The fires that ravaged the Peloponnese and other parts of Greece this summer were a long time in the making. Though it took minutes in some places for the flames to overwhelm villagers armed with brooms and rubber hoses–the fire swallowed sixty-six people and some 6,000 homes, 4 million olive trees and thousands of acres of forest–it’s taken years of environmental destruction and political mismanagement to lay the tinder for them. It will take even longer for the blackened trees to grow, the olive groves to fruit as they once did, the villages to recover–if they ever do. For on the eve of one of the most critical elections in its recent history, Greece is facing its own moment of “disaster capitalism.” The wires have been buzzing with conspiracy theories, some started by the government, about who set the fires–terrorists, anarchists, Albanian immigrants, the main opposition party, global corporations. But what matters far more is who will benefit from the reconstruction: the local people and what’s left of the environment or the development companies, which have their eye on the longest unspoiled stretch of coast in the Mediterranean, and the politicians they can slip so easily into their pockets.
The main cause of this summer’s conflagrations was climatic: an unprecedented series of heat waves, with temperatures in the 100s day after scorching day, following an unusually dry winter. Even Greeks can’t blame their government for global climate change; this summer, fires tore through Italy and the rest of the Balkans too. But as Dr. Michalis Petrakis, head of Greece’s Institute of Environmental Research, points out, 95 percent of forest fires are caused by people, either deliberately or through carelessness–and here both major parties bear responsibility. The Pan-Hellenic Socialists (PaSoK) held power for the better part of twenty years; they lost the 2004 election to Kostas Karamanlis’s conservative New Democracy largely because of the corruption that had spread to almost every corner of the government. For most of that time the environment was easy prey to graft. It was under PaSoK that the plague of illegal building beside every town and road was allowed to spread unchecked, so that the practice of burning forest land to turn it into lots became an epidemic; it was under PaSoK–especially in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics–that the construction companies became a force in politics as well as in the economy. It was PaSoK that first set out to weaken Article 24 of the Greek Constitution, which protects forests from development; it was PaSoK that frittered away (or “ate”) vast sums provided by the European Union to fund a long-overdue land registry, which would determine land use and ownership. The project is still languishing; Greece was ignominiously made to return more than half the funds.
If possible, New Democracy has been even worse. Its failure to prepare for and respond to this summer’s inferno has invited comparisons to Hurricane Katrina. This spring, having sacked the leadership of the fire department in favor of its own political appointees, the government hastily filled 4,000 empty jobs with temporary workers. On August 17, after a first wave of blazes and with flames licking at the Athens suburbs, Karamanlis called a September election, throwing the government into its usual pre-poll paralysis. A few days later fires broke out simultaneously in several parts of the country; the fire service was too beleaguered, underequipped and disorganized to cope. Makis Paraskevopoulos, mayor of Pyrgos, in the northwest Peloponnese, told me what happened there: “The fire front was coming for a day or more from the northeast, but unfortunately the danger was underestimated and the fire was not kept away from the villages. When it arrived on Saturday afternoon there was no fire engine…. Next day at dawn there were no air drops [of water], as we had been promised. If there had been, they could have saved at least half the land that was burned.” Now, he says, “everything is ash. Nobody, young or old, can stay here. We need ideas for development, for jobs–but in the right way. The destruction brings many dangers.”
Before the fires New Democracy’s development plan involved the rapid capitalization of the country’s natural resources, regardless of the environmental cost. In March the government launched a new assault on Article 24 that would remove up to 5 million acres of forest from its protection; in May it published a detailed proposal to make Greece a mecca for mass tourism, complete with condo complexes, retirement villages and golf courses. Foremost among the areas to be turned into a new Costa del Sol is the western Peloponnese, the region worst hit by the fires; access to its as-yet-unbuilt hotels and parking lots will be provided by the Ionian Road, a six-lane highway planned to run close to the coast, dividing villages and passing through environmentally protected areas like the Kaiaphas forest, now burned to a crisp.
PaSoK leader George Papandreou has responded to people’s anger with a string of promises for sustainable development, an independent environment ministry, forest restoration and protection. All this is easier said than done: Trees neither vote nor grease politicians’ palms. There are some in Papandreou’s party who care for the environment, and for rural ecosystems evolved over generations. But the 2.8 billion euro contract for the Ionian Road was signed July 24 by a consortium of Greek and European companies, which will maintain and profit from the highway for the next thirty years. If they want golf courses in the western Peloponnese, then golf courses are what they’re going to get.