One man’s battle against land-grabbers

A few kilometers from Loutraki, just one-and-a-half hours from Athens in the foothills of Mt Geraneia, is a lovely pine forest that reaches down to the sea at Vamvakies and Mavrolimni. A few decades ago, the sole visitors to the area were resin collectors. The forest is managed by the Corinth forestry service, headed until 2004 by Panayiotis Kalliris. «It is a very important peninsula because it is covered by a natural forest of Aleppo pine. We are lucky, and not only those of us here in Corinth, but also the Athenians who are within a day’s journey. If we didn’t have that forest, we might not have Loutraki’s hot springs.» Kalliris was born in Zevgolatio, Corinth, and has spent his life surrounded by nature. When he became director of Corinth’s forestry service in 2002, there were 80,000 hectares of forest. He wanted to ensure that there would still be that many when he left the service. «I believe that the forest is the heritage our forebears left us and that I have a duty to hand it over as I found it. I wouldn’t be able to look my children or other people’s children in the eye otherwise.» When he took over, he knew of the illegal settlements at Vamvakies and Mavrolimni that had sprung up in the forest in the previous few years. He also knew that he wouldn’t have his job for long if he pitted himself against local residents but decided to drop a bombshell by setting in motion the procedure to have all of those houses demolished. It was the state itself that first created the problem. In 1962, the Agriculture Ministry of what was then the Kingdom of Greece illegally granted a 30-hectare coastal section of the forest to industrialist Ioannis Korasidis, although only resin collectors were allowed to have the use of tracts of forest. A few years later, the industrialist illegally began dividing up the property into housing lots and selling them. Within the next few years, entire illegally built settlements began to spring up overnight without any permit from the zoning authority. «We don’t have any police force, as you know,» explained Kalliris, «and the forestry service staff go home in the afternoon. No forestry service director wants to employ a forest ranger on weekends. So we are virtually telling people that all night and weekend they can go and build. The state should realize that if it wants to enforce the laws, there have to be police on duty around the clock.» Today these settlements are supplied with electricity, water and telephone lines. Residents pay taxes, declare their property to the taxation bureau and are considered residents of Loutraki. Kalliris explained how each public utility covered its tracks. «The Public Power Corporation justifies providing power to a house by citing the fact that the owner had produced a certificate from the zoning authority that the house was not condemned,» he explained. The zoning authority, meanwhile, said that the law does not require owners to provide any documents from the forestry service. Laws are often canceled out by other laws. «After the dictatorship, suddenly everywhere you turned there were cases of land-grabbing. Something had to be done, and that turned out to be Article 24 of the Constitution, which bans any alteration to forest areas apart from reasons of national interest. If a forest is destroyed by fire, cleared or used for other purposes, it is automatically scheduled for reforestation.» So one provision clearly states that houses built in forests are illegal. However, a law passed in 2003 by Parliament cancels out that provision, saying that since there is no forestry register, it cannot be ascertained which houses are actually in forests. «The fact that there is no register in parts of Greece does not mean there are no forests, because after all there is no nationwide land register, but I don’t think anyone doubts the ownership of farms or homes that have been bought on the basis of deeds. So we should make it clear that a forestry register is a dream for some people who believe that at some point they will be able to establish land use, that is, to know which are our forests, our lakes, our farms and thereby protect them.» Owners of illegally built homes in forests have been paying fines for years, which only perpetuates the problem. Land-grabbers believe that since they have been paying fines, they can keep their homes. A 1983 law allowing those who declared their illegal houses in order to keep them provided Vamvakies residents with another loophole. That law (the «Tritsis» law) never claimed that a house built in a forest would be spared, but no authority ever asked for a document from the forestry service verifying that the house was not in a forest. The plethora of laws and overlapping of services encouraged people to perpetuate the problem. Within 30 years, illegal settlements have become a fait accompli. Their owners thought Kalliris was at best crazy for trying to enforce the law so many decades later. Despite their battles in court, no one could accuse him of being prompted by anything other than a desire to protect the forest. Even when his own sister, a lawyer, was found to be representing a land-grabber, he threatened to take her to court and win. She decided to drop the case.