Environmental Ombudsman

The destruction by fire of large tracts of Mt Parnitha, as President Karolos Papoulias said, broke our hearts not only because of its ecological importance but also its symbolic significance for Athenians. We Greeks are an emotional nation. We react strongly and forget quickly. There is no continuity or sense of personal responsibility. This is a recipe for repeated mistakes and for creating a negative cultural model of citizenship based on irresponsibility, selfishness, ostentation and inaction. But above all, after the first dramatic days, everything is forgotten and the media’s attention shifts to other current and usually unpleasant affairs. The results of a disaster, however, become apparent over time and efforts to resolve them should be ongoing. This is what is missing. And that is why we need institutions which will ensure continuity and be in a position to look forward and plan for the future. Against this background, the tragedy of Mt Parnitha obliges us to consider what proposals should be made to ensure the continuity of political action when the fires are no longer in the media spotlight. In this context, allow me to make just one suggestion that can and should be adopted immediately, a proposal that looks ahead and responds to the need for continuity and social responsibility. The proposal is for a new independent authority to be set up for the purpose of protecting the environment in a country whose natural beauty constitutes a great advantage. I believe that the public commodity that is the environment needs an advocate, an Environment Ombudsman, who will ensure transparency and the monitoring of environmental issues. Concentrating – presently scattered – authorities under such an umbrella could result in: w Annual inspections and a public record of the situation regarding illegal construction using all means available (such as aerial photographs), along with the publication of specific data that apportion individual responsibility in an annual report to be submitted to Parliament and made public. wMonitoring progress in restoring environmental damage caused by fire, marine pollution, etc. w An examination of charges brought for crimes against the environment and after a preliminary assessment, the initiating of due legal process and follow-up by authorities including the judiciary. w An annual report with specific proposals for the government. Setting up an Environmental Ombudsman’s bureau would raise the level of social responsibility and at the same time exert the necessary pressure on the government (in a specific manner) to take immediate steps, always within the year, without allowing the situation to reach a critical level that would result in a new generation of illegally constructed buildings. It would also – along with other measures, such as extending legislation on the status of national parks in burned areas, a national plan for preserving and developing green spaces throughout the country, and prior inspection by the Council of State of laws directly affecting the environment (instead of reducing the Council’s authorities) – create a cohesive public arena for citizens (beyond the executive and judiciary authorities) that would underpin efforts to protect the environment and facilitate the preparation of a national strategy. This would allow us to look ahead with greater optimism, rather than expecting to lament further environmental disasters. This demand for continuity, so lacking in Greek political reality, was one of the main messages of last week’s protest rally after the Parnitha fire.

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