ATHENS – Among the acres of forests in the outskirts of Athens reduced to cinders by a three-day inferno, expensive villas with pools have appeared.
“Every time there is a fire we discover new communities we never knew existed,” Greenpeace Greece director Nikos Haralambides told Reuters. “We have a state that just keeps legalizing unauthorized development.”
A public prosecutor has ordered an investigation into whether arson was behind the fire that destroyed about 150 houses and thousands of acres of woods and farmland.
Although Mediterranean forests often burn in dry, hot weather, Greeks who have watched their capital expand dramatically into nearby valleys and mountains are convinced greedy developers are behind many of the fires.
“It’s time to put an end to this sick and dangerous phenomenon,” said the conservative Kathimerini daily in its main editorial. “Construction must no longer be allowed in the capital’s much-afflicted lungs.”
Athens was a village clinging to the foot of the Acropolis when it was declared the capital of the new-born modern Greek state in 1834, and it has now thrown its tentacles across the surrounding mountains of Parnitha, Hymettus and Pendeli.
Rural workers have flocked to the city looking for employment in recent decades and the demand for housing has overtaken urban planning. Many buildings were put up first and legalized later by governments eager to secure votes.
“The pressure to build homes inside the forest is enormous, especially in the outskirts of the city,” Haralambides said.
A recent city plan for Athens plans to turn about 62,000 acres of what was mostly farm and forest land into urban areas.
With construction a main driver of Greece’s slowing economy, measures to boost activity would bring political gains to the conservative government which trails the socialist opposition as it faces an election by March.
Environment and City Planning Minister George Souflias, under fire for building a holiday home near Athens without a valid license, has vowed all the burned Attica forests will be replanted.
“The application of the law ensures that where there was forest there will continue to be forest,” he said.
Ecologists say that as the forests recede, life in the Greek metropolis of nearly 5 million people will become more oppressive with rising pollution, summer heat and winter floods.
“It is a huge environmental disaster,” forestry expert Nikos Chlykas told Reuters. “The political cost of not taking measures is now bigger than the cost of not legalizing illegal construction.”