After the inferno

After the inferno

9 November 2007

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Greece — The fires that tore through Greece this summer killed 67 people and destroyed vast tracts of forest and farmland. With the local people still in shock, developers are cleaning up – and cashing in. Maria Margaronis reports

A strange autumn has come to the hillsides of Ileia in the western Peloponnese. The olive trees, normally evergreen, have turned a papery gold. The pines are a blaze of red, as if they were still burning. As you climb further up the colour drains away. There is nothing but charred trees, black stumps against black earth. “This is a biblical catastrophe,” Yiannis Poulis keeps repeating as we drive through burned woods around his village, Graika. “This is the Place of the Skull.”

The fires that ravaged Greece this summer killed 67 people and destroyed some 642,000 acres of forest and farmland, thousands of houses and barns, and countless people’s hopes and livelihoods. One tenth of Greece’s forest cover is gone; large tracts of countryside are at risk of depopulation. “These wounds will never heal,” Poulis mourns. “There are a few young men in the village, but I’m 70. Am I going to plant my olives all over again?”

For others, though – such as the two men at breakfast in my hotel who asked the names of the burned villages and wouldn’t say what they were doing there – catastrophe means opportunity. “You wait and see,” says a local magistrate. “Lots of people will get rich from this disaster.”

Now that the world’s eyes have turned away, the Peloponnese is facing its own moment of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”. She has documented how big business turns disaster to its advantage – whether in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Sri Lanka after the tsunami or Iraq since the occupation. In Greece, the scale may be smaller but the pattern is familiar: an inept government, which is slow to respond to the disaster; private initiatives rushing in to fill the gap; local officials seizing the chance to push forward pet schemes, and a resident population too bewildered to do anything about it. “We’re all in shock still,” says Maria Pothou, in the village of Makistos. “And yet we have to try to organise ourselves and try to make decisions.”

Before the fires, Ileia – a fertile but poor olive-growing region – was already caught up in an argument about development. On one side stood the Greek government, which sees the pristine beaches of the western Peloponnese as ripe for “integrated resort tourism” – meaning complexes such as the billion-euro Navarino resort now under construction a few miles to the south of Ileia, which will consist of 11 hotels, seven golf courses and 77,500 square metres of second homes. On the other side, the majority of local residents, who were pushing for a different model of development – smaller scale, locally owned hotels, whose profits would stay in the area rather than line the pockets of big players in the leisure industry. The residents’ case was strong – after all, much of Ileia’s shore, with its dense greenery stretching right down to the dunes, is legally protected from large building projects under the EU’s Natura 2000 conservation network.

Nevertheless, a month before the fires, the government signed a €2.8bn (£1.95bn) contract for a motorway that will skirt Ileia’s coast. The consortium of companies building the road – some of the same firms that are involved in building the Navarino resort – would collect the tolls for 30 years to come. The motorway was planned to run right through the Kaiaphas forest, the jewel in Ileia’s crown. However, this contract hadn’t yet been approved by parliament.

On the evening of August 24, the worst day of the fires, the prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis, came to the region and promised that the Kaiaphas forest would not burn. But by the following afternoon no fire planes had appeared. The forest – not under threat the day before – was overwhelmed by flames.

Many people in Ileia believe the fires were set or left to spread deliberately to pave the way for the developers. There is no evidence for these accusations; in that white-hot week in August all the conditions were right for a perfect firestorm. But now that Ileia’s farming economy has effectively collapsed, the argument for rapid development has gained weight – and there has been an influx of funds for “restoration” projects.

Up in the villages, the most conspicuous symptom of what is going on is the absence of government aid. After an initial handout before the September election no funds have materialised for victims of the fire. The compensation being offered for burned olive trees is less than a fifth of what their oil harvest would bring. Six weeks after the blaze, the prefab buildings sent to house the homeless still had no water, no toilets and no electricity. The springs are contaminated. There is no feed for livestock that have lost their grazing. Down by the main road, excavators are digging out drainage ditches, but up here, flood prevention and anti-erosion work – so vital after forest fires – has barely begun.

Coordinating and financing reconstruction on this scale would challenge any government. But it is hard to avoid the sense that Athens is being selective in its contacts with local officials, preferring to work directly with corporations. Haralambos Kafyras, head of the prefecture, apologises for yawning as we speak. He has been at his desk since 5.30am. “We were sent €1m at the start, to which we added €800,000 of our own for flood prevention. I’ve asked for €13m more, but nothing has come yet. We want to establish an independent government agency with local representation to manage the reconstruction. We don’t want scattered efforts. We don’t want to deal with big financial interests. We want to deal with the state.”

But a spokesman for the ministry for the environment, planning and public works tells me that all the flood defence works are being done free by Greece’s major construction companies – the same ones that will build the motorway. What about the work being done by the prefecture of Ileia? “That will be other, local work, undertaken in parallel.”

Private companies have a necessary role in any reconstruction and many Greek businesses have responded generously. But without coordination or accountability the needs of local people tend to go unheard – and it can be hard to distinguish magnanimity from profiteering.

Makistos was right in the path of the flames as they roared down the mountain: seven people burned to death trying to escape. In the cafe, which is also her parents’ home, Dimitra Kokkaliari shows me pictures of how Makistos used to be: stone houses cradled in green. On the day I visit things have been stressful. In the evening there would be a memorial service for the dead.

That morning, engineers sent by the Vardinoyiannis family, who own one of Greece’s largest energy companies, were in the village measuring and surveying. Marianna Vardinoyiannis, a member of the family who runs a charity, has “adopted” Makistos – the villagers first found out when her plan was announced on television. They are grateful, but the offer brings tensions too. No one has come from the company to ask them what they need and some of them are afraid to speak in case the donors leave. A plan to hold a public meeting with elected officials, company representatives and a team of architects has been abandoned after an intervention by the mayor of the municipality; a rumour was put about that the organisers wanted to reject the Vardinoyiannis offer.

In the seaside town of Zacharo, the mayor, Pantazis Chronopoulos, understands the importance of gifts. Outside his office and above his desk a sign spells out his philosophy: “There is no surer enemy than the ungrateful beneficiary.”

“You will write,” he tells me, “that the solidarity has been enormous, from the smallest Greek with one euro to spare to the very biggest.”

Flipping through stacks of business cards, he lists the promises Zacharo has received after his many television appearances: from Nokia and Proton Bank, Alpha Insurance and Folli Follie Accessories, the Republic of Cyprus and the Olympiakos football team. He says that Greece’s Skai TV is going to set up a station in Zacharo and broadcast daily bulletins about the reconstruction. Al Gore’s secretary has agreed to build a climate change centre on the Zacharo beach.

Not all the mayor’s claims check out: according to Gore’s office, neither the senator nor any representative of his has spoken to Chronopoulos. But there must be money to spare from fire relief and flood prevention works because the mayor also tells me he has just received the drawings for a new road from Zacharo to Andritsaina, a historic town in the mountains – the work will be put to tender within the month. (“Build it now, mayor, build it quickly,” urges one of the muscled young men who gather round him in the Zacharo square, “through the burned places, or it’ll never happen.”) The mayor says all the environmental studies are in place, but neither the ministry in Athens nor the regional administration, nor the governor of the prefecture, have heard of the plan until I mention it. The road is designed to pass near Makistos and Chrysochori, a village where Chronopoulos is offering to give away for development 200 plots of public land over the internet.

Chronopoulos’ critics call him the Sheriff, but he was re-elected in 2006 with 52% of the vote. (His campaign featured a trip to Russia with a posse of Zacharo bachelors eager to find brides, immortalised in a documentary.) He clearly has friends in high places: in September, after the fires and a few days before Greece’s general election, he signed a deal with a deputy finance minister which gave Zacharo the right to develop several miles of publicly owned coast, most of it protected under the Natura network. After the vote the environment minister hastened to reassure the press that the deal was still under review. But if you go down to the Zacharo beach you can see fresh tractor marks where, since the fires, an illegal road is being marked out and extended day by day, flattening the dunes, tearing up the rare lilies that hold them, destroying the nesting grounds of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle.

Spain recently began demolishing the illegal buildings that disfigure its beaches. But in Greece, such violations tend to go unpunished – especially as the mayor’s idea of reconstruction and development goes hand in glove with the government’s. Both appear to give priority to corporate investment at the expense of accountability; both pay lip service to conservation while seeing it as an obstacle to economic growth. (As the mayor puts it, “What are we going to do here, conjugate the verb ‘I’m hungry’?”) And both are taking the fires as an opportunity not to restore and build on what has been lost but to push through the rapid capitalisation of the region’s natural resources, regardless of the human and environmental cost.

Above all, Chronopoulos is an enthusiastic booster of the motorway, even though the plan will slice Zacharo in two, running between the town centre and the beach through an area of lush fruit trees, houses and small hotels. In fact the Zacharo council – including the mayor – voted unanimously against this route last year. It is also opposed by the prefectural council.

Since then, though, Chronopoulos has changed his tune, insisting that there is no feasible alternative. The ministry of the environment and public works agrees: “Economically, practically, environmentally, this is the best solution. A road further inland would not serve the same places. The road will change the fortunes of the region.”

Ileia’s sandy beach stretches for miles and miles. With care and planning there ought to be room on it for dunes, sand lilies, turtles and humans, too. Reforested and with its three old spa hotels restored to their 1930s splendour, Kaiaphas would make an ideal national park, a perfect spot for upmarket boutique tourism. To build a motorway through it – even partly underground – seems perverse: who will want to visit paradise once it’s paved?

The fires have speeded up the destruction of places such as Kaiaphas with a finality barely imaginable a few months ago: a precarious balance has been decisively tilted. Now that Ileia’s faltering economy is devastated, drastic solutions look far more persuasive – especially when the companies that will implement them have contributed so generously to the “reconstruction” effort.

The catastrophe has also galvanised environmentalists, who say that the motorway plan is illegal. Kaiaphas’ delicate ecosystems are doubly protected under both Greek and European law now that they need to recover from the blaze. EU rules demand a detailed consultation process before a road can be built through a Natura region; the ministry in Athens seems unaware of this requirement.

But, like the villagers and small hoteliers trying to rescue their old life, the environmentalists are up against a formidable complex of political and business interests. In Greece the state’s profound disorganisation has always gone hand in hand with political patronage, leaving a useful vacuum where private interests and corruption flourish. Now there is little to keep the corporate development juggernaut from roaring through the Peloponnese in the scorched tracks of the flames.

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