultural and welfare projects. The bill includes other provisions referred to in a generalized way in the ministry announcement, such as «special provisions for children’s camps» on forestland, «the erection of prefabricated homes to be used as visitor accommodation,» «shelters for stray animals,» but without actually specifying the conditions for these activities or even what measures would be taken to protect the forest under these circumstances.

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