Greece faces fallout from bold renewal bid

Ahead of 2004 Olympics, Athens unveils plans to halt burn-and-build

When the dry summer heat begins to bake the hills around Athens, a brushfire might be expected.

But not 3,000 of them.

Yet that's the approximate number of fires that ate away at forest land around Athens's outskirts last summer - with 180 fires reported in one day alone - fueling suspicions that arsonists, and not weather conditions, were to blame.

With the smell of smoke wafting through the streets of downtown Athens below, the link became clearer: Aspiring developers were setting fire to forest land adjacent to sites planned for the Olympic Village of the 2004 Olympic Summer Games.

Since the forests are not protected nature reserves or registered as state land, burning down a patch has come to be seen as an opportune way to grab a plot of soon-to-be-prime real estate.

The Greek government recently announced it had launched a study into links between burning and new contruction. And the Greek chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is planning a new public-awareness campaign to begin next week in advance of the hot season.

Last year's rash of fires, which killed six people and destroyed 370,000 acres of forest, has shown one of the more odious sides of what should otherwise be good news: a facelift aimed at bringing Athens up to par with other European Union capitals and modernizing its shabby transport system.

The master plan includes Athens's first subway, a ring road to draw traffic away from the city center, and a new airport.

The WWF here was one of the first to demand the government act against the arson. The organization stirred controversy last summer when it published a map showing that the areas worst hit by the fires were in the immediate vicinity of major Olympic sites.

"A lot of land around Athens is going to take on a lot more value in the next few years due to the Olympics," says Demetres Karavellas, the director of WWF Greece. "Nothing is clearly marked as forest on the map, so you burn it down and in a few years you start building on it."

Formerly green areas have been made barren and Athens has begun to experience unprecedented problems with flooding as trees that once held back run-off from the mountains have disappeared.

"It's become more obvious to the average Athenian," says Mr. Karavellas. "Because of the flooding, the government accepted the fact that much of the damage was man-made."

WWF has since launched a campaign called "Forests Forever" in an attempt to pressure the government to pass laws that would make the burn-and-build scheme more difficult.

WWF has also been warning of an "environmentally disastrous Olympics" if planners are allowed to build new facilities in places preservationists hope to protect, including more forest land, coastal wetlands, and natural open space.

LOCAL environmentalists have convinced the Athens 2004 committee that some locations are too sensitive to be developed. Instead of building part of the Olympic Village on Mount Parnitha, with its pristine forest, the village will be constructed below the mountain in the Valley of Acharnes.

But city officials complain there is no pleasing environmentalists, who are likely to find fault with plans to develop any plot of green space the capital has left.

"They're overreacting a bit," says John Golias, a planning and engineering adviser to the mayor and a professor at the National Technical University of Athens.

"They're against every site we choose for the Olympic Village," he says. "There are abandoned industrial areas of Athens that could be redeveloped, but you have to compare them with the [superior] quality of places we've chosen for the new stadiums."

Archaeologists have their own set of concerns. Before work began on the $3 billion subway system, about three-quarters of it funded by the European Union, excavators wanted to have their chance to plow through subterranean layers below first.

In one 7,000-acre area slated to be a main station, archaeologists found tombs from 1100 BC and large statues from the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD. In Athens's main square, they unearthed a set of Roman baths from the 3rd to 4th centuries AD.

The route of the subway line, which may be open to the public next year, was diverted twice to avoid running directly through the cemetery and the baths.

But some discoveries had to be reburied so the metro could keep moving. "Of course this is a problem," says Olga Zachariado of the Archeological Service of Athens. "We can't say stop developing.... If it hadn't been for the metro, no [archaeologist] would have touched these areas. We have mixed feelings.... You have to destroy something to proceed, and that is sad."

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