Days after one of Greece’s top national parks narrowly escaped massive destruction from a fire that raged for more than a week, the country’s environment ministry congratulated itself.
Among Greece’s underfunded and understocked habitats, Dadia National Park is – on paper – one of Greece’s best protected areas as one of Europe’s most important breeding grounds for vultures and other birds of prey.
“Respect and protection of the environment has been and remains a fundamental promise of our government,” Environment Minister Costas Skrekas said in a statement on Tuesday.
But many Greek environmental groups disagree.
Spyros Psaroudas, director of wildlife group Callisto, says there is a “chronic failure” in Greece’s conservation policy, adding that the current government is trying to create a business-friendly environment at the expense of wildlife.
“There is a lack of coordination between ministries and a lack of clear assignment of responsibilities… all this leads to illegal activities that are never punished,” adds Nadia Andreanidou, policy officer of the Mediterranean Association for the Rescue of Sea Turtles (Medasset).
“It’s a vicious circle and leads to poor management of protected areas,” she told AFP.
Forest engineer Dimitris Vasilakis, who helped draft Dadia’s operational plan, says only four rangers patrol the park’s 800 square kilometers (308 sq mi).
The local forest service in Soufli, which oversees Dadia, receives less than €50,000 a year from the state, a fifth of what it should receive, Vasilakis said.
Over 300 firefighters fought for eight days last month to keep the blaze away from the Dadia nesting sites in the heart of the park.
On Tuesday, the Environment Ministry said the July 21 fire destroyed just over 2,200 hectares of forest in Dadia.
Early estimates suggest that nest sites remained largely untouched by predators.
The incident has thrown a spotlight on Greece’s long and troubled history of environmental protection.
Even as the park burned two weeks ago, the government was trying to push through parliament new laws that nearly a dozen NGOs say further weaken protection restrictions in Greece’s national parks.
On the seventh day of the fire, the law was unexpectedly withdrawn by the government for “further consultation”.
The proposed bill would have allowed additional activities in protected areas, including roads, tourism areas, and power and telecommunications storage.
– right vacuum –
Greece has been repeatedly sued in the European Court of Justice for failing to protect its natural habitats.
The court slammed Athens on the matter in December 2020, finding the country said it had put in place protections for less than 20 percent of over 240 protected areas.
A key omission, environmental groups say, is the lack of legal safeguards and regulations governing Greece’s participation in the Natura 2000 network – key European breeding and resting places for rare and threatened species protected under EU law.
Charikleia Minotou, director of the Zakynthos Loggerhead Turtle Conservation Program run by the Greek section of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), says there are “hundreds” of complaints and fines against illegal development that the authorities are failing to address pursue.
And when a presidential decree was issued in 2018 to protect the Gulf of Kyparissia on the Ionian Sea — an important habitat for loggerhead turtles and deep-sea whales — it was challenged by three city councillors, two tourism companies and scores of local residents.
– focus on energy –
The focus of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ conservative government is on hydrocarbon exploration, says Minotou.
Even before Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February sparked fears of energy shortages across Europe, Greece had earmarked exploration areas in the Ionian Sea.
Several Cuvier’s beaked whales washed ashore during seismic surveys in the Ionian Sea in February. The State Hydrocarbon Management Agency denied that this was caused by its activities.
In the few cases where new laws are introduced, the results often pose a threat to conservation, Greek environmental groups say.
In 2020 Greece established a new national body to manage its parks, the Natural Environment and Climate Change Agency (Necca). 36 park administrations were merged into a new group of 24.
However, environmental groups note that the new body has been instrumental in barring NGOs, local authorities and civic groups from the parks’ governing boards.
“We need national parks where local society participates and is democratically represented,” says Psaroudas of the wildlife group Callisto.
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