23rd Mar 2017

MEPs blame Greek fires on land mismanagement

MEPs have criticised Greece for infrastructure deficiencies in managing forests and property development, suggesting it has led to the outbreak of fires over the years, including the current fires which have killed over 60 people.

The tragedy has turned the spotlight to Greece's persistent delays in mapping and setting up a land registry for the country.

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The EU had provided Greece with the funds to do this in the 1990s, but Greece has had to repay them for not carrying out the job properly.

In a resolution adopted on Tuesday (4 September), the European Parliament urged the European Commission to provide financial aid to the regions most affected by forest fires this summer with the cost of the damage assessed at some €1.2 to €4 billion.

But MEPs also condemned the practice of allowing construction on protected and non-authorised areas, including burnt-down forests, which experts believe motivated arsonists as a way of obtaining new land.

It is estimated that there are around 2 million illegal land holdings in Greece. As the only EU country without a full land registry, it is easier to have burnt land reclassified as farmland and start building on it.

"It is a disgrace that property developers should be allowed to take advantage of these disasters by building on former forest land," Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter commented.

"It is important that the EU should assist member states affected by these disasters, however it is equally important that those member states in receipt of EU aid ensure that the funds are used as intended," he added.

EU funds not used as intended

Over a decade ago, the EU put aside around €100 million for Greece to finally register its land.

However, a few years later, in 2001, Brussels demanded the money back because of various delays and irregularities in the way the huge project had been carried out.

At the time of the commission investigations, only a quarter of the initial estimate to register land had been met, meaning 8,440 sq kilometres instead of 35,000 sq kilometres envisaged under the EU's 1994-99 plan.

The then commissioner in charge of regional policy, Michel Barnier, insisted that there would be no more EU funding to complete the country's land registry.

A Greek diplomat told EUobserver the country's authorities are indeed "trying to finish off the work on the land registry project without EU support, although there have been some funds put aside for supporting services, such as getting satellite pictures of the area or setting up a digital database of those images."

Jacques Poncet, in charge of the commission's unit for aid to Greece, said those funds were assigned to the country for the new "programming period" with the target for finalising the project in 2008.

"We have had meetings about this matter with Greek officials and they assured us that the work is going on as planned. I know they had some public procurement issues but it is too early to say whether they could endanger the new deadlines," he said.

In any case, the fires in Greece are set to influence the country's elections on 16 September, with the centre-right government coming under fire for its handling of the crisis.

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