Support for dodgy forestry bill

Following a lengthy, heated debate in which all three opposition parties accused the government of seeking to allow the development of forest land in the hope of electoral gains, Parliament yesterday appeared ready to pass a controversial new bill on forests today. New Democracy, the conservative main opposition party, supported the bill in a move that smacks of the same kind of voter-pleasing tactics ahead of the spring elections that, according to critics, inspired the ruling Socialists to water down the official definition of what constitutes a forest. ND backed a late amendment under which Greeks who have illegally built on forest land – which, according to the government, are some of few areas of the country where the law is to be strictly enforced against illegal builders – will not have to pay fines for such trespasses for the indefinite future. The Agriculture Ministry says the fines will be re-imposed once maps are drawn up showing exactly which areas can be designated as forests, claiming that the maps will be ready in 2004. This seems unlikely as the project is already well behind schedule. ND’s support came despite the fact that many of its MPs argued during the debate that the proposed law would lop over 3 million hectares off Greece’s officially protected forest land. Furthermore, conservatives had pointed out that parts of the bill were probably unconstitutional and contravened EU legislation. Under the new bill, at least 25 percent of any plot of land must be covered in trees for the area to be considered a forest. The previous limit was 15 percent. Synaspismos Left Coalition leader Nikos Constantopoulos accused the government of harboring plans to sell off land that under the new bill will officially cease to be forested.