Written by Athena D., a Greek-American lawyer practicing in the state of Illinois, USA
Greece is not only one of few countries that does not have a forest registry, but also one of a few countries where the laws of the state make it illegal for any citizen, Greek or foreign, to live in a wooded area or land that has trees on it and often even shrubs. Many Greeks feel that this prohibition is so essential to their national identity that they have not only passed this prohibition onto a variety of laws, but have also included it as a separate article on their Constitution. Being a lawyer in America who purchased a 2-acre wooded lot in Illinois in which I built my house and now live on, just like many of my neighbors, this seems absurd.
Also, in the spirit of Greece’s so-called “forest laws” and the Constitution I mentioned previously, Greeks also universally practice what the U.S. would call “regulatory taking,” that is, the confiscation of private land without paying compensation to the individual by explicitly claiming that a land has trees on it and the owner is prohibited from using his land in any way. Thus, the land is rendered useless to the owner by a forest service decree and only serves the public purpose of providing a natural view for neighbors, travelers, hikers and city dwellers who live at a density of 19,000 inhabitants per square kilometer of land, which ironically was also once forest.
This law not only enjoys considerable public support, but is also currently undergoing considerable expansion to impose “regulatory taking” concerning not just land with trees, but any land that the public deems as having natural beauty or another desirable feature. And the public is being represented by the zoning bureaucrats, an emerging breed of public employees in Greece with their own union.
This is a typical case of what can happen to any land owner in Greece. Somebody — a Greek or foreigner — inherits a piece of land from his parents or purchases a piece of land to someday build a house for himself or his children. At any arbitrary point in time, say close to the time when the owner has finally collected enough money to put his building plans into action, the state (that is, the public) comes and declares the land “a zone of natural beauty,” a designation that prohibits any construction on the land, as well as most other uses, except perhaps occasionally allowing it as pasture for goats. The owner is given no compensation and has no recourse, since this is now a land protected by law. Even if the owner is not hit by zoning condemnation, he must first have his land examined/surveyed by the forest service when he is prepared to eventually build on it. The forest service comes out, and if there are trees on it (sometimes even shrubs are enough) or if trees were grown on it in the past century based on aerial photos, then deems the land as forest land without the possibility to build or use it another way. In this case, goats are not even allowed inhabit it as pasture – I’m serious! There is a law preventing the use of land where trees grow from being used as pasture, including the owner. In this case also, the owner is given no compensation and has no legal recourse against the state or against the whim of the public.
I must stress that I am not speaking about a few isolated cases. This is a routine, ongoing practice of the state. The individual has no recourse against the state if he loses land in this fashion. There are currently more than 400,000 appeals against the state for land confiscated because trees are growing or grew at some point, and thus the public demands that these owners surrender the land as it’s too precious to be left in private hands.
To be fair, in this “steal what you can”
environment, many individuals do the opposite and frivolously stake claim and often acquire title to public land, especially land adjacent to large urban areas where prime property is valuable. However, what is the bigger problem? The few individuals that behave like thieves or a state that has the authority to behave like a thief with impunity? How can individuals be expected to follow the law when the state itself (that is, the public) acts collectively as thieves by taking private land without offering compensation?
National Parks in Greece, for example, are not created by the government buying private land and turning it into a park, as many reading these pages may imagine. National parks in Greece are drawn on a map by a bureaucrat, who represents the public interest, will and whim somewhere in a government office and then publishes it in the Government Gazette as a decree. Basically the decree says, “We have formed a new national park enclosed by the polygon defined by the following GPS coordinates (table follows), and any owner who has land within this area becomes part of the national park and is prevented from using his land in any way…”
Those who have already developed their land must forfeit any future development (i.e. If you want to add a garage to your house on 10 acres, you no longer can).
In a democracy — and Greece is a democracy — the laws of the state normally represent the will of the collective, which would be the public or at least a majority of the public. So when the state operates in a land raiding fashion by confiscating private land, it means that a majority of the public has the same mentality.
There is enough land in Greece for all families to be able to live on one acre or more of land and still keep 95% of the Greek landscape uninhabited; a simple arithmetic calculation shows that. However, Greeks insist on living at a density of 19,000 inhabitants per square kilometer and are adamant about preventing a farmer with 10,000 square meters of forested land from building a 120 square meter house for his son. No wonder so many people are sitting with match in hand, waiting for the right combination of heat, drought and wind.
I wrote this because many hearing this summer’s news about wildfires in Greece and reading these pages, may get the impression that the issue is about a general environmental insensitivity of Greeks. Far from it, it is mostly an issue of property rights and their violation.
In the News
“Athens afire: Cement and sea, ash and earth”
“Floges and togas – Greece afire”
“Ashes to ashes: Six months after the Greek wildfires”
All views and rights reserved by the author. Text was copy edited by Kat for grammar, spelling and flow only.