A result of government policies and the profit system
The pictures of Greece burning could as easily have been pictures of a country at war. As a result of forest fires 75 people are dead, 10 others are missing. In total 650,000 acres of forest land have been burned to the ground, destroying 150 villages and 1,500 houses in the process. The government has proved itself totally incapable of providing even the slightest protection for the areas affected by fire.
In an attempt to wash its hands and deny responsibility the government is spreading rumours and lies. They try to make people believe that Greece has been the victim of a conspiracy aimed at undermining the state and destabilising the government. The Greek Prime Minister, Karamanlis, spoke about facing down "an organised plan to light fires everywhere", the minister of Public Order, Polidoras, spoke about "asymmetrical dangers" and the mayor of Athens blamed a "new sort of terrorism".
Government ministers and functionaries for the government party, New Democracy (ND), have spread the most incredible statements about who started the forest fires: they have blamed variously the main opposition party Pasok, the CIA, Turkish secret service agents, anarchist groups and the Albanian Kosovars of the Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës (UCK of Kosovo Liberation Army). The government’s anti-terrorist branch is hunting an invisible enemy, arresting people and interrogating them in the hope someone will put his/her hands up and take the blame. The whole scenario reminds one of the bungled attempts by George Bush’s Republican Party and his allies to convince the world of the need to invade Iraq – conspiracy theories, leaking of rumours to the mass media by government officials, fabricated evidence and lots of crying wolf. If it wasn’t all so serious, we would laugh with this farcical government-sponsored show.
Lies, damned lies and statistics
The government tries to hide its incompetence behind the argument that never before has Greece been hit by so many fires at the same time. However, on July 25 this year there were 124 fires throughout the country, just as many as last Saturday, 25 August. In July 2004 there were 198 fires within a 48 hour period. In July 1998 there were 125 fires in less than an hour. Actually, if we look at the total number of forest fires for the summer period as a whole, we have had far fewer fires than other years. This summer, so far, we have had 6,100 incidents. In 2000 the count only stopped when it reached 14,021. In 2001 we had over 13,000 fires and in 2002 we had 8,683. However, never in the past did the destruction reach such proportions.
The government’s scare-mongering about "terrorists" is further discredited when you take a look at the people who got arrested. In Zaharo, a 75 year old grandmother was arrested for a blaze that cost the life of 40 people. The fire started when sparks from her back yard stove landed on the dry grass. On the island of Evia, building workers were arrested because sparks from a metal cutter started a fire that reduced half the island to ash. Many other examples can be given where fires started accidentally.
In fact the only exception, where there was proof of fires being lit on purpose, was to be found in the area around Athens. This happens every year when land developers put the woods around Athens ablaze to garb land for property development. None of these criminals has ever been arrested.
A tragedy planned by neo-liberalism
The only "organised plan" responsible for the tragedy of the last days, is the neo-liberal policy of cuts and austerity measures applied by the government. The policies of the ND government and the previous Pasok government have destroyed the Fire Service and the Forest Protection Service.
In an interview with the newspaper "Eleftherotipia", the chairman of the fire-fighters’ trade union for Sparta, on the Peloponesian peninsula, explained that this was "a tragedy waiting to happen". "In May we sent a document to the central government and the MPs for the region, describing the tragic situation of our service…Since 2004 we haven’t recruited a single new fire-fighter. We have 70 positions vacant. The fire brigades of Sparta, Githio, Molaso, Areopolis and Neopolis are all under-staffed. Instead of having four people to work with every vehicle we are forced to go out with only one driver and one fire-fighter per vehicle."
It is not only on the Peloponesian peninsula that the fire service is completely understaffed. The Fire Fighters’ Union says that there are more than 4,000 vacancies in the service. One in three positions is left unfilled!
The machinery and resources at the disposal of the fire-fighters is antiquated and not properly maintained. The airplanes are over 15 years old and are often grounded because of lack of maintenance. Fire engines frequently break down before arriving at the scene of the blaze or, when they arrive, fail to function. Volunteer fire-fighters, who make up almost half of the force, lack training, and the most elementary preventative measures of all, like anti-fire trenches through forests, do not exist. According to the government this is because of a "lack of funding". Furthermore, bad maintenance of the electricity network means that sparks from high voltage lines cause fires in the summer. Taking all these very real causes for the catastrophe together, one cannot but conclude that this was effectively "a tragedy waiting to happen".
Fire fighting vehicles instead of ministers’ Mercedes
Greece is one of the fastest growing economies in the E.U. at the moment and the country where private companies make the highest profits. Still, according to the government, "there are no funds". "We have to make cuts in all sectors, including the fire service", the government says, "because there is no money".
Maybe the logic of the government has been to decrease taxation on big companies and the rich – going from 35% to 25% – "because there is no money"! The top level of tax used to be 45% before PASOK brought it down to 35% and New Democracy decreased it further to 25%. The government is planning to reduce the percentage even further.
Such policies are a blatant provocation from the government to Greek workers.
The only thing the Greek government cares about is how to increase the exploitation of the Greek workers, steal as much as possible from them and fill the pockets of their rich friends – the industrialists, the ship-owners and the bankers. This is why budget cuts, affecting all social services, are being put into place. The money saved goes to offer tax reductions to the capitalists. And of course they are never short of money when they want to buy luxury cars and other facilities for the ministers and MPs. Precisely these policies are responsible for 75 people being burned alive and the destruction of whole areas.
Today, the ND and PASOK leaders shed crocodile tears for the deceased and for the ecological disaster taking place. They are hypocrites. Half of Greece has been burned under PASOK governments and the other half under New Democracy! Since the 1970s up to today, consecutive governments have allowed burned forest areas to be turned into building areas. Their real policy is the handing over of large sections of woodland to greedy land developers and building firms.
Recently the government has attempted to legalise construction in forest areas which in essence is illegal (but it can happen at least in some areas after the destruction of forests). The government attempted to change article 24 of the constitution at the beginning of this year. This article states that forest areas cannot be used for commercial purposes. The government wanted to take the power to reclassify areas out of the hands of the constitutional court. This attempt by the ND government failed, because they lacked the necessary majority in parliament. However, what counts is that the incident reveals their real intentions.
Let there be no illusions. Neither ND nor PASOK, will provide any solutions to the problems threatening the environment.
What is urgently needed is a massive rise in state funding and a massive increase in the numbers of fire-fighters. What is needed are new vehicles, new helicopters, new airplanes, enough funding for proper maintenance, so that the fire service can function properly. Local communities have to be trained in fire fighting and a proper land registration must be applied, so that individual capitalists will not be able to use forest and public land for their own interests.
There is no possibility that the present government, or PASOK, will apply such a policy. They only know of one policy, that of austerity, that of cutting state funding to give to the rich. Therefore, we have to fight. We have to raise the pressure and force through such policies. This is a task of the forces of the left. Regrettably, the present left parties do not rise to these tasks.
It is not an accident that, despite this terrible tragedy, the left parties have not been able to organise one joint rally or demonstration against the government’s policies. On the contrary, we see every day different small demonstrations by different parties. If they happen to be on the same date, they choose different itineraries for their protests! This is an absolute scandal! On the other hand, the call for a meeting of the ‘national council’ – a body made up of the leaders of the parliamentary parties and the Greek president, as launched by the leader of the left formation, Syriza, is no solution either. This will only give the upper hand to ND and PASOK with the left parties being used to cover up their crimes and responsibilities.
For all these reasons we need to get organised. We need to build a new left, which will mobilise against the government policies and will fight against big private capital and its political representatives. A new left which will fight for socialist policies, that is the only way forward to save the environment and to solve all the other massive problems of the Greek workers and youth.