- In total, during the three-year period 2021-2023, more than 3 million hectares of forest burned in Greece, about as much as was burned between 2008 and 2020.
By Aris Hadjigeorgiou
Three years have passed since the celebratory announcements by the government in November 2020 for the “largest reforestation program of 500,000 acres” with secured funding of 700 million euros. Eventually, on October 18, 2023, the tender was issued for the auction of the project with a reduced budget of 55.7 million euros.
In the intervening period, many events occurred. The only thing that did not change was that the forest fires did not stop. On the contrary, consecutive records of burned areas were broken, especially in the years 2021 and 2023. In 2021 alone, in Northern Evia, more than 500,000 acres of forest were burned, which were supposed to be reforested according to the announcement made in 2020 within a decade.
In total, within the three-year period 2021-2023, more than 3 million acres of forest were burned in Greece, approximately as much as was burned in the period 2008-2020. Let’s take a look from the beginning at the whole issue, which somewhat resembles the small “pocket parks” for “green spaces in neighborhoods” that the outgoing Mayor of Athens, K. Bakoyannis, launched during his term. Here are the details of a pocket reforestation project:
- On November 30, 2020, amid the pandemic and the first “Petsas list”, the Cabinet meets, and immediately afterward, the Ministry of Environment and Energy issues a statement: “The largest reforestation program in Greece begins,” shouts the headline and continues with more details.
- The National Reforestation Plan has a duration of 10 years until 2030 and envisions afforestation of a total area of 500,000 acres that have been burned, deforested, or degraded.
- It will enrich the country with 30 million certified trees.
- It will be financed with €310 million from the Recovery Fund to which another €390 million will be added from NSRF and other resources.
- It upgrades the institution of afforestation as a tool for ecological upgrading of forest areas and forests because the Forestry Services stopped afforestation in 1990.
- The National Reforestation Plan is implemented in 5 stages. For the first stage, “the Department of Forestry & Natural Environment of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has already carried out a study on the identification and prioritization of the areas to be reforested” and “priority is given to areas where natural reforestation is insufficient and to peri-urban forests (fire in Mati and Kinetta, etc.)”.
- “The implementation of the reforestation will progress up to 2026 and the start of the effort will begin with the 2021 planting season.”
- Following were the necessary “nails in the coffin” at that time, targeting the SYRIZA government, which was still recent. ‘Simultaneously, there is already funding from the NSRF program for forest protection, with a budget of approximately 100 million euros,’ which ‘had zero absorption and zero contracting until 2019.
- The announcement concludes with a statement by the then Minister of Environment & Energy, Kostis Hatzidakis, who denounces that we are behind even Turkey in reforestation: “With the National Plan of Reforestation we are implementing the largest reforestation program that has ever existed in the country. In Greece, almost 1% of our forests are burned every year. At a time when our forest wealth is being destroyed, we are lagging behind even Turkey in reforestation! For example, we received from SYRIZA a European forest protection program of EUR 245 million with zero absorption and zero contracting! We are trying to put an end to this sad phenomenon. With a 10-year reforestation program of 500,000 hectares, with 30 million trees to be produced in Greece.”
- A barrage of appearances of Mr. Hadjidakis on the channels to advertise the National Reforestation Plan follows while a detailed presentation is distributed for the occasion.
National Afforestation Plan (pdf )
A month later, shortly after the New Year of 2021, K. Hatzidakis was removed from the Ministry of Environment and Energy to the Ministry of Labor amid reports of his conflict with the then Minister of Interior, Panagiotis Theodorikakos, who will remain out of the government for months. Much later, we will learn that Mr. Hatzidakis was one of the victims of eavesdropping through Predator during that period.
Until the summer of 2021, the National Reforestation Plan will likely be forgotten in some drawer. In August 2021, Greece watched the devastating wildfires, initially in Varybobi and immediately after in Northern Evia. In 2021, a total of 1,319,000 acres will be burned by wildfires, with the first 50,000 acres promised by Hatzidakis’ program left unforested. The country will continue to lag behind Turkey, but the record of burned forests will be broken this year with 1,747,000 acres, of which over 800,000 are related to the fires in Evros.
But what happened to the “National Reforestation Plan”? Some magical hand slowly began to transform it with constant modifications to both the included projects and its budget. Mr. Hatzidakis’s 700 million never appeared again, however. The decision taken at the November 30, 2020, Cabinet meeting was apparently changed without being affected by the disasters that followed.
During the summer of 2021, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will be briefed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Deputy Minister of Environment George Amyras on the reforestation program, which is subsidized with 200 million from the Recovery Fund. It is not only the reduction of the Recovery Fund injection from 310 million to 200 million that is then resulting, but also the change in the nature of the actions.
It is now referred to as the “Forest Protection Program”, codenamed Antinero. Instead of afforestation, it is being promoted as a means of clearing forests of fuel. In fact, the contracts are no longer awarded not by the Ministry of the Environment, the deforestation service, or the local authorities, but by the Public Asset Development Fund, the HRADF. Tens of millions are being allocated for this clean-up, but they seem like a “drop in the ocean”, as they are only enough to remove biomass from the edges of the forests. In the interior, the forests are left unattended as the Forestry Service is left without staff to deal even with organized logging – with the exception of Northern Greece.
Indicative is the decision signed in March 2023 by the current Minister of Environment Theodoros Skylakakis, when he was still Deputy Minister of Finance, which stated that the title of the project “National Afforestation Plan” is changed to “National Afforestation Plan – Forest Protection Program (Antinero II)”, “due to the relevance of its scope as it is part of the broader framework for the protection, restoration and sustainable management of degraded forest ecosystems in the territory”. Following the same logic, last week Skylakakis presented his own Forest Program to the Council of Ministers. This program has as its central axis the utilization of fuel material with the participation of private individuals who will undertake the clean-up work with the incentive of revenues from the sale of materials, state subsidies, and revenues from the trade in pollutants.
In the midst of all this planning, however, someone seems to have remembered reforestation. On 18/10/2023 (pdf HERE), the HRADF announced reforestation projects on just 56,942 hectares with a total budget of 55.7 million euros. The projects are now located around Athens (Penteli, Parnitha, Egaleo, Kapandriti, Lavrio, Megara) with only one project concerning 9,771 acres in Thessaloniki.
Read the pdf
Without Northen Evia
Indicative of the shrinking of the reforestation program is the fact that this specific announcement doesn’t even include a budget item for the double-burned forests of Northern Evia. Supposedly, a special committee was formed for the forest recovery in this specific area under Stavros Benos, which had reached a specific proposal through a study conducted by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
According to that study, included within the devastated area were 129,690 acres of recently re-burned Aleppo pine that could not be naturally regenerated. Also included are 23,942 acres of fir and black pine, species that do not have the potential for natural regeneration. Out of this total of 153,182 hectares, the study selected only 9,382 hectares for afforestation, as the limited budget of EUR 15 million was not sufficient for more. However, even this reduced budget disappeared in the declaration of the HRADF.