After the Greek fires

After the Greek fires

27 December 2007

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The August 2007 photographs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of burning Greece brought to light not merely the monstrous size of the destruction, but the equally monstrous planning of those striving to convert the country into a playground for rich Greeks and foreigners.

Filling the dots between the hundreds of fires in Peloponnese puts many of them within reasonable distance and direction of the Ionian Road, a multibillion-dollar highway scheduled to open within four years and connecting the cities Corinth, Patras, Pyrgos and Kalamata. The arsonists did the dirty job for private and corporate criminals who plan to invest in the now burned land. The Ionian Road meanders along unspoiled coastline and Olympia, easily the most beautiful region of the heartland of Hellas. The highway then moves from Olympia in the west to the southern region of Peloponnese.

When in the early fifteenth century the Turks were threatening Greece and the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Platonic philosopher George Gemistos Plethon pleaded with the emperor in Constantinople to make his stand against the Turks in Peloponnese. To make a difference, Plethon said, Peloponnese would have to have a Greek army, not mercenaries, and the ancient gods would have to replace Christianity. In addition, Plethon argued, Peloponnese was the most Greek place in Greece and the empire, its population always having being Greek. The emperor did not listen to Plethon and the Turks conquered Greece in 1453.

Now the new conquerors of Peloponnese are likely to be those who burned it: coming to Greece with pockets full of money and heads full of expensive hotels, golf courses, exclusive gated summer homes, and all the rest of tourist infrastructure. The Germans, for example, want to convert Mountain Taygetos into a ski resort. American and British tourist moguls are after hotels and golf courses and Greek businessmen dream of hotels and restaurants.

Compounding the tragedy of the fires that burned something like half-a-million acres of forest and farmland, there�s a tradition of political corruption that prepared the ground for the inferno. Both the governing and opposition parties tried to emasculate or eliminate article 24 of the Greek constitution that provides some protection to forests. Second, Greek governments have misused earmarked European Union money for land registry, Greece being the only EU country that has no idea who owns what. The same is true of forests. No one knows the forests’ exact measurements and precise borders. Third, Greece has been so cavalier about environmental protection that its ministry of the environment is a subsidiary of the ministry of public works. And fourth, the country is ecologically illiterate. Immediately after the fires, there were people who wanted to hunt any surviving wildlife in what was now burned land.

The Greek people do not trust the politicians because their primary purpose has been self-enrichment, including the ruthless exploitation of nature. For example, arsonists burned more than 2,500 acres of the forest of Mount Penteli, some 10 miles northeast of Athens and famous for its marble used in the building of the Parthenon. The largest “owner” of Penteli is a monastery that, immediately after the fires, “sold” hundreds of acres of the burned forest to developers, a tradition the monastery maintains with ruthless vigilance. The government, fully aware of the corruption of the monks, did nothing. In fact, it has failed to declare that the burned mountain will be reforested. The government also gave the archbishop of Athens, probably one of the wealthiest Greeks, a 30 million euro grant for a “conference center” to be built right in the burned forest.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis would do well to bring the unseemly behavior of the Penteli monks to an end. He should also appoint an international commission to go to the roots of the fires and the aftermath. Greek and foreign scientists with sustained funding from the Greek government and EU could carry out the fundamental land and forest registries while the government can create a powerful ministry of the environment.

Such a ministry ought to lead Greece to green and healthy and Greek development: making certain the country has clean water and air; restoring the damaged ecosystems; promoting public transport and small green cars; assisting Greek family farmers in growing enough food for all Greeks, their food grown without poisons.

In other words, Greece after the fires does not have the dangerous luxury of business as usual because such a prospect promises more fires. Greece will have a secure future by becoming a green country. Such a decision would be in accord with its ancient traditions of venerating nature as well as would guarantee a gentle footprint on its devastated landscape. Abolishing hunting, giving a chance to wildlife to recoup, is a top priority.

Forests are essential in a green Greece. They produce oxygen and use the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide; they are also nurseries of life. It is responsible policy to pay citizens living near forests to become forest guardians, protecting them from fires, loggers and developers or, as the Greeks call them, “real estate eaters.” This also means Greece has to fund a fire prevention infrastructure that would complement citizen initiatives.

Karamanlis has also to negate all the profits of those who burned Mount Penteli, Peloponnese and Euboea. Don�t approve any construction in burned land, especially in devastated forests and lands, which have been protected for the biological diversity of their plants and animals. Use all the support from EU to keep rural people in their villages, helping them to replant their olive trees and restore their flocks of goats and sheep.

However, nothing will ultimately matter if the Greeks fail to assume responsibility for nature, which was divine among their ancient ancestors. This fountain of ecological consciousness is part of Greek culture, the gods, the myths, the writings of the ancient Greeks.

Hesiod, the epic poet of eighth century BCE, hymns the deathless gods while pleading with the Greeks to work the land. He tells the farmers to be just in order to enjoy good harvests; their sheep weighed down with wool; the top of their oak trees teaming with acorns and the middle with honeybees. Goddess Artemis protected nature; Demeter was the goddess of wheat, Dionysos introduced the grapevine and Pan protected flocks. Athena gave the olive tree to the Athenians who named their city after her, virgin daughter of Zeus, the supreme god among the Hellenes. Zeus was also a weather god, the cloud-gatherer, the master of thunder and thunderbolts. But Zeus preserved nature and life by sending rains to the earth. These gods were at the heart of Greek agrarian culture, which was at the heart of Hellenic culture. The Eleusinian mysteries, the Greeks� most sacred celebration, honored Demeter and Dionysos and blessed the sowing of crops.

In addition, Greece is beautiful; attraction to nature being one of the country�s great assets. The Greek government should bring this nature and wisdom into the schools. Such an immersion in ecological wisdom and Greek studies would be certain to bear fruits of Hellenic solidarity, responsibility for each other, and love for wilderness and reverence for the natural world.

(by E.G. Vallianatos)

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