Negligence of the state, and the public

A well-functioning state and a properly developed society are to be judged both by major developments and smaller details, it would seem. This is what one can conclude from our experiences this summer, which, before it has even ended, has left behind tens of thousands of hectares of burnt forestland, massive ecological and environmental damage and lost lives. Let us consider the «small» things. A few weeks ago in Drosia, a suburb north of Athens, residents gathered around an old, disused fire engine (the vehicle had been obtained by one of the residents via some social program and is permanently parked in front of a nearby forest). Residents had ensured that the fire engine would be operational for summer, in the case of a forest fire, and had tested the vehicle’s hose and pump. Their intention was to use the engine to minimize damage, in the event of a fire, ahead of the arrival of the fire service. But this shining example of social collective responsibility is unfortunately a rare exception in Greece, where thoughtless and selfish behavior causes many summer forest fires. The disposal of glass and flammable materials on illegal waste dumps near forestland is one of our bad habits. Thoughtlessly executed family barbecues and the practice of throwing lit cigarettes out of car windows are also common bad habits that have wreaked havoc on our countryside over the years. So much for the «small stuff.» Let us not forget the larger issues.Earlier this week Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was courted in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who proposed the creation of a common forest firefighting service for Southern Europe. Sarkozy was evidently comfortable making such a proposal as he knows that his country has the infrastructure, in terms of institutions and expert staff, to guarantee the coordination of activities that is required for a successful firefighting operation. By contrast in Greece, irrespective of which political party is in government, adequate coordination between local authorities and central government in curbing forest fires and dealing with other natural disasters leaves much to be desired. This has always been the case and there is little reason to believe that the situation will change.In other words, we are far behind most of our European peers, as a country and as a people. That is why, every few years, September finds us assessing widespread damage; that is why we talk about reforestation rather than forest fire prevention and that is why the debate about a national forest protection policy is eclipsed by feverish attempts by opposition parties to make political gains from this summer’s unprecedented natural disaster.