Environmental groups staged a candlelit protest outside the House of Parliament yesterday, ahead of the tabling today of a deeply controversial new bill on forests that critics claim will lop more than 3.5 million hectares off Greece’s officially protected – but rapidly shrinking – sylvan expanses. According to the draft legislation, prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture, the official designation of forest land will only apply to areas larger than 0.3 hectares, 25 percent of which is covered by trees. Under current legislation, 15 percent coverage is enough to ensure the area being officially accepted as forest land – and therefore off-limits to developers or builders of any sort. However, this protection is only notional, as illegal buildings punctuate most of the country’s forests, particularly on the outskirts of major population areas such as Athens and Thessaloniki. Although the government vowed earlier this year to show no mercy to people illegally building on forest land, on Monday it added an amendment to the forest bill under which fines for such trespasses of the law will be indefinitely frozen. The amendment, tabled a few months before the forthcoming national elections – set for late April or early May – made no mention of demolition. Yesterday, Agriculture Minister Giorgos Drys defended the proposed freeze on fines, which he said would cease once new maps are drawn up defining which parts of the country count as forests. He said this would happen within 2004. However, this seems unlikely, as, although such maps were first mentioned in a law of 1979, so far only Arcadia has been mapped.