GREECE: Fires char a way of life

By Apostolis Fotiadis

ATHENS, Greece, August 30 – Greece is set to pay an enormous cost after a week of unstoppable inferno, with fires still burning out of control.

The area affected by the disaster runs from the prefecture of Evia 90 km north of the capital to the outskirts of Athens, and throughout southwestern and central Peloponnesus, the southern peninsula of continental Greece.

According to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), 184,000 hectares of forest and agricultural fields were charred in just the first three days of the fires that started Aug. 24.

Despite incredible efforts from people in the field, the overstretched state mechanism has failed to protect civilians. Television channels have been broadcasting live appeals for help from people in remote mountainous areas. The number of confirmed deaths has reached 64, but this number is expected to rise when fire-fighters reach isolated mountainous villages.

The provinces of Messinia, Laconia, Arcadia and Ileia, covering an area of 13,864 square km and inhabited by 580,500 people, have suffered most. In just the municipality of Zaharo, located in the southwestern part of Ileia, 335 km from Athens, 16 of the 18 villages have been wiped off the map.

Sixty-nine communities were evacuated in Peloponnesus. The fire also reached the site of ancient Olympia outside of Ileia’s capital Pirgos, and caused considerable damage.

The first estimations of damage are dire. Damage to cattle and agricultural capital amount to 1.5 billion euro (2 billion dollars), but total costs are expected to rise above 4 billion euros (5.4 billion dollars).

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) advance is expected to slow down by 0.2 to 0.5 percent for the next two to four years. The first emergency assistance measures cost will rise above three 300 million euros (410 million dollars).

But it is widely accepted that quantification of losses cannot describe the extent of the catastrophe. “Nobody will be able to calculate indirect losses from this disaster,” Maria Roysomoystakaki, president of the Committee for the Protection of Environment, and lecturer in ecology at the University of Athens told IPS.

“So many lives will be lost in ten and 20 years because of environmental devaluation. The quality of the oxygen we inhale will fall sharply. The fertility of land will suffer immensely, the inability of burned earth to maintain humidity and withhold rain waters will lead to soil loss and erosion in these regions. And we are only some weeks away from autumn rains.”

To face the challenge of environmental revival, “first we should seek the necessary culture, the absence of which has led us where we are now,” she said.

It is only of late that the Greek public has begun to confront the impact of environmental issues on the quality of life. This awakening has come the tough way.

“Imagine the impact on local communities,” Roysomoystakaki said. “All those burned olive trees and destroyed vegetation won’t be able to offer anything in the next ten years. We are lucky that Peloponnesus doesn’t get its water from lakes, otherwise water pollution would became another major issue.”

On top of the environmental disaster, the country will face the consequences of collapsing social structures. With thousands of homeless people depending on the state for food and temporary shelter, desperation could rise sharply in the next few months.

“We will experience a considerable population movement towards the already overburdened, big urban centres,” Maratou Lora, research director at the National Centre for Social Research told IPS. “Not just Greeks but migrants who found employment in those areas. People might sell their properties for nothing in order to deal with mortgage and loan obligations.”

It is already obvious that the catastrophe will reverse traditional economical activities. “Exportable goods like olive oil and tomato-based products, produced massively in Peloponnesus, will become scarce,” Lora said. “We will have to start importing what we used to export, burdening further the already problematic import-export balance.”

Lora added: “The tourist industry, one of the few ways to stimulate development in those areas, will also suffer. Greek society, which used to be sensitive for the plight of others, will now have to test its own social cohesion.”

Anger and frustration over the absence of state support is widespread among the population, and the opposition has described the government’s response as “totally incompetent.”

Under considerable political pressure, and facing snap elections in three weeks, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis declared a state of emergency Aug. 25, and called off the pre-election campaign of his party New Democracy. But suggestions of a terrorism angle behind the fires have been seen in media and the public as a cheap attempt to evade responsibility.

Causing such fires is a well-known way of getting around Greek laws forbidding development on areas designated as forestland. But the government insists on a ‘plot of arsonists’ scenario.

The anti-terrorism unit, the army and secret services were called in to investigate the fires, but have not provided any evidence for government claims. A one million euro reward has been announced to help catch arsonists, and an inquiry is on whether arson attacks can be considered terrorism. Seventy persons have been detained in arson cases.

“It angers me so much that people are still around sticking posters for the elections or that politicians attempt to capitalise on the tragedy,” Olga Sella, a journalist who writes on cultural issues told IPS. “The government’s attitude is reducing the political ethos of this society. I’m very concerned over what will follow.”  (IPS)