Under fire

Under fire

29July 2005

publishedby www.ekathimerini.com

The destructive blaze that broke out near Rafina and Voutza, two seaside suburbs in Athens, burned down trees, houses and farmsteads and was fueled by weather conditions. The combination of high temperatures and gale-force winds helped spread the fire and hampered attempts by the authorities to control it.

But the damage caused by Greece’s forest fires cannot merely be attributed to weather conditions. Nor is it simply the local administration’s failure to take adequate preventive measures, such as clearing the undergrowth.

Every big forest fire automatically raises suspicions of arson for profit, and not without good reason. Arsonists have been held responsible for starting many forest fires in the past. There is no unshakeable evidence in most cases, but the signs and motives are there, leaving little doubt the catastrophe was in fact the work of arsonists.

In suburban areas, the destruction of forests is the first step in preparing the land for development. In the countryside, it is a way of creating more land for agriculture.

In both cases, development does not take place overnight, but arsonists are armed with patience. They study the law and are prepared to exploit any possible loophole, even if those are left open to serve less destructive wrongdoers.

Two such loopholes were highlighted in press reports over the past eight days. As this page stressed, the government’s decision to sell 50,000 plots of state land to people who had illegally occupied it and to provide electricity to some 15,000 illegally built houses rewarded and encouraged unlawful behavior.

Forest fires are the most despicable manifestation of such wrongdoing. Here we are not just faced with people who built an illegal house, but unscrupulous individuals who do not hesitate to destroy Greece’s natural environment and people’s property.

Their crime is far worse than violating town-planning provisions. Yet the incentives are the same: gaps in legislation, inadequate monitoring and, above all, repeated laws absolving wrongdoers.

The destruction is testimony to the lack of consistency in implementing the law. Note that over the past 60 years Greece lost two-thirds of its forests while the damage caused by fires over the 1998-2000 period equaled the destruction of the previous three decades.

Yesterday’s fire may not be the work of arsonists, but the specter of private fraud and state submissiveness looms over the destruction of Greece’s natural wealth.


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