Idle agencies leave nature vulnerable

Greece’s natural environments are not being protected – they have no clear boundaries, no terms have been set for their maintenance and the agencies set up four years ago to protect them consist solely of a board of directors and sometimes one or two staff members. Related services, even when not outright hostile to these agencies, are not coordinating with them. Ministry departments are unprepared to provide adequate support for national parks and local communities are not aware of their value, often seeing them as a potential source of trouble. The management agencies set up to administer these areas appear to be established solely for the purposes of qualifying for European Union funds, since little has been accomplished and only then at the very last moment. Yet as far back as 1930, the importance of protecting Greece’s areas of natural beauty had been recognized. Mount Olympus was given national park status in 1938. Over half a century later, the need to conserve sensitive ecosystems for future generations has been generally accepted. In recent decades the European Union has issued directives and asked member states to list areas of particular interest and take steps to conserve them. Greece drafted the list and in 2003 – after years of delay – founded agencies to manage the most important ecosystems. Since these agencies were set up, very little has been done. Until last year, they consisted solely of a board of directors, but had no staff or resources. «Today there are 27 such agencies protecting 87 of Greece’s 359 designated Natura areas, but only nine have been classified (by presidential or ministerial decree) as national parks,» said Professor Panayiotis Dimopoulos of Ioannina University’s school of ecology. Until recently, he headed the management agency for the northern Pindos national park. «Most management agencies were founded without any clear field of action,» he added. «Today not one of these agencies is doing anything serious in the way of protection – most have not even been set up or staffed,» said Professor Despina Vokou of Thessaloniki University’s school of ecology and former head of the management agency for the Axios, Gallikos, Loudias, Aliakmonas and Kitros wetlands. «Even where there are staff members (hired through the Environment Operational Program – EPPER), there are only two or three people on contract until 2008 for specific jobs,» she said, adding that several other problems had emerged. «For example, in 2003 we were asked to submit proposals for protection programs for our areas, to be included in EPPER’s funding for 2000-2006. We did so, but by 2006 nothing had happened. Now they are in a hurry to announce the programs so as not to lose the funding.» This slapdash approach seems to be the rule. The state has not only delayed action but now expects the experts to draw conclusions from what is supposed to have been done. «For example, we are supposed to decided how successful particular measures have proved to be,» explained Dimopoulos. «Before Easter, after years of inaction, we scientists were asked to draw up, within two months, a national report for the European Union, which would be used as a basis for funding in the next EPPER programs. In other words, we are obliged to draw conclusions that might not be properly substantiated as the programs on which they are supposedly based either never took place, were rushed through or have not been completed.» «The role of these agencies is purely advisory; they have no authority to issue rulings or impose penalties,» explained Panayiota Marangou, head of WWF Greece’s program for protected areas. «The idea was for there to be an agency in which all relevant services could coordinate their activities and decide together what should be done. In practice, however, that never happened because in most cases the agencies had no staff.» Frequently these protected areas are under pressure from within the system. «In some cases, the Environment Ministry staffed the agencies with people who thought their job was to run a development corporation, people who saw the various restrictions as an obstacle and not as an opportunity for proper development. Often the heads of the agencies were chosen purely on a partisan basis, people who had no idea about what their job entailed, so that even the best-intentioned of them proved to be ineffective,» she said. The agencies also had a number of problems with other services. If an agency decides to clear away the garbage in its area, since it doesn’t have its own maintenance staff it has to call on the municipality or some other service. These services, however, are not required to give these areas priority, so the work keeps getting postponed. Only if a politician shows a particular interest in the area can things move ahead. Often other services such as the forestry service or port authorities see themselves as competing with the agencies. «The forestry services undermine the agencies because they are irked by the fact that some other organization has come between them and the state. There is absolutely no inspection mechanism,» said Dimopoulos. «There should be a group of people whose job it is to report violations of the protected status, otherwise it just won’t work.» The Environment Ministry recently announced an additional -180 million for protected areas in 2007-2013. «There have been many delays, such as decisions regarding the general principles governing the management of these areas,» said Professor Kalavrouziotis of Ioannina University, who is head of the protected Messolongi lagoon.«Still, these agencies are gradually putting forward proposals and the first major programs are beginning. For example, we are undertaking a special program to monitor the lagoon, taking measurements and carrying out inspections. I hope that within the next five years, things will change.»