Monthly Archives: September 2012

Snapshots from Greece

There’s a lot of graffiti in Athens and a lot of boarded-up, shuttered shops. English language Athens News reports that a third of city centre businesses have closed down since the economic crisis hit. There are more prostitutes around Omonia Square than when I was last here fifteen years ago and at 6am this morning – pre-dawn, an hour I now realise belongs to the night – I was nearly mugged walking streets that I remember with nostalgia. A feint across a road followed by a dash towards an early-opening newspaper kiosk saved me from the guy creeping up behind me and his mate lurking behind a pillar.

There are more cappuccinos and frappuccinos than last time I was here, too. Then it was “Greek coffee or Nescafe?” The new cold coffees are sold in disposable plastic cups with huge bubble-shaped lids.

There’s a metro station in Syntagma Square now. The McDonalds on the corner (still useful, as always, for its loo) has swapped its garish red and yellow frontage for the supposedly sophisticated bottle green version. There are police in the square and some of the marble slabs have been torn up, to be used as missiles during strikes and protests.

Greeks still ride motorbikes without helmets and shop in traditional fresh food markets, buying olives and nuts, cheese and meat and fish and fruit by the kilo, weighed out on a traders’ scales rather than prepackaged in superstore cellophane.

Tourists still throng the Plaka and flow through Syntagma and you wouldn’t guess, on Saturday afternoon, that on Wednesday molotov cocktails were being thrown… except that there’s a large plastic gazebo, some kind of promotional booth, still standing ragged and melted and blackened between the fountains.

On this Saturday in late September, central Athens’ streets are vibrant despite the boarded-up shops. Teens wear neon pinks and greens, women’s sandals are encrusted with gleaming plastic jewels. Feelgood fashions rule in the Age of Austerity. Street artists, musicians and breakdancers busk along Ermou. Crowds gather, to listen and watch and smile and applaud and throw change into hats and bouzouki cases, while sipping on bubble-topped frothy coffees.

Then, in the late afternoon, dozens of shabbily dressed men hit the streets with shopping trolleys. They rifle through bins and rubbish heaps in the backstreets. Cans, bottles, broken furniture and anything else that can be fixed or sold goes into the trolleys.

At the Acropolis at dusk, a Greek friend tells me that up here – looking out over an Athens bathed in soft pink, gold and lilac – she has hope for humanity. “It’s an ugly city,” she admits, but points out, amongst the dirty-white concrete tower blocks, an ancient church, an even more ancient Hellenic temple and a large mosque. History and diversity, visible and palpable, multi-layered and robust.

Apparently Athenian anarchists are joining gyms, toughening up in preparation for fighting Golden Dawn fascists. The blame-game has been set in motion and if it’s not the dirty foreigners to blame then it’s corrupt politicians and if not them, inept management of public services or tax evasion or or or… perhaps it’s the whole warped system, stupid.

In rural Crete, abandoned villages are coming back to life as city folk re-evaluate the value of land; of goats and olive trees and crumbling family homes, where food can be grown and gathered and reared. Traditional knowledge lives on in village octogenarians and perhaps this crisis will prevent its loss.

Cretan coastal towns remain largely unaffected by the crisis. Northern Europeans continue to rent apartments and sun-loungers but now the shops selling souvenirs and tourist tat are pushing local produce – honey and herbs gathered from the mountains, olive oil and olive wood hand-carved bowls and fiery tsikoudia spirit.

I think I want to live here.

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Ban the Burn! update

I wrote about the Ban the Burn campaign here (The Occupied Times) and here (New Internationalist).
This is the latest on the story:

More information has come to light regarding Natural England (NE), Walshaw Moor grouse-shooting Estate in Yorkshire, and the court case brought and then dropped by NE for environmental breaches perpetrated by the Estate.

Carefully researched details of the environmental impact of bog burning can be found in the excellent Brownfields Briefing. The extent to which our drinking water is polluted and discoloured by burning – and how much that costs to clean up – is being investigated (new costly plant has been required for this purpose and guess who pays? Yes – the public, via water bills). More on the fractious communication between Natural England and grouse-shooting supporters the Moorlands Association (MA) has also been unearthed, during which Andrew Woods of NE received the following from Martin Gillibrand, Secretary of the MA:

Your lawyers have clearly stated that NE believes that all burning on peat needs to be reviewed… [this is] a threat to the management of all such moors. You may not intend to apply it to any other moor at the moment, but there is nothing to stop that being done, and in the light of the views expressed by some of your colleagues and staff about burning, that is not a risk that I can ignore – that is why the Walshaw case is so important to all MA members – the behaviour of Natural England… represents a risk to us all… you must understand that when action is taken in respect of one moor… every other owner is affected, and a lot of patient relationship building is undone.”

In emails which are now public record due to a Freedom of Information request, Woods repeatedly ‘reassures’ Gillibrand that the issue NE is addressing applies only to the Walshaw Moor Estate (WME). Unfortunately that opens the door to WME claiming they’re being treated unfairly (despite the 43 environmental breaches identified on the Estate by NE). It seems that Woods was attempting to calm Gillibrand and the MA membership. Who knows how much Woods believed what he was saying… or what he meant by it. Surely not that NE were happy for blanket bog to continue being burnt elsewhere? As one Ban The Burn campaigner explains “That would mean breaking EU law – as the burning of blanket bog cannot be squared with the European Habitats Directive, Birds Directive and Water Framework directive.” And yet the MA takes even the suggestion of a review of peatland burning to be “a risk to us all”.

Which ‘all’ is Gillibrand referring to here? Not the residents of towns such as Hebden Bridge, who rely on healthy upland catchments to reduce the risk of flooding. Not the average Yorkshire dweller who is paying extra to have their water cleaned after the bog burning. And not the ‘all’ of us affected by climate change, which is being exacerbated by the release of carbon from moorland which could and should be used as a carbon sink. No, it must be the ‘all’ of us who have an interest in grouse-shooting and the estates that host grouse-shooting. A pretty elite ‘all’ which includes Britain’s Wildlife Minister, Richard Benyon.

Having scrutinised the new ‘Higher Level Stewardship’ agreement between Natural England and Walshaw Moor Estate, campaigners say it appears to allow ‘business as usual’. This is the agreement that NE described as an understanding great enough for legal action to be dropped. An agreement that meant NE awarded the Walshaw Moor Estate £2.5 million of public money to look after our moorland… but which includes woolly language that allows for only minor reductions in burning at Walshaw, ignoring the fact that burning increased threefold in the past ten years. In short, not only does the Estate – and its millionaire owner Bannister – get off scot free, they are also allowed to carry on doing many of the things that so alarmed Natural England at the outset. Plus, WME gets paid a heap of taxpayers’ money and then we pay again to have the water they pollute cleaned… and then the valley floods. Add in the longer term effect on climate change and the whole thing really does appear to be a scandal of epic proportions.

A distinct hesitancy on the part of experts to come forwards in this case shows only how important the issue is. Reasons for hesitancy range from fear that their own funding will be cut, to concern that their reputations could be smeared, to consideration of the legal situation and whether what they say could impact any future legal proceedings. Concerned residents in Hebden Bridge and other areas affected by moorland degradation are not hampered by such concerns and are determined to keep calling for ‘Ban The Burn!’. Further calls to action will be heard from the campaigners in the near future.

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