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Monday, October 15, 2001


The Second Battle of Marathon, 2001 CE

In 490 BCE, the invading army of the mighty Persian empire, which stretched from the borders of India to the Balkans and Libya, landed on the coast of Marathon with the intention of destroying Athens. The ensuing Battle of Marathon was a turning-point in history that, if nothing else, ensured that Persian dominion would not extend to the Greek city-states.

Today, however, another Battle of Marathon is raging, this time between Greeks. Greek conservation organizations, historians, archeologists, and many others interested in protecting the environment and preserving Greece’s cultural heritage, have united. Their opponents are the Greek government and certain economic interests vested in the 2004 Olympic Games.

At the eastern end of the Marathon plain lies Schinias, one of the few remaining havens of biodiversity in Attica, the region around Athens in which nearly half the population of Greece is concentrated and, consequently, nature has been brutally violated in the interests of “development.” In a relatively small area, which has suffered some degradation in the past due to lack of government protection, Schinias includes several different types of habitat. One that is important for the European Union is a rare and beautiful forest of stone pine (Pinus pinea) on sand dunes, the finest of only three in Greece. The forest lies between a sandy beach and extensive wetlands, at whose eastern end the Kynosoura (or Dogtail) peninsula contains a typically Mediterranean ecosystem of maqui and shrub, fortunately still completely unspoiled, while at the western end a natural spring, the Makaria, supplies water for the wetlands.

Schinias is rich in fauna and flora. As many as 176 species of birds have been recorded there, including glossy ibises, marsh harriers, black-winged stilts, kingfishers, white pelicans, ten species of herons, red kites, short-tailed eagles, and peregrine falcons. Most of these species are protected by the European Union’s Birds Directive 79/409/EEC (50 species), the Bern Convention (130 species), and the Bonn Convention (98 species), and the site has been consequently designated an Important Bird Area (IPA). There are at least 4,000 species of insects, including some that are locally endemic (i.e., present nowhere else), more than 350 species of flowering plants – some quite rare – as well as several threatened species of reptiles and amphibians and even one locally endemic freshwater fish.

No one denies the ecological value of Schinias, not even the Greek government, which had originally included it in the list of protected areas to be submitted to the European Union as part of the Natura 2000 program. For the birds in particular, most of which are migratory, Schinias is a waystation on the route between their winter quarters in Africa and their breeding grounds in Europe. Each station is crucial for the birds’ resting and feeding, hence the importance also of the respective insect populations.

In 1997, however, Athens won the 2004 Olympics, and the Greek government’s ostensible commitment to protecting the environment was exposed in all its true colors. Schinias was immediately selected as the site of the Olympic rowing center, which was actually positioned right in the middle of the wetlands. At the same time, the area was removed from the Natura 2000 list of protected sites so that construction could proceed without interference.

Had this plan been implemented, Schinias would have been totally destroyed. The Olympic rowing center consists of two artificial lakes, one for competition and the other for training and warming up. The first is 2,250 meters long (1.4 miles), 162 meters wide, and 3.5 meters deep, while the second has about the same area, but is shallower. The total water surface is huge, about 750 hectares (1,875 acres). Permanent construction includes a three-story start tower, a four-story finish tower, offices and meeting rooms, restaurants, dormitories, boathouses, a helipad, and gas station, as well as grandstands for 10,000 spectators, with places on the banks for 40,000 more, and parking spaces for VIPs and buses. The entire rowing center, occupying 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), could easily cover the whole of central Athens. But that is not all. The Olympic canoe and kayak slalom course – 400 meters long, with a capacity of 5,000 spectators – is located right next to it. The initial budget for the project was about $90 million.

The four major environmental groups in Greece – the World Wildlife Fund, the Hellenic Ornithological Society, the Elliniki Etairia, and the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature – joined forces to fight against siting the rowing and slalom centers at Schinias. The Second Battle of Marathon, as it later came to be called, had been joined; at that time, in early 1998, however, it was still a one-sided affair. Nevertheless, in order to silence opposition, the government moved the proposed site of the rowing center to the western end of the wetlands and set in motion the procedure for creating a national park by presidential decree.

The national park was to include the stone pine forest, the wetlands, and the other habitats, and so, theoretically, protect Schinias’s environment, while the area designated as the rowing center was to become “an area of environmental education, research, and sporting activities,” as if that were the order of priorities!

The four environmental organizations dismissed the presidential decree as a sham, and a cover to give environmental credibility to a damaging construction project and further development within the national park (restaurants, bars, and other amenities). Furthermore, the slalom course was not included in the national park, but left just outside on the edge, so there would be no obstacle to developing it further – as a recreational park or a facility for other kinds of tourist activities – after the 2004 Olympics. And the terms of the presidential decree made it quite clear that the emphasis was to be put, not on protecting the environment, but on the convenience of the spectators and users of the sports facilities. Here are a few examples.

Aerial spraying was not prohibited, nor was the use of pesticides and chemicals, which could destroy wildlife. Buses would be permitted to enter and park in the stone pine forest, which would seriously inhibit its regeneration. Wells could be drilled for the needs of the artificial lakes, which would lower the water table and allow the sea to penetrate into a fresh-water, life-sustaining environment. In any case, priority for water from the Makaria source went to the rowing center. Only after its needs were satisfied (not less than one million cubic meters annually from evaporation alone, apart from any seepage) would the wetlands receive any. Water is, in fact, the key. It has always been the contention of the plan’s opponents that the Makaria spring could not supply enough, and this has been amply justified these past two summers, when it virtually dried up – as it might well do again in August 2004 during the Olympics. Thus, the government has been compelled to budget for a pipeline costing $20 million, which would draw from Athens’s drinking-water reservoir at Lake Marathon.

In Greece, environmental protection is still far from being a priority, despite the fact that the country’s great natural beauty is a major asset and pole of attraction, along with its historical heritage, for more tourists each year than its entire population. Though some progress has been made, both the Greek government and public opinion tend to be fairly indifferent to environmental issues.

In this adverse climate, the four environmental groups first attempted to reason with the government for a change of the site of the rowing center and even proposed a perfectly satisfactory and much cheaper solution at Yliki, a lake only 77 kilometers from Athens. But Yliki did not have the potential for future economic development that Schinias-Marathon did. There was thus no alternative but to clash head-on with the government on two fronts: legal issues and public opinion. The four groups were fortunate, however, to find an important ally in Greek history itself.

It is generally accepted by historians and archeologists that the Persians landed on Schinias beach with a force of 20,000-30,000 soldiers, not including the 40,000-50,000 sailors who manned the invasion fleet of 600 ships. They established a base on the western edge of the Schinias wetlands, which was a marsh in antiquity, where they could easily be provisioned with water from the Makaria source. They then marched some three kilometers across the Marathon plain in formation to face the Athenian army of 10,000 men, which had been deployed at the base of the foothills at its western end in order to guard the route to Athens.

For several days, the two armies faced each other until the Athenians attacked, having first thinned out their center so that their battleline equaled that of the Persians, which was probably not less than 1.5 kilometers long. The Greek center executed a fighting retreat against vastly superior forces, but the flanks routed the opposing Persians and then turned inward to attack the Persian center from the sides and rear. The Persians fled to their ships, suffering most of their losses when they were cut down or drowned in the marsh. The battle continued in the stone pine forest, on Schinias beach, and in the shallows, and the Athenians lost several of their best men trying to capture a number of Persian ships. If this is how the Battle of Marathon was fought, as most historians believe, it is quite clear that the Olympic rowing and slalom centers are being built on part of the battlefield.

The four organizations brought this fact to the attention of the public, in Greece and abroad, and there were now two issues to fight, one environmental and the other historical. That the Greek government was about to desecrate a historical battlefield of world importance created an international uproar. (Imagine a baseball stadium on the battlefield at Gettysburg!) The Archeological Society of Greece, the Academy of Athens, hundreds of personalities, and thousands of people joined in the protest in Greece. The relevant government departments and Greek embassies abroad, along with the International Olympic Committee, were flooded with protests from international environmental and cultural organizations, as well as individuals. The Greek and foreign press reported the story extensively and, overwhelmingly, took an anti-government position.

In the face of all this opposition, the Greek government’s response was a classic case of disinformation. According to it, Schinias really had no significant ecological value, and it was actually the construction of the rowing center, with its artificial lakes, that would create this value. As for the Battle of Marathon, it supposedly did not take place at Schinias, but at the tomb of the Marathon warriors 3.5 kilometers away (as if a battle involving 30,000-40,000 soldiers could be located in one spot, even if the area of the tomb was part of it). Of course, this did not explain the Persians drowned in the marsh and killed on the beach. That is why, when this position proved untenable, an even more spurious argument was put forward, based on an article in a Belgian scientific journal, that Schinias had been under the sea in 490 BCE. This second argument was effectively countered by research reported by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and a geological survey of the site conducted by the University of Thessaloniki, which showed that there had not been any significant change in the geography of the area since antiquity.

Meanwhile, on the legal front, the four environmental groups lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission, maintaining that European directives protecting the environment – more specifically, the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) – were being violated. The commission upheld the ecological importance of Schinias and requested that it be included in the Natura 2000 network. Under what conditions the rowing center is to be permitted is the subject of ongoing negotiations between the commission and the Greek government, with the latter engaged in delaying tactics while construction work proceeds.

Environmentalists may not succeed in having the rowing center relocated, since the issue has acquired a political importance out of all proportion. But there have been positive results so far from this three-year campaign. The artificial lakes and facilities have been moved to one end of the wetlands, and the presidential decree’s most damaging provisions have been cancelled. Furthermore, a decision by the Council of State declared that those clauses in the decree allowing the establishment of tavernas, bars, and similar facilities in the national park were illegal. This, along with the fact that the Olympic slalom course has been entirely relocated, is a very serious blow to commercial interests in the area. Another decision by the Council of State is expected in November on the legality of the project as a whole. Perhaps the most significant environmental victory to date, however, is the enormous press coverage that this campaign has received. It has sensitized public opinion from all walks of life much more to environmental issues – which bodes well for Greece – while making politicians tread a little bit more carefully on nature.

Makis Aperghis is secretary general of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, the oldest conservation group in Greece.
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