In crisis-hit Greece, government decisions taken in haste and despair to save the country from default, risk having a serious impact on the environment. A new bill seeks to relax restrictions on construction of public and private forestland even for those areas, which are considered protected.

A joint statement by the country’s biggest environmental organizations said that the legislation would be destructive for the environment and harmful to the economy and development of the country. The statement was signed by 10 organizations, including WWF, Greenpeace, MOm and the Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage.

Under the would-be legislation, which was made available to the public for ten days, hotels would be able to expand into wooded areas while new tourism developments such as golf courses and spas could also be constructed on forestland. WWF says that the bill seeks to scrap protection of environmentally important areas covered by sparse and low vegetation.

WWF Head in Greece, Dimitris Karavelas, has said that the biggest problem of this law is, that it suggests the declassification from a protected status of about 15% of Greek territory, mainly in the islands and coastal areas.“The draft law opens up areas that used to be protected to various forms of development and it legalises a number of developments in the past where financial penalties were pending”, Karavelas said.

Environmental encroachments in Greece are not new

When the 2009 fires were raging in eastern Attika, they broke out in a forested-suburban region known for its illegal ribbon development, where thousands of illegal homes have been legalised ahead of successive elections by incumbent governments. This area is also expected to undergo further development and population increase as a result of new urban plans for the area.

In 2011, the government at the time asked Greeks to pay penalties to the state for building homes without permits – in return for which they were allowed to save them from demolition. The Environment Ministry assured the Greek public at the time that this was part of the process to put the properties “in order”. It said that they would be included in a new framework being developed for illegal properties.

More than 500,000 properties have either gone through these schemes or are in the process of doing so. This has raised almost 800 million Euros for the government by the end of February 2012. About 530 million Euros came from penalties and the rest from processing fees that applicants had to pay.It also meant a considerable source of income for the debt-stricken state. But the Council of State then, the country’s highest administrative court, deemed that the government’s action was unlawful.

Today, Greek NGOs argue that many of the provisions contained in the draft legislation have no scientific basis and in fact run counter to recent decisions by the Council of State.

According to Karavelas, there has been a precedent but never to the size and scale of this draft legislation. “The law means legalisation for a number of illegal houses or buildings that have already been there for a long time. It means a loss in the protection of status of NATURA 2000 sites, that are quite critical and that we have a responsibility towards the European Union for protecting. So, it is really a massive change in the landscape. And one we think is to the detriment, on the long-term, of the economy of the country”.

The WWF Head in Greece says the reasons behind this move are bad crisis management and a panic mode. “The government is interested in how we can open up the land and sell anything we possibly can to bring in the money in the short term. But what we are not realising is that just as we have borrowed financial resources from the future and accumulated this massive financial deficit, what we are actually doing is borrowing natural resources from our future and we will be accumulating a massive ecological deficit,” he says.

Dimitris Karavelas is worried about what impact this law may cause. “We haven't heard an official position from the Council of State on this yet, but we've already heard officially from a number of legal experts, who are saying that this law is certainly unconstitutional in a number of ways in a number of its articles. What this law is actually saying is that following the fires there is no longer the requirement to designate this land as an area that has been burned and needs to regenerate so basically it is creating an amazing incentive to people start burning more forest.”, Karavelas says.