Friday, 7 September 2007

The New Peloponnesian War

This summer Greece entered the global warming age with a baptism of fire. The loss of approximately 3,000 square kilometres of forest and orchard - an area equivalent to 2.3 percent of the country's surface area - is unprecedented. 

The economic effects could be devastating. The farmers of Ileia, Arcadia, Laconia and Messenia were on the cusp of this month's grape harvest, the autumn citrus harvest and December's olive harvest. They have been deprived not only of a year's income, but of the means to make a living for many years to come. The danger, as pointed out by European Parliament, is that they will begin to abandon the land in order to find salaried jobs.

The socialists and conservatives are promising reconstruction aid hand over fist ahead of the September 16 election. Both, reasonably, have pledged to rebuild burnt homes, greenhouses and sheep pens at public expense (although the socialists have been much more explicit about it).

The government has handed out emergency relief money, promised to re-equip homes and offered bereavement money. Remarkably for Greece, it began to hand out the money on August 28, while fires still raged, and did so with a minimum of paperwork. In the first days of September crews moved in to terrace burnt hillsides and prevent soil erosion. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis promised on August 31 that reforestation will be done artificially where it cannot take place naturally.

All this is good first aid, but the socialists have better captured the longevity of the commitment needed in the half-destroyed Peloponnese. Among Pasok's provisions are a necessary freezing of farmers' debts for three years, the complete replacement of their flocks and trees and a monthly stipend of not less than 1,000 euros for up to five years until they rebuild their livelihoods from the land. Pasok has also said it would sustain tourism businesses and olive presses, canning and bottling plants by making up revenue shortfalls for up to five years. In contrast, the prime minister has only spoken vaguely about studying the area's regeneration.

Pasok is overzealous in pledging additionally to pay market prices for livestock killed and a set rate per acre for farmland burnt. And its talk of a new bureaucracy along the lines of the Olympic organising committee to oversee every aspect of reconstruction is silly in a country where state bureaucracies take decades to pick up real authority and are never dismantled. But it has shown the right pioneering spirit. Seizing the opportunity to turn the region to organic farming and founding a Peloponnesian version of the American Farm School, which is devoted to sustainable methods, are capital ideas.

Regenerating the area economically and environmentally, however, requires that those two priorities be placed on an equal footing. Traditionally, both major parties have demoted the environment in favour of the economy. That was sustainable while the environment was able to absorb the impact of human activity; but now that man's activity has begun to have measurable and dramatic effects on the economy, the two must be cultivated together.

In his explanation of the current fires, Karamanlis has indicated arson and hinted at conspiracy. The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they assume exclusive human agency and a master plan to boot. Three people are indeed convicted for malicious arson in this year's fires, and more than two dozen await malicious arson charges or trial. But any rational explanation for this summer's conflagration must include climate change.

Heatwaves and drought have left the country vulnerable to fire, foresters and climatologists tell this newspaper (see article on page 3). Neither of those factors is conclusive on its own. Greece suffered an even worse drought in the 1989-90 winter, followed by an unremarkable fire season; and a massive heatwave in 1987 was not accompanied by conflagration as it was on June 26 this year.

But climatic factors work over the longer term, the experts say. It cannot be coincidence that Greece's greatest forest losses have taken place during the only summer on record with three heatwaves, the second worst drought on record and the single highest temperature in central Athens in more than a century (44.8 degrees Celsius).

These factors rendered the west coast of the Peloponnese especially vulnerable. Usually it enjoys heavier rainfall, and that has given rise to its lush vegetation, which this year's drought turned into fuel.
Perhaps the most powerful indication that Greece is in the grip of climate change, rather than the butt of conspiracy, is that neighbouring Italy and Albania are also suffering from high fire seasons.

Government indifference to the environment over decades has further weakened it. The forestry service tells this newspaper that for the past four years it has not received a forest-clearing subsidy it is entitled to (see article on page 4). Nor have central and local government bothered to claim 24 million euros in European money for forest protection.

New Democracy may have proven an inept operator of the state machine in a time of crisis, as these fires demonstrate, but it has also neglected long-term environmental planning. For instance, the Public Power Corporation has been allowed to continue burning lignite without planning any investment in wind, solar and geothermal power, in all of which Greece is exceptionally gifted by nature.

The development ministry has obstructed private interests wanting to invest in renewable energy. It scrapped the liberalised electricity market rules drawn up by the previous government and gave the private sector a smaller market share. Unchecked bureaucracy stifles private investment in renewable energy.
Pasok has fared no better. Consolidating the environment ministry with public works was Andreas Papandreou's idea. None of the three socialist ministers who pioneered that ministry from 1993 to 2004 established a tradition of environmental priorities. One of them is responsible for the failure to create a national land registry.

Politicians have not talked about these environmental underpinnings of this year's conflagration in the Peloponnese, or of how to avoid a repetition. The new Peloponnesian War will not just be about reconstruction. It will be about drawing the right conclusions from 2007, and will be just as crucial to the rest of Greece as the ancient one.

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