08/17/2007 01:08 PM

'Forests Don't Vote'

How Arson Leads to Profits in Athens


This summer has seen more forest fires than ever before in Greece. Hot, arid weather has played its part. But so too has a law which makes it profitable to torch trees.

The people of Athens have traditionally never been much moved by tree-hugger sensibilities. Indeed, despite the city having few green spaces and being choked with car exhaust, politicians have tended to avoid the issue. But after a hot, arid summer punctuated by numerous forest fires -- including Thursday's blaze which reduced over two dozen Athens homes to piles of smoldering ash -- that may be changing.

A number of wealthy neighborhoods in northern Athens were threatened by the fast-moving blaze, with strong winds pushing the flames through the pine forests on the slopes of Mount Penteli. Many people, including patients at a psychiatric facility, were evacuated or fled and a number of sheep were killed before the fire was finally brought under control in the evening. Officials suspected that arson was to blame as the fire appeared to have started in four different points on the mountain virtually simultaneously.

"This is a huge catastrophe," Manolis Grafakos, mayor of one of the neighborhoods affected by the fire, told reporters on Thursday evening. "There are no words to describe it. A large chunk of the forest is gone, houses have been burnt and I do not think we are fully aware of the extent of the damage."

Indeed, the damage was such that it recalled the 3,000 wildfires which raged through Greece for much of July, including one that scorched the lush forests on Mount Parnitha located on the edge of the Greek capital. It has, in fact, been the country's worst fire season on record, fuelled by an unusually hot and dry spring and early summer.

On Friday, though, there were some who suspected a political motivation behind Thursday's Mount Penteli fire. Snap new elections were called on Thursday -- to be held in mid-September -- and many think the fire was set to make the government look bad.

But there may be other motivations for setting fires in Greece. According to a senior researcher with Greece's Forest Research Institute, the country's forest management policies themselves may be a contributing factor. Forest protection is written directly into the Greek constitution, the researcher -- who asked not to be identified by name -- told SPIEGEL ONLINE. As such, it is difficult to rezone forest land for other uses -- even on the edge of growing cities like Athens.

Because there are no official maps indicating the boundaries of forests, though, once the trees have been reduced to ash, developers come in to claim land. "This is the heart of the problem," the researcher from Forest Research Institute said. "Politicians, though, would never touch it. It wouldn't be so difficult to provide good maps, but they don't want to because there are so many votes involved."

Throughout the summer, Greece was full of rumors that many of the fires had been set by arsonists hired by developers looking to build on valuable land inconveniently covered by trees.

Additionally, funding allocated to fighting forest fires has been reduced in recent years. Indeed, attention to the problem has been dropping ever since emergency services received millions of euros worth of new equipment ahead of the 2004 Summer Olympics.

With much of the forest land around Athens -- the so-called "lungs" of the city -- now reduced to ash, the population may finally begin to take a closer look at how politicians approach environmental problems. "Forests never vote, people vote," the forestry researcher told SPIEGEL ONLINE in frustration. But that may be good news this autumn.


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