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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Our Opinion

If You Build It, It Is Yours

It doesn’t take long, or require much attention, for anyone traveling around Greece to notice the ravaging consequences of illegal and unregulated construction. Indeed, more often than not, even “legal” construction appears to be — or seems as if it should be — in grotesque violation of existing building and zoning codes. Whether in large, urban centers or in towns and village communities, in the mountains or on the coasts, one’s eyes and consciousness are continually molested by the natural, spatial, environmental, and esthetic violence and ruin that is contemporary Greece.

As such, the Greek government’s recent announcement that it will begin legalizing approximately 300,000 illegally constructed dwellings throughout the country is par for the course, and hardly worth the unusual interest and heated debate it has generated. It is also, by the way, a sad, and revealing, sign of how Costas Simitis’s PASOK government is, at bottom, still very much a PASOK government. The truth is that for all of his reformative ways in other aspects of public policy, and despite his proclaimed desire to bring Greece up to contemporary European standards of societal decency, Mr. Simitis’s environmental policies are Greek business as usual, which is to say wretched and deplorable. He has consistently put current political expediency over Greece’s ecological future and, in so doing, expedited the country’s environmental degradation. As for legalizing the authaireta (the Greek term for illegal constructions), it is a band-aid where a tourniquet is required.

In its rush to political advantage, the Simitis government has confirmed that it has absolutely no intention of dealing with the much broader issues, and especially that of Greeks’ almost pathological contempt for the natural well-being of their communities and environment. Authaireta actually means “arbitrary”; it is an acerbic linguistic comment on the egotistical and thoroughly antisocial nature of modern Greek individualism. This contempt for society has been expressed in decades-long and collective violation of building and zoning regulations that has led to the wanton destruction of every square inch of Greece, from forests, beaches, wetlands, and mountainsides, to archaeological sites, to the built environment of earlier urban eras. Unless the government makes the current legalization of illegal dwellings contingent on a much broader and extensive policy to apply the most serious possible sanctions on all future violations of zoning regulations — to the full extent of both civil and criminal law — Greece’s ecological disaster will continue unimpeded.

Realistically speaking, there is no effective remedy other than legalization for addressing the issue of illegal houses at this stage. The problem has been allowed to fester for too long for any other approach to be feasible. Still, the debate surrounding the proposed measures suggests that the government’s intention is to solve current problems quickly without considering the conditions that have created them. And, by the way, the rationale that authaireta are a bootstrap response by indigent human beings who have no other means of acquiring a living space is cynical, if not specious. Every human being has the right to decent housing within a general social framework of societal planning and ecological wisdom. If people need permanent shelter, then the Greek government should immediately provide livable and decent public housing. In a modern and rational democracy, however, lack of adequate housing is a pathetic excuse for environmental destruction. The fact is that illegal construction is a social expression of Greeks’ presumption of what they consider to be an inherent right to build whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. As a people, we Greeks seem to believe that, if we build it, it’s legal and it’s ours. Nothing less than drastic measures will cure us of this pathology, but the government’s proposed legislation will simply not do it, if for no other reason than political courage always has political consequences, and the last thing Mr. Simitis wants to hear about, on the verge of elections, is political consequences. (Few politicians, of course, consider the fact that political courage sometimes leads directly to political benefit.)

Finally — to add even more grievous injury to initial injury — Mr. Simitis’s government has accompanied its proposed legalization of illegal construction with a proposal to redefine forestry policy. This new legislation intends to “update” outdated laws on the classification of forestland — and, consequently, to allow approximately 500,000 landowners to build on previously protected areas! The Simitis government’s hollow — and intellectually ridiculous — excuse for this new measure is the need to update and clarify previous “inflexible” legislation.

Mr. Simitis’s “flexibility” threatens Greece with continuing ecological mayhem, which, as everyone knows, Greece can no longer afford. Nothing could be more catastrophic for the very few Greek wilderness areas left than opening up a Pandora’s Box of definitions (and endless redefinitions) of what constitutes a forest. For the last 30 to 40 years, the country’s forests have been intentionally and systematically destroyed in the name of construction and development. The burning of thousands of acres of forestland every summer aims at its eventual declassification as woodland and its consequent development. The government’s craven capitulation on this matter will only encourage further destruction. The classification of forestlands may be outdated in certain areas, but this is not the time for Mr. Simitis to be proposing new legislation. Actually, the time for new legislation will never come until the laws already on the books are conscientiously enforced and Greek forests are effectively protected from systematic violence. If there was ever a need for Greece’s government to adopt a hard line and ignore all other — commercial or political — pressures, it is now, and on this issue. The so-called “updating” of forestry policy that this government advocates essentially amounts to the death of whatever is left of what were once upon a time justly mythic, and magnificent, Greek forests.

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