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  • Published in Opinion
Forest fire burns on the island of Zakynthos in Greece on July 25th, 2007

Forest fire burns on the island of Zakynthos in Greece on July 25th, 2007

The deadly toll of Attica's wildfires arises not just from climate change but years of austerity and neoliberal policies, writes Kevin Ovenden in Athens

The people of Greece are going through an unbearable nightmare. Monday's wildfires in Rafina to the north east of Athens have claimed 80 lives and the number will rise, with scores missing.

Over 1,500 homes have been destroyed since fires tore through forests centring on the seaside resort area. Three days of national mourning were declared by the Greek government.

As I have reported yesterday, trade unions and the parties of the left are pointing to the impact of privatisation and austerity on fatally weakening the country’s infrastructure, from water and forest management to the fire service.

Here are a few stark facts in this regard:

  • The fire service budget has decreased from €500 million (£444m) in 2007 to €397m (£352m) this year
  • 4,000 full time firefighting posts have been cut since 2011 - those who have been recruited are on temporary contracts
  • The total fire prevention budget last year was just £8 million, whilst here are many forest fires every summer
  • 700 firefighters have been seconded from the national force to serving the 14 now privatised airports
  • Nine of the country’s ageing Canadair firefighting planes are grounded due to lack of parts, says one pilot from northern Greece
  • There was no emergency evacuation plan for the Rafina area, where there have been decades of unregulated building by developers.

Below I offer some observations and points of analysis from the developing situation of the last 72 hours.

Not just a climate disaster

Climate chaos means more extreme weather events. It brings wildfires and flash floods, among much else.

But it is not only the deep processes at work that contributed to the Rafina fire disaster in Greece.

Just as it was not only climate chaos that drowned 24 working class, mainly elderly people in Mandra to the west of Athens six months ago. Their houses were built on the floodplain of desiccated streams. Someone took the decision to build for profit in such a dangerous place and dump working class people there.

Someone - politicians - took the decisions to more than twice decimate the budget for the Greek fire service in the last 10 years; to privatise the water industry so that hydrants are dry and water tanks empty; to abandon forest management in favour of cut-throat construction expansion; to sell off the national grid so that transformers and substations are less maintained and more of a fire risk.

There is lots of coverage in the European and North American media of the disaster of the Rafina fire. A lot of it turns to expert figures citing the impact of climate change. That is an important part of the truth.

But little that I have seen in the mainstream media refers to the more immediate and proximate cause of the loss of life. It is also a feature of the capitalist system that brings climate chaos - that is the austerity and savaging of all the responsibilities of the social state to protect people: from fire cover through health provision to planning regulation.

The Guardian newspaper in Britain epitomises this one-eyed approach. And what it does is to have a political effect.

To identify only climate chaos as the issue is to suggest only long term solutions too big for agitational efforts of working people and their organisations; requiring only enlightened global action at governmental level.

In fact, there are some immediate things that can be done and fought for - spelled out in this statement - funding the fire service and ending austerity, for a start.

And it is in fighting on those things that working people can begin to feel that they too have an answer through their own organisation and struggle to something that otherwise seems so massive it is beyond us - capitalism's destruction of the environment.

Immigrant communities rally to relief

Greek socialist weekly Workers Solidarity has reported on how Egyptian immigrant fishermen were on the front line of rescuing people from the devastating fire in Rafina.

Fisherman Nikos Karambos describes how on realising what was happening he boarded the boat Armenistis,

with two amazing Egyptian fishermen... we went to save people. We were scanning with the big light and shouting out… Suddenly we could see signs from various shores and heard screams for help.

The beach, homes, trees, cars, trucks were all burning. We approached and we loaded people aboard… we saved so many people, people who would have died - 100 percent. I want to say a huge thank you to my colleagues and the wonderful Egyptian fishermen.

Today I once again felt that it was worthwhile doing this job of being a fisherman.

One of the central cases in the trial of the Golden Dawn fascist group is the attempted murder of another Egyptian fisherman in Greece Abouzid Embarak, attacked along with relatives and friends late at night in their home.

The contrast between that fascist thuggery and the heroism shown on Monday night is not going unnoticed in working class Greece.

There is a considerable number of Bangladeshi immigrant workers in the fire-ravaged Rafina region also, working in the fields, as street vendors and other jobs.

Arif Rahman of the Bangladeshi Community Association issued an immediate call to all his compatriots living in the region to do everything they can to help their "brothers and sisters, the Greeks".

Meanwhile, the health workers association of Istanbul, Turkey, has contacted its counterpart in Athens with offers of immediate practical assistance.

These are just a handful of the examples of popular, working class and internationalist solidarity that stands in such stark contrast to the profiteering and austerity on behalf of the bankers that are so directly responsible for this disaster.

You cannot avoid politics of the fires - the right certainly isn't

Dimitris Koutsoumbas, general secretary of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), on Tuesday broke the hypocritical consensus in parliament that politicians should not "politicise" the Rafina fires and instead just observe the calls for unity and national mourning.

He warned that the "national mourning... should not be an excuse to cover up the great responsibility of governments, including this government, over time" for the running down of infrastructure and rescue services, and for the lack of regulation on property developers.

Lest anyone claim that this is the left "playing party politics", yesterday afternoon the right wing opposition New Democracy party held a theatrical "national meeting" ostensibly to discuss with an expert on forest fire prevention.

In fact it was blatantly a political intervention and designed to head off the share of blame coming its way for the austerity and construction profiteering over the years.

Some Syriza government officials have also sought to deflect rising anger and demands for answers by intimating, without evidence, that the fires were "not innocent" but started by arsonists trying to destablise the country.

That is an extremely dangerous and reckless propaganda operation which, were it not for the strong spirit of popular solidarity, could easily lead to paranoia about "an enemy within" and feed the conspiracists of the fascist right.

Meanwhile, many survivors are focusing national attention on the fact that it appears there was no evacuation plan for the area, which is full of local tourists in summer but has little in the way or good roads, health clinics and public services.

Without for a moment diminishing their grief or practical solidarity efforts, the demands from ordinary people for answers and for those in power to be held to account are growing.

Moratorium

Now would be a good time in the European states, including Britain, for people to raise the demand for at least a moratorium on the debt and interest payments by Greece which, through austerity, have resulted in the devastation of emergency and public services in Greece.

At the very least until the victims of the Rafina disaster are fully cared for and rehoused, and the fire service brought up to a level where future tragedy may be averted.

We can put pressure on our governments to do so, as a minimum - as  Merkel, Macron, May, Tusk and others shed their crocodile tears at the loss of life, which is mounting.

Greece is not in the middle of the forest fire season. It is only at the very start of it in what threatens to be a long, hot, dry and dangerous summer.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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