Greek villagers despair, demand help after fires

ARTEMIDA – Among the charred remains of homes and fields, villagers lay flowers on the graves of their dead and say they are losing hope of ever resurrecting their lives from the ashes of last summer’s wildfires. The blazes, which raged for 10 days and were the worst in memory, killed 65 people, destroyed homes and obliterated olive trees, vineyards, and half of the forests in the southern Peloponnese peninsula. Politicians declared a state of emergency and promised millions of euros in aid, just weeks before a general election. But a year later, with the vote safely out of the way, villagers say almost nothing has been done. Some people fear the blazes may have dealt a deathblow to hoteliers, olive oil producers and farmers who saw 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres) of land on the Peloponnese turn black. Many communities were already struggling to survive in one of the poorest regions in the eurozone. Some residents had long accused the government of neglecting rural areas, leaving young people to seek better lives in cities. «We are completely forgotten by everyone. A year has gone by and I’m thinking of just picking up and leaving. I have no life here,» said Aris Vassopoulos, 34, a restaurant owner who saw his business and home in the village of Artemida go up in flames. Greece’s largest jewelry maker Folli Follie paid for the reconstruction of his restaurant – one of several businesses to fund reconstruction – but it stands empty as Vassopoulos says he has still received no compensation from the government to equip it. Twenty-six of 110 villagers perished in Artemida in the southwest Ilia region, which was the hardest hit by the fires. Most of those killed, including a mother and her four children, died as they fled the burning village in cars. The small shrines which residents erected by the roadside where they lost friends and relatives provide the only dashes of color in a carbon-black landscape. Those people left behind blame the conservative government, re-elected with a thin majority after the fires, for lacking a plan to revive their region. The government says the fire caused damage worth 0.6 percent of Greece’s 230-billion-euro ($325 billion) economy. «They gave us promises before the elections but Ilia won’t be saved even if hundreds of homes are rebuilt,» said Eugenios Balkamos, the local prefect on environmental issues. «People despair because they see there’s no long-term plan and believe they don’t have a future here. Ilia will be deleted from the map.» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s government spent a total of 107 million euros in emergency relief and said the redevelopment of afflicted areas would be its top priority. It offered 3,000 euros in immediate aid to those affected and provided temporary shelters, while setting up an emergency fund that later raised 200 million euros in private donations. But data released in August showed only 15 percent – about 29 million euros – of those donations have so far been spent on reconstruction. This has outraged villagers in Artemida who are still living in 20-square-meter prefabricated houses. «Within a few months we will know how the rest will be spent,» said the fund’s head, Petros Molyviatis, adding delays were caused because residents did not submit requests on time. Molyviatis admitted nearly 3 million euros from the emergency fund were disbursed to reforest Olympia ahead of the torch-lighting ceremony in March for the Beijing Games. Greece is grappling with a slowing economy and a huge debt burden – standing around 95 percent of gross domestic product. Growth has averaged 4.2 percent a year since it joined the eurozone in 2001, but economists expect it to slow to 3 percent this year. Economists warn of serious long-term effects for the Peloponnese unless quick measures are taken to compensate people for fire damage: If agriculture is not revived, jobs will be lost and local businesses shut down. Nearly four out of five people work in tourism and agriculture. «As a result of this trend, the local economy will be trapped in stagnation or will even shrink,» said Nikos Magginas, an economist at the National Bank of Greece. With some of the country’s most treasured landscapes, the Peloponnese welcomes 1.5 million tourists every year and produces one-third of the country’s main export, olive oil. About 40 percent of the peninsula’s olive groves were destroyed by the fires and compensation has yet to be paid for replanting. Environmentalists say destroyed deciduous forests will take at least 20 years to grow again and the fir forests will take around 100 years. Greece’s farmers had already seen their incomes shrink because of EU agricultural reforms, increased competition from third countries and volatile weather. In the foothills of Parnonas Mountain near the historic city of Sparta, 56-year-old Themistocles Harvouros, who lost most of his olive trees and goats, says his few surviving animals have no land to graze. The Agricultural Ministry, which tasked the Agricultural University of Athens with devising a strategy to revive agriculture, said payouts would be made to stricken farmers by the end of the year. Tourism, which accounts for nearly a fifth of the Peloponnese economy, has also been hit. The local hoteliers association said business fell by 9 percent in the second quarter, year-on-year. «The phone didn’t ring for a long time,» said Antonis Papanikolaou, a hotelier near Sparta, after reassuring one caller that his picturesque village of Polydroso had not been burnt. «The danger we face is villages inhabited solely by dying old people or the young unemployed,» said Greenpeace Greece director Nikos Haralambidis.