Greek park fire reveals ‘chronic failure’, NGOs say
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Athens (AFP) – Days after one of Greece’s largest national parks narrowly escaped massive destruction from a massive fire that raged for more than a week, the country’s environment ministry has welcomed .
Among Greece’s underfunded and understaffed habitats, Dadia National Park is – on paper – one of the best protected areas in Greece as one of the most important breeding grounds of Europe for vultures and other birds of prey.
“Respecting and protecting the environment was and remains a fundamental commitment of our government,” Environment Minister Costas Skrekas said in a statement on Tuesday.
But many Greek environmental groups differ.
Spyros Psaroudas, director of wildlife group Callisto, says there is a “chronic failure” in nature protection in Greece, adding that the current government seeks to create a business-friendly environment at the expense of wildlife.
“There is a lack of coordination between ministries and a clear allocation of responsibilities… all of this leads to illegal activities which are never sanctioned”, adds Nadia Andreanidou, project manager at the Mediterranean Association for the Safeguarding sea turtles (Medasset).
“It’s a vicious circle and it leads to poor management of protected areas,” she told AFP.
Forest engineer Dimitris Vasilakis, who helped develop Dadia’s operational plan, says the park has just four rangers to patrol 800 square kilometers (308 square miles).
The local forest service in Soufli that oversees Dadia receives less than 50,000 euros from the state each year, a fifth of what it is supposed to receive, Vasilakis said.
More than 300 firefighters battled for eight days last month to keep the blaze away from Dadia’s nesting sites in the heart of the park.
On Tuesday, the environment ministry said the July 21 fire destroyed just over 2,200 hectares (54.6 acres) of forest in Dadia.
Early estimates suggest predator nesting areas were largely unaffected.
The incident shed light on Greece’s long and troubled history of environmental protection.
Even as the park burned two weeks ago, the government tried to push through parliament new legislation that a dozen NGOs said further weakened protective restrictions in Greece’s national parks.
On the seventh day of the fire, the legislation was unexpectedly withdrawn by the government for “further consultation”.
The planned bill would have allowed additional activities in protected areas, including roads, tourist sites and electricity storage and telecommunications facilities.
Greece has been repeatedly referred to the European Court of Justice for its failure to protect its natural habitats.
The court hit Athens on the issue in December 2020, noting that the country, by its own admission, had created safeguards for less than 20% of more than 240 protected areas.
A key omission, say environmental groups, is the lack of legal safeguards and regulations governing Greece’s share of the Natura 2000 network – Europe’s main breeding and resting sites for rare and endangered species that are protected by EU legislation.
Charikleia Minotou, manager of the Zakynthos program for the protection of loggerhead turtles run by the Greek chapter of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), says there are “hundreds” of complaints and fines against the illegal development that the authorities do not follow up.
And in 2018, when a presidential decree was issued to protect the Gulf of Kyparissia on the Ionian Sea – a key habitat for loggerhead turtles and deep-sea whales – it was challenged by three city councils, two tourism companies and dozens of local residents.
Focus on energy
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ conservative government is emphasizing hydrocarbon exploration, Minotou says.
Even before the Russian attack on Ukraine in February sparked fears of energy shortages across Europe, Greece had reserved exploration sites in the Ionian Sea.
In February, several Cuvier’s beaked whales washed up on shore during seismic research in the Ionian Sea. The national hydrocarbon management agency denied that it was caused by its activities.
In the rare cases where new legislation is introduced, the results often pose a threat to conservation, according to Greek environmental groups.
In 2020, Greece formed a new national body to manage its parks, the Natural Environment and Climate Change Agency (Necca). In the process, 36 park management bodies were merged into a new group of 24.
However, environmental groups note that the new body has basically excluded NGOs, local authorities and citizens’ associations from park boards.
“We need national parks where local society participates and is democratically represented,” says Psaroudas of wildlife group Callisto.
© 2022 AFP