How burnt forests become top real estate

After every forest fire, the forestry service automatically proclaims burned areas as destined for reforestation. Areas that, through various means, are exempted from this classification lose their status as forestland. This opens the way for land claims, often by people who hold some kind of title to the land. Large areas are declassified in this manner and the outcome often holds big profits for those involved. Of the some 15,000 hectares destroyed by fire on Mount Pendeli in 1995 and 1998, about half were reclassified as non-forestland. Numerous claims had already been filed for the land. For many years now, this is how prime real estate has been created, particularly on the mountains of eastern Attica. According to forestry experts, 22 construction cooperatives have laid claim to areas on Pendeli destroyed by fire. The same tactics were used around Rafina right after last year’s blaze. Although as a result of pressure the entire area was declared destined for reforestation, two decisions were later issued by the Eastern Attica Region (in February 2006) exempting 44.4 hectares out of a total area of 435 hectares and another 185 out of a total 394. The reasoning behind these decisions was declared to be on the basis of an «interpretation of aerial photographs and satellite images taken before the fire, as well as on-site inspections.» The main argument was that there had been no tall trees in these areas. But this should not have been the sole classification criterion since the trees might have been cut down right before the fire, which was likely deliberately set. According to maps provided by the prefecture, the areas not covered by trees before the fire are marked in red. Some of these are just fractions of a hectare; they can only be private land within forests which the fire has finally transformed into building plots as a result of declassification. Normally, since there are no official forestry maps, the law requires that aerial photographs and maps from previous years be used as references. Another site exempted is 30 hectares near the Pendeli Children’s Psychiatric Hospital, though no reasons have been given for the decision. Already some patients have been moved away and rumors abound as to the site’s future. The old building is being carefully demolished to preserve the building material. Exemptions are not the only way to turn land into construction sites. Reforestation sometimes does not happen for lack of funds, personnel or plans. In the past decade, of some 14,000 hectares destroyed by fire, just half have been declared for reforestation, but only 2,200 have actually been replanted. The rest are awaiting nature to take its course, unless people, or another fire, do not get there first.

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