Eight legal initiatives in two decades but no lasting solution to the problem

In 1982, Antonis Tritsis, then minister of the environment, planning and public works (YPEHODE), came up with the slogan «You can save it if you declare it.» The message was clear. Anyone who had an ilegal property and officially declared it could acquire legal ownership of it. When some protested that this paved the way for land-grabbers, Tritsis reassured them it would be the last time, that matters were being put in order. Thanassis Bouzinakis, now president of the Panhellenic Foresters’ Movement, was present at that meeting. «If we don’t take some action, we’ll have to erect a statue to the Unknown Land-Grabber next to the statue of the Unknown Soldier,» the minister told us then, Bouzinakis recalled. «Since then,» said Bouzinakis, «I have seen eight legislative initiatives by all governments to legalize illegal properties.» He does not hide his disappointment at the rationale implicit in the draft bill submitted by the Economy Ministry. «It is as if we are saying that the state is incapable of protecting its property and as if we are rewarding land-grabbers. But we can’t stand by and do nothing. The state is not an abstract entity. There are ministers, deputy ministers and administrators.» Though each new initiative is said to be the last, they whet the appetite for further illegality. Real estate operators have already noted a growing sense that a new wave of land grabs is in the pipeline. Woodlands, which comprise the bulk of publicly owned land, are expected to come under particular pressure. The ministry may say that it will not sell forest, woodland or reforested areas, but the last law on forests (in 2003) allows much leeway for land to be reclassified. The law permits forested areas of less than 0.3 of a hectare with less than 25 percent vegetation cover (made up exclusively of trees) to be reclassified. When PASOK brought in that law New Democracy claimed it was a «forest killer.» Its abolition was announced, only to be retracted later. «This specific law clearly contravenes the constitution. It has not yet been implemented, as the Geotechnicians’ Chamber has lodged an appeal against it with the Council of State,» explained Bouzinakis. «The ruling has not yet been issued, because the government keeps requesting postponements to forestall a negative ruling. It seems a lot of people are waiting for a change to Article 24 of the constitution.» He sees all the recent developments concerning forests as being linked to the upcoming constitutional revision and the possibility that constitutional protection of forests will be weakened, which would be a tremendous blow against public property. Nor is it any coincidence that work on forest maps and other protective measures is not moving ahead. «It is typical that in the current debate in Parliament of the draft bill for the Land Register, the minister said nothing about forest maps, which are a small part, about 4 percent of the cost of the register,» noted Bouzinakis.