From: Dina Kyriakidou
Published August 27, 2007 12:00 PM

Analysis: Weak Laws, Neglect Behind Greek Fires

ATHENS - Weak zoning laws, careless farmers and smoldering garbage dumps are the main reasons for the forest fires that have killed 63 and destroyed whole rural economies in Greece in recent days, Greenpeace said on Monday.


The fires, fanned by strong winds, have engulfed whole villages, forcing thousands to flee their homes, and burned millions of hectares of woods and farmland dried by summer heat.


Greece has declared a state of emergency and sought help from its EU partners. The prime minister, facing parliamentary elections on September 16, indicated arsonists might have been responsible and vowed to punish them.


"There are several well known 'arsonists' in Greece -- garbage dumps (burning spontaneously), farmers burning brush, animal farmers burning land to sprout fresh grass for grazing," said Nikos Charalambides, director of Greenpeace in Greece.


"But the biggest arsonist is the state, which has not clarified the use of land, leaving suburban forests vulnerable to rogue developers," he added in an interview with Reuters.


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"The lack of a national land registry and national zoning laws leave room for doubt about the characterization of land, whether it is forest or not," Charalambides said.


Many forest fires, especially those close to urban centers, are believed to be started by developers burning down woods to make way for new construction.


It is illegal in Greece to burn forests in order to build houses on the land, but the laws are vague about the definition of protected land and developers are rarely prosecuted.


Concrete buildings are often seen rising amid the ashes of burnt-out woodland.


Police have charged three elderly people and two 11-year-old boys with setting fires, and the government has offered rewards of up to one million euros ($1.4 million) for information leading to the arrest of arsonists.


The Public Order Ministry said prosecutors would find out whether arson could be subjected to the same penalties as terrorism faces in the penal code.


Charalambides said the current spate of fires, the deadliest in recorded Greek history, have burned 2.5 million hectares so far this year, compared with 1.5 million hectares in 1981, previously the worst year on record.


"Not all fires are arson. Mediterranean forests burn and are reborn, provided they are left alone," Charalambides said.


© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.


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