Friday, 25 August 2006

Our Neglect of Forests

Perhaps the greatest sin of the Greeks with regard to their forests is one of omission. Reforestation is often redundant, as in the case of pines. The planting of new forest where none has recently existed, though, is infinitely valuable
GREECE has just experienced its worst forest fires in six years. An estimated 5,000 hectares of pine forest have burned to a crisp on the Kassandra peninsula of Halkidiki, and an even greater area of olive trees and shrubs was under destruction in Mani as the Athens News went to press.

The socialist opposition's harpooning of state services comes partly out of a sense of obligation to oppose. The annual acreage of burned forest does not differ wildly between Pasok governments and those of New Democracy. Greece carbonised an annual average of 5,200 hectares in the 1980s when Pasok was in power. The average was 4,600 hectares during 1990-93, when New Democracy ruled. In fact, it was a New Democracy government that purchased the country's first firefighting planes.

The fire brigade was partly unlucky. The conflagrations of Mani and Halkidiki started on the same day, on the tail of a tough firefight on the island of Zakynthos. Waterbombing planes were pinned down by high winds, which fanned the flames too fast for vehicles to quench them in the critical early stages. Once they had spread, not even the planes could deliver the massive quantities of water required fast enough.

Clearly, though, the response was problematic. Planes dispatched to douse Zakynthos were not re-routed quickly enough, leaving only two, plus a helicopter, to deal with Kassandra. Ten planes were grounded for maintenance. The logistics of summer firefighting in the Mediterranean will punish any fire chief who allows nearly half his air power to be put out of action on any given day.

Still, with the summer nearly over, it is unlikely that this year will end up a statistical neighbour to 1998, the year in which the fire brigade took over forest firefighting from the forestry service, and 2000, when it still lacked experience. Greece lost a staggering 150,000 hectares of forest and shrubland in those two years alone (see chart on page 3). Tallying Greece's average losses without them, the damage is a more reasonable 5,000 hectares a year. What makes those losses acceptable is that they are reversible. Pine forest is designed to burn every five decades or so and re-seed itself. Thyme and oregano, too, begin to spring up anew from their crevices within a year. Should fires claim the planes, oaks, beech and sycamores of Ipiros and the Pindos mountains, on the other hand, the damage would be truly catastrophic for those environments.

In the case of Mani the problems will be mainly economic. Thousands of olive trees have been lost, which will take subsidies to replant and years to bear large quantities of fruit. More generally though, Greece suffers from the negligence, mismanagement and abuse of land.

For instance farmers slash and burn forest on the fringes of their land every year, to increase yield by a paltry amount for the sake of European farm subsidies. So lackadaisical are municipal authorities that they rarely, if ever, send out crews to clean up rubbish, much less the highly inflammable dead wood and pine straw that gathers on forest floors. Nature is often prevented from renewing itself. Even the hardy pine forest needs several years after a fire to bring the new generation of trees to sexual maturity. Two fires in quick succession will destroy the offspring before the latter has a chance to produce seed-bearing cones, meaning that lowlier phrygana take over for a period.

Unfortunately, those frequent fires are a hallmark of arsonists wishing to build on urban fringes or areas being developed for tourists. While wooded, land is constitutionally protected from construction. Denuded, it is vulnerable to re-zoning. The lack of a land registry clearly marking public forest has enabled unscrupulous individuals to introduce ambiguity by fire.

But perhaps the greatest sin of the Greeks with regard to their forests is one of omission. Reforestation is often redundant, as in the case of pines. The planting of new forest where none has recently existed, though, is infinitely valuable, because it makes up for losses elsewhere and can restore the arboreal variety of ancient times.

The Phoenicians deforested Lebanon in the sixth and fifth centuries BC to build ships. Two generations later the Athenians probably did the same to Attica and the Corinthians to Corinth, in the process of creating two of the great fleets of the Classical period. There is no particular virtue in venerating the nudity of these regions today. Prefectural programmes could restore the type of forest that existed in southern Greece about 7,000 years ago. Aleppo pine would still preponderate but the alder, elm, hazel, hornbeam and lime would moisten the forest. Pursued on the mountaintops surrounding Athens, such forests could alter the stifling climate in the capital. Watering this forest requires nothing more ambitious than channelling the clean water currently produced by the sewage treatment plant on Psyttaleia, currently dumped into the Saronic Gulf. The engineering plan for such a project even exists, by the hand of Thanasis Katsiyannis, president of parliament's environment committee.
Reforestation and afforestation are a more impressive force than one might think. According to the latest Forest Resources Assessment from the United Nations, the world lost an average of 13 million hectares of forest land a year in the period 2000-2005. Almost half of that loss ­ 5.7 million hectares - was made up by human replanting and natural reseeding. Nature can recover with only the minimum of assistance, but we Greeks seem to begrudge it the minimum.

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