Sunday, 13 January 2008

Land grabbing

When it's really clear weather on Lesvos, from some heights in the north, like Vafios or Lepetimnos, you can see a kind of pyramid sticking out of the sea: Mount Athos.

As a woman you can only look at Mount Athos. It lies on a spit of land in the region of Macedonia (Northern Greece). Only men, most of them monks, live there in about twenty orthodox monasteries. It's also called the Autonomous Monastery State of the Holy Mountain, because it's a little independent state within Greece.

For nearly 1,000 years only male visitors are allowed to enter this magnificent mountain state, with its old and beautifully situated monasteries. Women who try to enter this land of monks risk a prison sentence of 1 or 2 years.

Sometimes there are campaigns to allow women to enter. Mount Athos is in Europe, where men and women have equal rights. And even though the monks consider Athos an autonomous state, they accept money from Europe to modernise their monasteries. See: 'Should women get access to Mount Athos' on YouTube.

Last week a group of women forced access to the monastery state. With their action they wanted to not only make a statement that they were against the ban, but also they wanted to underline the fact that they'd had enough of the land grabbing of Mount Athos. Mount Athos is claiming land in Halkidiki, a land spit not far from Athos, where more and more people are losing land and houses. The monks of Mount Athos justify their claims from old books, dating from the period when the Ottomans occupied the land and from as long ago as Byzantine times.

Mount Athos has money enough to pay fancy lawyers and the poor inhabitants can't do anything, because they can't afford such lawyers in order to prove that the land is theirs and not the church's.

The only countries in Europe that don't have a land registry are Albania and Greece. In Greece they started doing this job (worthy of a monk) in the nineties, but the work is still unfinished.

When the big wild fires occurred last summer it was clear the problems this could cause. Many clever businessmen saw an opportunity to get land to build on, whenever the woods on it were burned down. There was no law in the country that could prove on which land they could not build.

Many see not having a proper land registry as one of the causes of the wild fires. But now this fact is also affecting the victims. Of the 162 million euros that were collected for the victims, only 2.7 have been spent, on emergency assistance for farmers and building the flood works in Olympia, the cultural site that already got too much attention when it was besieged by the flames.

But the people who want to rebuild their homes have to do it the Greek way: gathering all the permits, which can take ages, even though you are homeless. There are people who had a house built illegally. For them there is no help. But there are also people that cannot clearly prove that the house and the land were theirs. Because there is no land registry! More than 4,000 houses were destroyed, but only a little rebuilding has been started. Only the two villages of Artemida and Makisto have been rebuilt, thanks to financial help from Cyprus and a wealthy shipping family.

So you have to be careful when buying land in Greece. Until about than ten years ago foreigners were not allowed to own land close to the Greek borders. In 1960, Anthony Quinn, famous from the movie Zorba the Greek, bought a piece of land on Rhodes by the sea. In 1984 the deal was judged illegal and cancelled by the Court of Rhodes, based on the above law. Last year, when Quinn's widow went to Rhodes to claim her land, there still wasn't a solution.

In the north of Cyprus you have to take care as well. There you can buy beautiful villas for very little money. But chances are that you'll lose it quickly, when Greek Cypriots can prove that you bought their land which was occupied by the Turks.

But the best story is still that of a smart Greek who sold part of the Akropolis Hill to an American. When the American wanted to fence his land he realised that they'd cheated him: cultural sites belong to the State and no Greek can sell it!

The Greek government also provides good examples: in December the Minister of Work resigned, after it was found that not only did he have illegal people working for him in his country house, but his large country house was built with only a permit for a garden shed!

At the end of December the general secretary of the Ministry of Culture resigned and attemted suicide a few days later. When they searched his house a compromising sex video proved that he had been blackmailed. And then all the dirty news came out such as that Christos Zacharapoulos was bribed to allow building projects on archeological sites.

On Lesvos we don't have any such juicy stories. Here life goes on between the olive trees and the orange trees, the quiet sea used by the refugees and the local fishermen looking for fish. It's good that there's more to Greece than just Lesvos, otherwise the papers would be really dull...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

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