Government sidelines Greece’s environmental issues by focusing its resources and energy on public works

What characterizes the current leadership of the Ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE)? Incessant self-congratulation on belated incorporation of European Union legislation as if this was the first time Greek law had ever incorporated a directive. Verbal and legal attacks on the Council of State for its legal precedents concerning the environment, as if Greece was oversupplied with guarantors of environmental legality. Outdated scientific notions such as the idea that river water flowing into the sea is wasted. An obsession with obsolete major projects which not only fail to provide solutions but also have grave environmental, social and economic consequences, such as the diversion of the Acheloos River. Statements that are irrelevant to the environment by officials and agencies that manage our national parks. Disdain for and virtual abolition of coordinating bodies in significant environmental sectors, such as the natural environment and town planning. Dumping senior ministry staff because they dare (as obliged by law) to give information to environmental organizations. Total indifference to the mounting demands made by environmental organizations, agencies and individuals for information, in contravention of the obligations enshrined in national and EU legislation. Press releases containing serious mistakes in scientific terminology that reveal ignorance of important ecological notions. In short, the present leadership of YPEHODE deals exclusively with public works, forgetting that, at least in name, the ministry is primarily concerned with the environment and town planning. In the few cases it engages with the environment, it seems to groan under Greece’s many environmental obligations and probably cannot bear to get involved with them at all. But YPEHODE is the main representative of the environmental policy of the government in power. While previous governments found themselves up against environmental organizations because they used to take one step forward and two steps back, the present government is going at full speed in reverse. Thus Greece is at risk of environmental regression to the thinking and practices of the 1960s, when the environment was seen as an obstacle to economic development and natural resources were believed to be inexhaustible and available for any kind of mismanagement. The blame rests chiefly with the minister, who literally ignores the country’s obligations under international and national law and environmental policy, and steadfastly refuses to «show his hand» and initiate a substantive and broad social dialogue so that, for the first time in its history, the ministry concerned acquires a fully fledged strategy for the environment. Of course, with few exceptions, dialogue and negotiation on matters of policy are not the legal obligation of any minister. It is a matter of culture. The final decision is in the hands of the political superior, the YPEHODE minister. The prime minister must decide if the government sees the environment as a national heritage or a national burden. A competitive advantage for Greece or hindrance to so-called development. A significant incentive for innovation or an arena for unimpeded economic exploitation. A sphere in which to formulate models for sustainable local development or an indifferent nonentity. Because if, in the end, the government sticks to its politically outdated and ineffectual aversion to anything related to environmental protection, then we may relive those days of the 1950s and 1960s when we drained half the marshes and lakes in Greece, viewed intensive and chemical farming as the future of Greek agriculture and saw concrete and asphalt as our saviors from our burdensome natural heritage. (1) Theodota Nantsou is environmental policy coordinator of WWF-Hellas.