Ministry calls a halt to all construction in scorched areas
Athens Plus, 6 November 2009

A new draft law announced by Environment, Energy and Climate Change Minister Tina Birbili suspends all construction activity on burned forest land in Attica and other parts of the country until authorities draw up comprehensive forest maps.

The bill, announced on October 26, is due to be submitted to Parliament next week after community consultation and also foresees the creation of a special state agency to undertake the demolition of illegally built homes on burned forest land as well as the imposition of stiff fines on offenders. However, it does not say what will happen to homes illegally built before the fires. Essentially, the bill proposes the abolition of a reform introduced in 2003 by former Agriculture Minister Giorgos Drys, under PASOKís previous administration, which dictated that at least a quarter of any given piece of land had to be covered by trees for it to be considered forest land and merit protection. Birbiliís bill seeks to reinstate the status quo which existed prior to Drysí intervention, when only 15 percent of a piece of land needed to be covered in trees for it be characterized as forest land

The new bill foresees the suspension of all construction in areas of Attica and another 18 municipalities and communities affected by forest fires. There will be a ban imposed on the issuance of all construction licenses, with the exception of repairs to homes and public buildings destroyed in fires.

A bold provision in Birbiliís proposed reform is the creation of a demolition agency that would be overseen by the new ministryís environmental inspectors and would have the responsibility of locating and knocking down buildings illegally set up on burned forest land

The work of the demolition agency is to be backed by the Hellenic Mapping and Cadastral Organization (HEMCO), set up in 1986 under the now defunct Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works Ministry. According to sources, within the next two months, HEMCO is due to start operating a sophisticated system of monitoring forest land on the outskirts of Attica with the aim of reporting back to authorities the appearance of every new structure outside the town plan.

Four-legged foe of reforestation

The ministry will have its work cut out for it in monitoring the situation in forested areas, as at present there are only 41 environmental inspectors, although the law provides for 78.

Although the grazing of goats has been banned throughout Attica since 1993, there are an estimated 80,000 to 82,000 goats in eastern Attica alone, on about 500 livestock farms. These have been spotted grazing on burnt areas of forest land

Since the August fires, the grazing of all other livestock has also been illegal. There are only 49 forest rangers, meaning that each is responsible for 8,300 hectares (out of the total 350,000 under the jurisdiction of the Attica forestry service). Another problem is the planting of olive saplings in burnt forest, the first step to having the landís classification changed from forest to farmland.

Last year, the Attica forestry services (comprising another 63 forestry scientists in addition to the rangers) found 900 illegally built homes. Clearly the state services are limited in what they can do to monitor and control the situation.

According to environmental and forestry scientist Nikos Chlykas, a team from the Geotechnical Chamber of Greece found that nearly half of the 2,100 hectares destroyed by wildfires in August in northeastern Attica had been burnt not once but two or three times over.