Greece after the wildfires

The account of this disastrous August, when temperatures and drought reached record high levels even for a warm and dry country like Greece, is literally tragic. Huge and uncontrollable wildfires in Evia, Attica, Peloponisos and other regions turned 375,000 acres of forested land into ashes. 

This overwhelming loss is even more important for a country like Greece, where the ratio of free green spaces to the population has shrunk to lower levels than any other country in Europe.

The visible consequences are already serious. Thousands of people lost their homes, while even more lost their jobs (livestock breeders, farmers, beekeepers, small/family tourist businesses etc). But the non-visible consequences are even more menacing: it is known that the summer heatwaves are succeeded by autumn rains, and when this happens the mountains, stripped of forests, will threaten villages and small towns with floods and landslides.

In the Mediterranean landscape, the loss of forests is usually accompanied with loss of fertile land, since the erosion from wind and rain transforms it into rock. The big cities, and especially Athens, will also face serious problems. During this year’s wildfires, the last “green lungs” of Attica were burnt and the rough living conditions in this anarchic capital of 5 million inhabitants will become even rougher, especially for the poor who are crowded in the dense neighbourhoods of the inner city and the western suburbs. It is no coincidence that for some time now the rich have been abandoning their traditional residences in the city centre and moving to newly built suburbs in the north and along the southern coast.

It is worth mentioning that the disaster is far from over. The last weeks of the summer (which in Greece extends well into September) are traditionally a time of strong winds and high temperatures. As a result, the threat of wildfires remains high in many parts of the country.

Facing this disaster, the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis reacted with panic. It abandoned all efforts to contain the fires (in Evia they stopped only when they reached the sea), and sent successive directives to the population of threatened villages and even small towns to evacuate immediately. This “white flag” of surrender by the organised state machine became so blatant that a big part of the population didn’t comply with the orders of evacuation, despite the obvious threat. Poor people, and especially the youth, without any training or the necessary means, stayed in their places and fought to save their villages, their fellow humans, the animals and their fields. Whatever was saved—including some important parts of forest lands—was saved thanks to their self-sacrifice, the tough work of the very few firefighters and the groups of volunteers who rushed there to help.

The day after, Mitsotakis tried to whitewash his government by emphasizing the menacing climate crisis. This public acknowledgment of the menace, while very belated, is correct. This year’s prolonged heatwave and drought was an unprecedented experience even in terms of the warm and dry Greek summer. But when this is stated by Mitsotakis and the government officials, it is pure hypocrisy. The climate crisis is not a new phenomenon. Many reports by the Forest Service and the Fire Department have been warning the government that the anticipated weather conditions would turn the pinewoods of central and southern Greece into flammable material.

In reality, when right-wing politicians start referring to the climate crisis, it is something more than the traditional (and anticipated) governmental hypocrisy. They are laying the ideological ground so that the projects to “rebuild” after the catastrophe will be in accordance with the neoliberal direction of New Democracy. The “green policy” of Mitsotakis amounts to ceding the management of forests, the management of public space, even the management of natural disasters, to the hands of the private sector and entrepreneurship.

Twenty or thirty years ago, they argued that the only viable response to austerity and unemployment is “liberating the market”. In a similar vein, today they argue that the only viable response to the climate crisis is “liberating” capital’s endeavours for business activities in the forests, the mountains, the water, and the air. Already in Evia, the vultures of the market are called upon by the government to take up a leading role in rebuilding. Among these vultures, there are the big construction companies that before the  fires had declared their interest in constructing enormous “wind turbine parks” in the dense forests on Northern Evia. The rejection of their previous offers by the Forest Service and the local municipalities (even the ones controlled by the governing party) is now breeding suspicions among the residents of Northern Evia about the possibility of an organised arson.

There is no need for conspiracy theories in order to understand that the established policies played an arsonist role. The disastrous wildfires this summer took on great proportions because the climate crisis was intersected with years of harsh austerity and cutting funds in the public sector, especially the part of the public sector that relates to the living conditions of the poor. The Fire Department was left with 250 (!) firefighters in its motorised units and 1,200 firefighters in its “infantry” units, to cover the needs of the whole country! Until last year, they were supplemented with “seasonal” not fully trained firefighters, who were hired just for the summer and then fired. This year, the government refused to rehire 5,000 of these firefighters, despite the warnings about the extreme dangers ahead.

In terms of firefighting aircraft—absolutely necessary in the peculiar geographical terrain of Greece—there are only fifteen antiquated Canadair planes (out of which it was proven that only eight were in a position to fly), and there are only 250 firefighters to operate them, both on the surface and in the air.

The cuts in firefighting personnel and equipment have led to a huge increase in the area burnt by each (single) “mega-fire” during the years after the major economic crisis: from 1,500 acres of land per “mega-fire” in 2008, we reached 5,000 acres per fire in 2020. Wildfires have become more disastrous because of the reduction in the means and the personnel available for the society to deal with them. 

This shocking truth becomes even worse if we also take into account the dangers posed by cutbacks in other relevant sectors, for example in the field of environmentally managing the forests and the peripheral areas, or in the field of maintaining the transmission electricity grid, which in many cases is responsible for the start of fires.

The end result was that during this year’s extreme test, the disaster in Greece was, by comparison, much bigger than any other country in the region. The area consumed by fire can be compared only with that in neighbouring Turkey (370,250 acres), a country which is six times the size of Greece.

The ruling class knows that in the coming period it will have to combine dealing with the climate crisis and dealing with the economic crisis. The working-class movement and the left should do the same.

Unfortunately, on this crucial issue, the news is not good. SYRIZA chose (with such timing!) to display “responsibility” as a “creative” opposition. Alexis Tsipras, beyond certain cost-free rhetorical flourishes, asked Mitsotakis to promote initiatives towards “national consensus” in the face of the rebuilding effort. He actually lagged behind Fofi Gennimata, the current leader of PASOK, which at least asked for the resignations of certain ministers.

It was another affirmation of SYRIZA’s representative in the European Parliament, Stelios Kouloglou, who once wrote that the political direction of Tsipras is “the mildest opposition ever since the fall of the military junta”.

This direction is out of touch with the popular mood. The screams of the fire victims that “we were left alone!” reached every household. On social media, a hashtag that roughly translates as “Mitsotakis Go Fuck Yourself” went viral. In Evia, on 25 August, the first massive protest against the government was organised by the union of forestry workers and the committees of fire victims. It is very common to read or hear references to the slogan “only the people can save people”. The radical and anti-capitalist left organised the first protest against the government in Athens, with a decent turnout despite the difficulties of the summer.

An experienced reader of the press can distinguish that for the first time since the electoral victory of New Democracy in 2019, the confidence and the arrogance of right-wing politicians is in the past. Mitsotakis is already facing a situation of popular anger. This is the perfect “fuel” for the political developments. The “political time” thickens.

After the disastrous wildfires, the government doesn’t have the time to regroup. The COVID pandemic is raging again, with scientists warning that the fourth wave will be even harder, and schools are planned to open on 13 September. It is possible to overthrow this government, under the condition that there is a sizeable pole of attraction that can take up the initiative to bring it down.

23 August 2021

First published in English by International Socialism Project.

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