New forest bill may not see the trees

A new bill aimed at clarifying the status of the country’s forests could cause the further shrinking of sylvan Greece. The bill, whose contents were released yesterday by Agriculture Minister Giorgos Drys, is officially about the «protection of forest ecosystems, the creation of a forest register and the regulation of rights on forestland.» However, experts said its provisions open the way for at least 2.6 million hectares of forestland to be declassified and opened to other uses. Opposition parties attacked the bill from different angles. While conservative New Democracy focused mostly on technical issues, accusing the government of delay, incompetence and providing piecemeal solutions, the Left Coalition attacked what it termed «the forest-killing bill» and its «all-out attack on Greece’s nature.» The definition of forestland in the bill includes a land area no smaller than three stremmas (about 0.3 hectares), 25 percent of which, at a minimum, must be covered by forest vegetation. Previous definitions of forestland put vegetation coverage at 15 percent, and the present definition specifically excludes scrub. A second contentious feature of the bill allows owners of land whose cultivation has been abandoned and where forest has covered what was previously farmland to reclaim it and use it for any purpose they find suitable. To reclaim such land, the owners, or their descendants, have to produce documentation proving that they owned the land before February 23, 1946. Given that most agricultural land, especially in mountainous areas, was abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s, an additional form of proof will be photographs from the 1960 aerial survey (a previous survey, in 1945, had produced low-resolution pictures). Another category of reclaimable forestland includes areas where certain people had the right to use it – for logging, for example – but the State retained ownership. Article 13 of the draft bill provides the users of such land with the right to claim it, through payment of a modest sum, or to give it back to the State. If the user of the land is a municipality, rather than an individual, ownership is automatically transferred to the municipality. Those who have built illegally on forestland are given six months to tear down their houses. Curiously, there are no penalties for those who will not, in Drys’s terms, «take advantage» of this provision. The matter is left to the Ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works. Another article allows real estate cooperatives in possession of forestland to swap it for other available land. Furthermore, the bill provides for the registering of all areas of meadowland with the stated aim of using them for «development projects.» Drys told reporters that the bill will be the subject of debate before being submitted to Parliament.

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