The power of four

If scientists could find a way to measure people’s units of thought, they would discover that the British think in pints, the French in grams, the Germans in euros, the Italians in kilometers per hour and the Greeks in «stremmata.»

One «strema» is equivalent to 1,000 square meters, or 0.1 of a hectare, and it’s the yardstick that many Greeks use to measure their social status, their wealth and their happiness. If you have plenty of stremmata in your name, the thinking goes, you and your children are set for life. It’s like real estate kryptonite to ward off any unwelcome financial surprises life may throw at you.

It’s the fact that the concept of owning land and homes is rooted so deeply in the modern Greek psyche that led to the MPs on Parliament’s environmental affairs committee rising up in unison last week against Environment Minister Tina Birbili’s attempt to rein in construction in conservation areas. They unleashed a hell-like fury when Birbili dared to bring before them a bill that would ban landowners who possess less than 1 hectare (10 stremmata) of land from building in areas protected by the European Union’s Natura 2000 program – a network designed to protect threatened habitats and species.

Environmental groups backed the idea but Birbili was left standing alone like a wetland reed being blown one way and then another by the furious MPs who felt her 1-hectare limit was much too harsh. They demanded that this restriction be reduced to 4 stremmata, or 0.4 hectares. This lower figure was not just plucked out of the air: In Greece, four is the magic number. The law allows anybody who owns 4 stremmata of land to build on it, regardless of whether the area is within the town plan or not. The apparent logic behind this is that it’s better to have a few people building huge monstrosities rather than having lots of them building small ones.

Four stremmata is landowning nirvana because it allows each Greek to build his oversized, distasteful cement block of a castle without regard for the state, the community or his neighbors. It’s perhaps the most selfish and shortsighted piece of legislation in this country’s vast but dilapidated legal framework.

The lawmakers who proposed this amendment to Birbili’s law came up with a novel way of defending their reluctance to part company with the 4-stremmata rule – even in areas that need environmental protection. They claimed that tougher building regulations would choke any potential for growth. How will people in rural areas or on islands, where, by definition, most Natura 2000 areas are located, be able to build hotels, tavernas, shops, factories and whatever else they need to make a living if the law doesn’t allow them to do so? Some MPs gave the example of Alonissos: The small island in the Sporades is one of six in the EU that is completely protected by the Natura directive.

It’s a cunning argument because no government wants to be seen as deterring entrepreneurship or the potential for growth, especially one navigating its way through an economic crisis. However, the ferocity with which both PASOK and New Democracy MPs met Birbili’s proposal suggests that narrow, not broader, interests were uppermost in their minds. It suggests these deputies didn’t want to be the ones who would have to return to their constituencies and explain why locals could no longer build the three-story lopsided villa they had promised their children or why the taverna owner cannot locate his business so close to the sea that fish jump straight into the frying pan.

The feebleness of the MPs’ argument underlines how egotistical and myopic their position is. After all, not every Greek island is like Alonissos, where building would be severely limited under Birbili’s initial proposal. It’s hardly the yardstick to judge the rest of Greece by. Also, the fixation with linking construction to growth is a remnant of the thinking that led Greece to the economic dead-end it finds itself in today – where every rule was bent and every policy molded to favor the construction sector in the hope it would drive the economy. It is incumbent upon Greece to adopt a smarter approach to creating jobs and revenue; for instance, to ditch the monolithic hotel complex in favor of the versatile ecotourism destination.

The lawmakers’ inability to countenance anyone infringing on Greeks’ sacred right to build where, when and how they want was enough to send political newcomer Birbili back to her drawing board. With the pressure of all the political parties, including her own, bearing down on her, the environment minister caved in and reduced the limit for building in Natura areas to 4 stremmata – in other words, the exact same criteria that exist in any other part of the country.

The European Commission says that the aim of the Natura network of nature protection areas «is to assure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats.» Legal experts have pointed out that the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court, is likely to block the second version of Birbili’s legislation for the very simple reason that if an area is designated «protected,» then the laws that apply there cannot be the same as in other parts of the country. It seems straightforward logic that the rules in such an area should be tougher than elsewhere. But then again, it’s difficult to think straight when you only have stremmata on your mind.