Outrage in Greece over secret plan to develop land in region ravaged by fires

The Greek government is facing a major embarrassment within days of its re-election after it gave property developers the green light to build on an environmentally sensitive area next to forests ravaged by this summer's deadly fires.

Documents leaked to the Greek press show the finance ministry pushed through an agreement allowing building activity to begin in a protected area in the Southern Peloponnese, the region hardest hit by last month's blazes that killed 67 people and destroyed nearly half a million acres of forest and farmland.

Under heavy criticism for their handling of the inferno, the ruling conservatives blamed the inferno on unscrupulous property developers looking to exploit protected areas. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis vowed to avoid past mistakes where building permits were handed out in fire-affected areas and land was rezoned for construction.

The agreement, revealed this week, covers a valuable coastal zone in Zaharo, the area that accounted for nearly half of the deaths during last month's "national emergency".

The zone includes a rare pine forest, thermal springs, and a nesting area for the endangered loggerhead turtle Caretta-Caretta. Environmental groups say the agreement could come at a huge cost for the area's sensitive ecosystem. The district is protected by the European Union's Natura 2000 scheme, designed to safeguard the most seriously threatened habitats and species.

Greek MEP Dimitris Papadimoulis said the plans could also endanger ¿600m (£410m) in EU funding for fire-stricken areas. "What happened is a crime against nature, committed in order to buy last minute votes prior to the elections," he said.

Mr Papadimoulis has already raised the issue with Athens and Brussels.

"I put a question forward to see whether it violates EU legislation but also whether it could threaten the receipt of EU funding for the fire-stricken areas."

The Greek government has yet to respond.

Dimitris Karavellas, director of WWF Greece, said the continued absence of a proper land registry was at the root of the present crisis. "We are the only country in the EU that doesn't have a land registry," he said. "We get situations where there are forest fires one year and nothing but houses a couple of years later."

The Zaharo deal, if confirmed, would take place in two stages. Firstly, it would legalise nearly 800 buildings that have been illegally constructed in the area over the past 50 years. In the second stage it would permit the construction of hotels, restaurants and recreational facilities. Developers would be allowed to use the land for up to 69 years.

Zaharo's mayor, Pandazis Chronopoulos, who signed the agreement with the finance ministry's Public Real Estate Corporation, says that, if it became law, the agreement would generate much needed money for the reconstruction of the fire-ravaged area. "It would help the redevelopment of the area. We need to recreate a tourism infrastructure. We will fully respect the environment. We are thinking of small-scale tourism development. Maybe a children's camp to start with. And all the money the municipality would get will be reinvested in rebuilding Zaharo".

According to the agreement 75 per cent of the income generated would go to the municipality, the remaining 25 to the finance ministry.

Local engineer Kostas Tzamaloukas, said the people are still numb from the catastrophe "At the polling station on Sunday, one third of the people who were in the queue were wearing black, a sign they had lost a loved one in the fires. This is a small community, people are devastated. They would listen to anyone promising them a way out of the financial disaster."

The ruling New Democracy party held on to power this weekend with a reduced majority.