Lessons not learned

Once upon a time there was a forest. Now that the smoke has cleared, it’s time for the sobering task of damage assessment. The voracious flames that ravaged the outskirts of Athens for four days razed some 210 square kilometers (80 square miles) of pine forest, olive groves, scrub and farmland. About 50 houses were destroyed and another 150 sustained damaged. According to experts, it will take generations for the charred forest to regenerate itself, while some parts were burnt beyond recovery. The second most frustrating thing after the catastrophe is our sheer inability to learn from the disastrous wildfires and the calamitous mistakes of the past. Summer 2007 saw Greece’s worst inferno in decades, as the nation mourned 76 lives and 2,750 square kilometers (1,060 miles) of forestland. Even a catastrophe of that magnitude proved no watershed moment. Two years on, there has been no official assessment of the failings that resulted in the worst such disaster in recent memory. Greeks, it seems, are doomed to repeating their mistakes. If the past is any guide, that is unlikely to change. Emotional responses are to be expected when the so-called green lungs of the capital are being reduced to ashes, and, relentlessly predictable as the political posturing and blame game in which our public officials have indulged may be, it is totally unhelpful. Alas, as Athens Plus this week highlights, the post-inferno debate has once again degenerated into a finger-pointing squabble between local authorities and central government as well as between mayors and forestry authorities. Against the backdrop of the charred slopes, the spin game becomes a nauseating hall of mirrors. Most certainly, there is no shortage of promises either. Giorgos Souflias, the conservative government’s minister of environment, physical planning and public works – itself an oxymoronic collocation of tasks – rehashed the same tired pledge that «where there was forest, there will be forest again.» One does not need a reminder of the veteran minister’s legal wrangling for building a holiday home without the proper permit to be skeptical of his pledges – after all, political promises in this corner of Europe are viewed with a mixture of suspicion and scorn. Under the nascent land-zoning plan for Athens, currently drafted under Souflias’s supervision, the area suitable for construction will expand by 20,000 hectares. Athens, the assumption is, can host some 8 million people. Inevitably, his pledge becomes a touch surreal. Political expediency is not the only culprit however. Sure, much of what we experience today is the tragic corollary of a cynical give-and-take, as successive governments of all colors keep pandering to the interests of greedy land-grabbers in exchange for votes. No amount of legislation or ultramodern firefighting equipment is enough to protect our forests without the hitherto elusive political will to curb unauthorized development. But the hard truth is that Greece’s political leaders are a reflection of the people they lead. The flames on the slopes of Pendeli have subsided, exposing numerous posh villas with pools. «Our delight in Drafi’s dramatic mountain scenery… was always tempered by pangs that we were possibly benefiting from an act of arson that enabled unscrupulous property developers to prosper a decade ago,» wrote the BBC’s Malcolm Brabant in a recent dispatch from Athens. It’s something that few Greeks will dare to admit. In fact, many of those lambasting the state’s failure to protect their property from the flames are the same people who eagerly built their homes on what used to be virgin forest. Natural beauty is this country’s greatest asset and we should go to every length to safeguard it. For this to happen, we must stop elevating our personal well-being above the law and the common good. Or forests will become the stuff of fiction for future generations of Athenians. For their part, political parties across the left-right spectrum must join hands to devise a new wildfire management strategy set against the errors of the past. When people are using garden hoses and branches to fight the raging flames, there is definitely a cause for sadness and concern.