Fighting fire with the law

Greece’s forests, like its economy, are the victims of the accumulated ills that have plagued the country over the past few decades. In both cases, governments were too focused on other issues, and too busy pandering to every interest group, to adopt and enforce measures that would have protected our forests and our economy – issues such as dispensing political favors and granting lucrative contracts for public works and procurements. The results are evident: A million hectares of forest and woodland have been destroyed in the past two decades and the country hovers on the brink of bankruptcy, subsisting on a massive loan from the International Monetary Fund and its partners in the European Union. Now Greece’s perennial problems have been exacerbated by its economic predicament: Our forests may be threatened to an even greater extent because of the austerity measures that have reduced the number of firefighters, their pay and the equipment they use. Whatever is bad for the economy is obviously bad for our forests. The issue, of course, is not purely about money: As we saw in the disasters of 2007 and 2008, when Greece was still living in the clouds of easy credit, adequate organization in preventing and fighting fires is more important. At Ancient Olympia, for example, sophisticated firefighting systems that had been bought for the Athens 2004 Olympics were allowed to fall into disrepair, with the result that beautiful forests and even parts of the archaeological site, right up to the recently refurbished museum, were destroyed by the fire in 2007. The shortage of funds this year could be compensated for by improved prevention and firefighting tactics. As we enter summer, the government says that it is ready to protect forests and citizens. The Environment Ministry is also preparing legislation to declare all burned forestland off-limits to construction, thereby depriving arsonists of the incentive to destroy woodland and then exploit it for housing developments. Unfortunately, though, Greece’s firefighters say that they are less ready operationally than they were last year this time; many senior officers and other experienced firefighters have left the service, fearing that new social security legislation will offer fewer benefits for pensioners; fewer firefighting aircraft are available; government austerity measures have reduced wages by between 150 and 300 euros. All of these factors mean that fewer and less-experienced firefighters will be doing more work than ever – for less pay. This would seriously demoralize the service. As the price of renting firefighting helicopters has shown (see Page 4), much work can be done for less money than we were paying in past years. When the cost involves feet on the ground, though, there really cannot be any alternative to budgeting for a sufficient number of people who are paid enough to make them risk their lives for the sake of the public benefit. But fighting fires is only one aspect of protecting forests. Unfortunately, because of our hot, dry summers (and highly combustible pine forests), firefighters always appear to be on the losing side. This makes the prevention of fires and the restoration of burned land even more important than trying to limit the damage once a blaze has begun. Besides having a comprehensive, national plan to fight fires, the best way to protect or restore forests is to take away the incentive to burn them. Neither construction nor grazing should be allowed on officially designated forestland that has been burned. This can only be achieved when the national land register is completed and serious zoning legislation is passed, designating what can be built and where. Now, anything goes: With legislation and planning coming after illegal construction, people are encouraged to build illegally, often in former forestland, creating a market for newly cleared land that’s ready for building on. Establishing where development is permitted, creating the necessary infrastructure for it, and compensating (through swaps) owners of land that is to be protected, may seem like something that could happen only in another country. But, since the crash, Greece is another country. For good and ill.