Laws on protecting our forests

Attica’s forests seem to catch fire with alarming ease. Scrubland carpets hillside once covered with tall trees. Villas soon follow, their owners confident that their legal status will follow. On the slopes of Mount Pendeli, north of Athens, owners of illegally constructed homes not only go unpunished, but are soon to be vindicated, judging by legislative changes in the offing. The first change in the new constitutional review concerns yet another change to articles 24 and 117. Although the final text has not been drafted, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has made known the general outline and the first reactions have been made. On May 11, Karamanlis set out four fundamental principles regarding changes to these articles; the use of aerial photographs from 1975, rather than 1945 or 1960, would be the basis for judging whether an area was forested and to what use it could be put, the boundaries between forests and town plans and changes to legislation regarding the ownership of forests and distinctions between public and private forests. «The goal is to provide better protection for areas that were forests during the first year the Constitution was implemented. Any change to these areas after June of 1975, for any reason whatsoever, will not be taken into consideration. Areas that were forests during the year the Constitution came into effect are declared to be set aside for reforestation. A law to that effect will provide for stiff penalties for those who violate it,» he said. According to the head of the Panhellenic Forestry Experts’ Movement, Thanassis Bouzinekis, there is no unified aerial photography covering the whole country. «According to the new provision, we can forget whatever was forest before 1975. However, most of the land-grabbing happened during the (1967-1974) dictatorship when decisions on land use were made by the prefect.» The fact that these areas were no longer forested after 1975 should not be used an alibi for land-grabbers, he warned. «If land-grabbers’ demands are satisfied, what is to prevent others from hoping for yet more amendments?» added Bouzinekis. What is needed above all is for all forest areas to be mapped, in accordance with the 2001 Constitution (Article 24, Paragraph 1). That way boundaries can be set and changes recorded. According to an initial estimate, between 700,000 and 10,000 hectares of forest have changed character since 1945. «Making a distinction between actual forests and scrubland, we propose including the latter within the country’s zoning plans. This is in line with ‘sustainable development’ mentioned in the 2001 Constitution calling for protection of the natural environment without ruling out measures necessary for development,» said the prime minister. Still, experts say any distinction between forest and scrubland is unscientific. «Whether scrub or old forest, all tall trees that were burnt down are also scrubland,» explained Bouzinekis. Including scrub in town plans could provide loopholes for land-grabbing and all kinds of «development.» According to Georgios Sariyiannis, professor of town planning at the National Technical University, this can only be done on one condition, as in all advanced countries, where forestland stays forestland. «In these cases, the existence of forested areas is a given and town plans are adapted to the integrity of the forest. That is why there are large forests and woods in the middle of Vienna and Berlin.»