· Rare species of animals and plants lost in flames
· Anger rises as developers move in on stricken areas
Friday September 28, 2007
GuardianTwo percent of the surface area of Greece was destroyed by forest fires this summer, including some of Europe's lushest nature reserves. The extent of the damage wrought by the infernos is much larger than initially thought, with rare species of reptiles, mammals and endemic plants being lost, according to the conservation group WWF.
"The destruction by far exceeds our expectations, and is more dramatic and extensive than we imagined," Dimitris Karavellas, who heads the WWF in Greece, said. "These fires were not only the worst on record, they ravaged everything. Very few patches of life, patches that are now refuges for various animal species, were left behind," he said.
Aided by satellite maps, environmentalists have established that in six weeks the flames consumed roughly one-tenth of the country's forests, with large swaths of land inside EU-protected areas also being burned. Among the designated areas was Mount Taygetos, one of Greece's most spectacular nature reserves, which had just begun to recover from devastating blazes in 1998.
The destruction - exacerbated by the hottest summer in 50 years - will doubtless worsen if a winter of heavy rainfall follows, Mr Karavellas said.
The group's grim assessment came a month after fires erupted in the southern Peloponnese, killing 67 men, women and children, many of whom were burned alive as they tried to flee the flames.
The report's release will put further pressure on the recently re-elected conservative government, the popularity of which was badly hit by accusations of ineptitude during the conflagrations.
Alongside mounting anger over the scale of the damage, indignation is rising over the rehabilitation methods officials are resorting to in affected areas. "Everyone, it seems, wants to exploit the situation economically," Nikos Bokaris, the president of the Panhellenic Union of Foresters, said in an interview. "I have been to the stricken region and seen with my own eyes that there is absolutely no coordination of relief efforts. The confusion that allowed the fires to rage uncontrollably is now raging uncontrollably in those areas."
Greeks have been incensed by evidence that investors, scenting profit, are moving in to the Peloponnese, one of the last parts of Greece to have escaped mass tourism.
Ecologists point to a deal that paves the way for construction on up to 10 miles of virgin coastline around the southern seaside town of Zacharo. The deal, signed by the former deputy finance minister Petros Doukas and the mayor of Zacharo, Pantazis Chronopoulos, appears to have gone through, despite the region being on a list of protected sites drawn up by the EU.
The approximately 6,000 people who were made homeless by the fires have also been encouraged to ignore otherwise stringent environmental rules when they apply for housing subsidies. In the absence of a land registry and forest maps, Greeks invariably have been able to build with impunity in areas that would normally be protected.
Trail of destruction
· 300,000 hectares were burnt.
· 30,000 hectares of this were within protected areas.
· Seven designated nature reserves were affected.
· 55% of the razed area consisted of forests and other areas of vegetation.
· Habitats of rare species of golden jackals and red deer were among those destroyed.
· The fires caused a severe degradation of soil and water balance, increasing the risk of flooding.
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