Leg­is­la­tion by­passes wet­land and for­est of Schinias

Spe­cial in­ter­est groups with strong roots in the lo­cal com­mu­nity and ties to lo­cal politi­cians and deputies con­tinue to rule the roost

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY NIKOS VAFEIADIS

Schinias may be home to one of At­tica’s most beau­ti­ful beaches and a wet­land and pine for­est brim­ming with wildlife but it has never en­joyed the pro­tec­tion of the law de­spite its pro­tected sta­tus. Spe­cial in­ter­est groups with strong roots in the com­mu­nity and ties to lo­cal politi­cians and MPs con­tinue to rule the roost, a man­age­ment body set up in 2008 is only just be­ing staffed and the En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry is con­tribut­ing to the law­less regime not just by turn­ing a blind eye to the fail­ure of the man­age­ment but also by in­tro­duc­ing new leg­is­la­tion loos­en­ing re­stric­tion on con­struc­tion on Greece’s coasts.

Schinias, a part of the Natura 2000 net­work, is the small­est na­tional re­serve in the Greece. Lo­cated 45 kilo­me­ters north­east of the Greek cap­i­tal, it com­prises the bay of Marathon – the low pres­ence of pol­lu­tants in its wa­ters is at­tested by the ex­is­tence of sea­grass mead­ows – a sandy, 4-kilo­me­ter beach, a pine for­est, the Kynosouras Penin­sula and a sig­nif­i­cant wet­land that is home to 176 species of birds.

A large part of the area be­longs to the Be­naki Foun­da­tion (an area of 3,000 hectares was pur­chased in 1911 by then­Fi­nance Min­is­ter Em­manouil Be­nakis), a smaller part to in­di­vid­u­als who bought plots from the foun­da­tion, and the rest to con­sor­tiums formed by judges and pros­e­cu­tors (they bought 330 hectares in 1964 that in­clude the wet­land, the penin­sula and one-third of the pine for­est), as well as ju­di­cial em­ploy­ees and po­lice of­fi­cers. The Greek state does not own a sin­gle plot in the area.

Schinias was listed as a na­tional re­serve in 2000 and three years later a spe­cial body was in­tro­duced to man­age it. The plan was to ban cars from sen­si­tive parts of the area, to build large park­ing lots on its out­skirts, cre­ate foot­paths and bi­cy­cle paths to the beach and even to build a tram sys­tem to pro­vide trans­porta­tion. A ring road was sup­posed to be con­structed to stop lo­cals from us­ing the coastal road, eight il­le­gal tav­er­nas on the beach were sup­posed to be de- mol­ished, a ma­jor cleanup and fire pro­tec­tion pro­gram was sup­posed to be in place, and the man­age­ment body was sup­posed to fund it­self from park­ing fees, tram tick­ets and prof­its from en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness events.

Not a sin­gle one of th­ese ini­tia­tives has been adopted, even though they were leg­is­lated in 2001. Cars can still drive down right to the beach, the garbage cans are over­flow­ing, the pine trees are cut down il­le­gally for fire­wood, tons of con­struc­tion de­bris is dumped in the wet­land ev­ery year and the tav­er­nas con­tinue to do brisk business. In fact the eight busi­nesses were granted one more year of im­mu­nity – after be­ing slated for de­mo­li­tion un­der a 2004 law – with new leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced in the sum­mer which paves the way for the de­vel­op­ment of Greece’s coasts and granted the pro­pri­etors a re­prieve, os­ten­si­bly un­til they can re­lo­cate their busi­nesses.

Pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion in­spec­tor Le­an­dros Rak­intzis, who is fa­mil­iar with the is­sue as he in­ves­ti­gated Schinias in 2007 to lo­cate all cases where the law is be­ing breached, has crit­i­cized the law, say­ing that the state “has can­celed it­self.”

“All it takes is one politi­cian to push through an amend­ment and the law is ef­fec­tively ren­dered void,” he said. The new law has also been slammed by en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion group WWF, which in its an­nual re­port for 2014 called it a “mon­u­ment of bad leg­is­la­tion.”

“By ac­cept­ing a slew of last-minute amend­ments, by con­tin­u­ing to le­gal­ize il­le­gal con­struc­tions, by dis­re­gard­ing all of the rel­e­vant rul­ings by the Coun­cil of State and by in­tro­duc­ing a string of ad hoc mea­sures, the new law is an em­bar­rass­ment to the Greek Repub­lic,” the re­port stated.

I called the En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry’s gen­eral di­rec­tor for the en­vi­ron­ment, Athena Mour­mouri, to tell her that I was writ­ing about Schinias and to ask about the new leg­is­la­tion per­tain­ing to the tav­er­nas. She sug­gested I get in touch with the gen­eral sec­re­tary for the en­vi­ron­ment, Na­dia Gian­nakopoulou, a PA­SOK of­fi­cial, which I did. I met with Mour­mouri, Gian­nakopoulou and Re­becca Bat­manoglou, head of the min­istry’s Gen­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal Is­sues Depart­ment.

I was told that the is­sue is com­pletely out of the gen­eral sec­re­tariat’s ju­ris­dic­tion and that re­spon­si­bil­ity for the amend­ment lies with Al­ter­nate En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Nikos Ta­garas.

I also asked the three of­fi­cials about the prob­lems at the na­tional re­serve’s man­age­ment body, only to be told, in short, that they bear no re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“The is­sue of re­serve man­age­ment bod­ies is mul­ti­fac­eted. There are bod­ies such as that in charge of Sa­maria Gorge [on Crete], which func­tion per­fectly and bring in rev­enues,” Gian­nakopoulou said. “We in­vited all the man­age­ment bod­ies of Greece’s pro­tected ar­eas to par­tic­i­pate in a di­a­logue in April in or­der to gather their neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences and to draft a new pro­posal for a new sys­tem of ad­min­is­tra­tion and man­age­ment of such bod­ies.”

I pointed out that ac­tion is needed more than di­a­logue and plans, and over­sight even more so.

“The re­spon­si­bil­ity lies with the bod­ies them­selves. What kind of over­sight are we sup­posed to have? Is this the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the En­vi­ron­ment Min- istry? If so, what was the point of de­cen­tral­iza­tion?” was her re­sponse.

I went on to con­tact the of­fice of Ta­garas, a New Democ­racy cadre, ask­ing why he ap­proved the amend­ment for the tav­er­nas. I was put through to a com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­viser who said that the “min­is­ter has no com­ment.”

Un­til the re­cent lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions at least, the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Marathon, to which Schinias be­longs, played a lead­ing role in the fail­ure to pro­tect the na­ture re­serve. It re­fused to co­op­er­ate with the man­age­ment body, re­fused any re­spon­si­bil­ity for garbage and de­bris col­lec­tion, and rented out space on the beach to peo­ple op­er­at­ing refreshment stands and beach bars.

The first signs from the new ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der Mayor Ilias Psi­nakis ap­pear pos­i­tive. He has made a com­mit­ment to pro­tect­ing this beau­ti­ful part of At­tica and ex­pressed an in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing it into a lead­ing eco­tourism des­ti­na­tion in a bid to boost the lo­cal econ­omy. One of the plans the new mu­nic­i­pal au­thor­ity is con­sid­er­ing, ac­cord­ing to the head of the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil, Spyros Li­vathi­nos, is in­tro­duc­ing con­trolled park­ing and en­try into Schinias. It also plans to in­tro­duce re­cy­cling points, reg­u­lar garbage col­lec­tions by mu­nic­i­pal san­i­ta­tion crews, new fire pro­tec­tion sys­tems (one was pur­chased in 2003 at a cost of 3 mil­lion euros but it was never put into op­er­a­tion and was even­tu­ally looted and dam­aged by the el­e­ments) and a max­i­mum limit on the num­ber of vis­i­tors al­lowed onto the beach dur­ing peak sum­mer sea­son, and fore­sees the fenc­ing-in and clear­ing of the wet­land and a crack­down on poach­ing and il­le­gal fish­ing. Closer co­op­er­a­tion with the man­age­ment body is also seen as a must.

I met with the pres­i­dent of the man­age­ment body and head of re­search at the Na­tional Ob­ser­va­tory, Haris Kam­bezidis, at the now-de­funct row­ing cen­ter, built for the 2004 Olympics and since left to rot. The company re­ceived in­ter­mit­tent fund­ing from the Euro­pean Union. I ask why the leg­is­la­tion is not be­ing en­forced in Schinias.

“We try in­so­far as it is pos­si­ble,” Kam- bezidis told me. “The tools we are given by the state are in­ad­e­quate. To be­gin with, we had no guards un­til 2008 and no sci­en­tific ad­vis­ers un­til 2013. Se­cu­rity is one is­sue but so is mon­i­tor­ing bio­di­ver­sity. We are get­ting into deeper wa­ter now. We have com­pleted a land reg­is­ter and know what be­longs to whom, and we are plan­ning plots for or­ganic agri­cul­ture.”

I asked him whether he is pleased with the work be­ing done by the body and by the state of the re­serve.

“There are pow­er­ful in­ter­ests at play in the area which I can­not name; we are be­ing fought by the lo­cal com­mu­nity,” he ad­mit­ted. “One ex­am­ple is that when we call au­thor­i­ties such as the coast guard, po­lice, fire depart­ment or mu­nic­i­pal­ity to in­ter­vene some­where, we are told that they can’t spare the staff. There was ab­so­lutely no co­op­er­a­tion with the pre­vi­ous mu­nic­i­pal ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

The chair­man of the Con­struc­tion Part­ner­ship of Judges and Pros­e­cu­tors, which owns a good bit of land in the area, is civil en­gi­neer Costas My­lonas. He bought a plot in Schinias in the 1980s, when the as­so­ci­a­tion de­cided to in­vite other pro­fes­sional sec­tors into the scheme. Some of the il­le­gal tav­er­nas are on their land and pay rent to the part­ner­ship. I asked him how this is pos­si­ble given that the busi­nesses were or­dered to be de­mol­ished.

“The part­ner­ship re­ceived 50,000 to 60,000 euros a year in rent from the tav­er­nas. Over the past two years, though, since their li­censes were sus­pended, they stopped pay­ing. You need to pity those poor folk; they keep hav­ing to pay fines. The tav­er­nas are the liveli­hood of sev­eral fam­i­lies and they should not be cast out on the street,” My­lonas said. “There are maps sug­gest­ing that the build­ings al­ready ex­isted be­fore 1955, that they were goat sheds.”

I stressed that re­gard­less, the build­ings have been deemed il­le­gal and should be de­mol­ished on that decision alone.

“We do not agree with the de­mo­li­tion of il­le­gal build­ings,” he coun­tered. “There are 2 mil­lion il­le­gal build­ings in Greece. Are we sup­posed to tear them all down?”

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