After World War II, the Greek countryside saw two debilitating human influxes – an exodus of villagers, then a most peculiar human invasion of its fringes. Both of these outbreaks, aided by a weak state and encouraged by the climate crisis, turned the low-level drama of naturally redemptive wildfires into the heartbreaking disaster of this summer.
After heat waves of unprecedented longevity, forest fires in the summer months have so far destroyed more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of ancient pine forests. They blackened swathes of Attica, burned parts of ancient Olympia and destroyed the magnificent forests of northern Evia – where rural communities lost their homes, not to mention their livelihoods and landscapes. .
To understand why this is happening, we need to understand the trajectory of urban and rural development in Greece. War and poverty caused a mass exodus from the countryside which began in the late 1940s. Villagers who did not migrate to countries like Germany, Canada and Australia descended on Athens. Combined with lax urban planning, this surge of humanity quickly transformed the Greater Athens region into a concrete jungle. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the same people dreamed of a partial return to the countryside, of a summer residence in the shade of a few pines, near Athens and, preferably, near the sea. .
To these petty-bourgeois dwellings which, in the 1980s, were scattered throughout Attica, the mid-1990s added the bourgeois suburbs. Villas and shopping malls gradually took over the inland wooded areas bordering Athens, at a rate that reflected economic growth fueled by money borrowed from EU banks or provided through EU structural funds.
It’s like we’re looking for trouble. Fire is a natural ally of Mediterranean pine forests. It helps clear the soil from old trees and allows the young to thrive. By using the wood daily and using tactical burns each spring, the villagers once kept these fires from breaking out. Alas, not only did circumstances force the villagers to abandon the forests but, when they and their descendants returned as atomized townspeople to build their summer houses inside the unmaintained forests, they did so without no traditional community knowledge or practices.
Europe’s famous north-south economic divide has a counterpart in the forests of Greece. In countries like Sweden or Germany, forests have been intensely traded. Although this marked the disappearance of ancient forests and their replacement with arid plantations, farmland or pasture, at least the countryside was not abandoned like that of Greece. In a sense, the deplorable state of the Greek countryside, rapid and unregulated urbanization, and our weak and corrupt state are all reflections of the country’s atrophic capitalism.
Greek governments were aware of the unsustainability of our land use model since forest fires began to take revenge on us in the 1970s. Deep down, they knew: we had, collectively, violated nature. , and now nature demanded her long and interminable revenge. Convinced, however, that their chances of re-election were doomed if they dared to tell voters that perhaps they should give up the dream of that cabin in the forest, abandon the project of suburbanizing the pine forests, the Governments chose the easy route: they blamed the heat of the winds, the evil arsonists, bad luck, even the strange Turkish saboteur.
Collective responsibility was the first victim of every hell. The 23 In July 2018, at a seaside colony north of Athens known as Mati, a demonic fireball cremated 103 people within minutes, including a friend. The cause was obvious to anyone who wanted to take a selfless look at how the dense stand had been inserted into an aging pine forest, with narrow lanes offering no realistic chance of escaping the inevitable blaze.
Unfortunately, neither the government nor the opposition dared to admit the obvious: that we should never have allowed the construction of this colony. Instead, they were yelling at each other endlessly, playing a blame game that disrespected victims, society, nature.
Even when governments tried to modernize their practices, they made matters worse. In 1998, in order to professionalize firefighting, the bush firefighting unit (until then managed by the forestry commission) was dissolved and integrated into the urban firefighters. The resulting economies of scale came at a cost: the end of the large-scale deforestation effort that the bushfire control unit undertook each winter and spring.
Following the natural instinct of an urban bureaucracy to favor high-tech solutions and despise traditional practices, the unified firefighters effectively withdrew from the forests and instead focused on a strategy of putting up firewalls around it. built-up areas, while bombarding forest fires from the air – using planes which most often cannot fly due to adverse conditions.
Then, in early 2010, the Greek state went into undeclared bankruptcy. Soon, dozens of officials from the EU and the IMF – the infamous troika – would arrive in Athens to impose the world’s toughest austerity program. All budgets have been brutally slashed, including those intended for the protection of citizens and nature. Thousands of doctors, nurses and, yes, firefighters have been made redundant. In 2011, the overall budget for firefighters was reduced by 20%.
In the spring of 2015, a senior fire officer told me that at least 5,000 additional firefighters were needed to provide basic protection the following summer. As Greece’s finance minister at the time, I made plans to take savings from other parts of the budget to rehire a modest number of firefighters and medics (2,000 in total). Hearing this, the troika immediately condemned me for ‘turning back’ and clearly warned that if I insisted the negotiations at the Eurogroup would be over – a shortcut to announcing the closure of Greek banks.
Since then, the only real change has been the constant rise in temperatures, thanks to the acceleration of climate degradation. This summer’s firestorm was quite predictable, as was our state’s inability to respond effectively. What about the EU? Did he send dozens of staff to micromanage events on the ground, as he did when austerity was imposed? Unlike the aid Greece received from individual European governments, including Britain after Brexit, EU institutions have been conspicuous by their absence.
The terrifying question is: what next? The specter of a new threat to Greece’s forests hangs over the earth. It is the current right-wing government’s eagerness to outsource reforestation to private multinational companies. In search of a quick euro, they sell fast-growing genetically modified trees that have no place in the Mediterranean and are hostile to our traditional flora, fauna and landscapes. Unlike the terrible impact of state failure on our people, which we hope one day to reverse, this assault on our native forests will be irreversible.
- Yanis Varoufakis is the co-founder of DiEM25 (Movement for Democracy in Europe), former Minister of Finance of Greece and author of And the Weak Suffer What They Must ?, Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future