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 then-Finance 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 demolished, 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 Ministry? 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,” Kambezidis 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?”