Tens of thousands of trees have disappeared from parks and woodlands this winter across Greece as the crisis-hit country’s impoverished residents, too broke to pay for electricity or fuel, turn to fireplaces and wood stoves for heat.
Illegal logging has surged in Greece as households suffering through three years of recession hoard wood to burn during cold winter days.
While patrolling on a recent cold night, environmentalist Grigoris Gourdomichalis caught a young man illegally chopping down a tree on public land in the mountains above Athens.
When confronted, the man broke down in tears, saying he was unemployed and needed the wood to warm the home he shares with his wife and four small children, because he could no longer afford heating oil.
“It was a tough choice, but I decided just to let him go” with the wood, said Mr. Gourdomichalis, head of the locally financed Environmental Association of Municipalities of Athens, which works to protect forests around Egaleo, a western suburb of the capital.
Tens of thousands of trees have disappeared from parks and woodlands this winter across Greece, authorities said, in a worsening problem that has had tragic consequences as the crisis-hit country’s impoverished residents, too broke to pay for electricity or fuel, turn to fireplaces and wood stoves for heat.
As winter temperatures bite, that trend is dealing a serious blow to the environment, as hillsides are denuded of timber and smog from fires clouds the air in Athens and other cities, posing risks to public health.
The number of illegal logging cases jumped in 2012, said forestry groups, while the environment ministry has lodged more than 3,000 lawsuits and seized more than 13,000 tons of illegally cut trees.
Such woodcutting was last common in Greece during Germany’s brutal occupation in the 1940s, underscoring how five years of recession and waves of austerity measures have spawned drastic measures.
Smog, on some days visible to the naked eye and carrying the distinct smell of burning wood, has prompted local officials in Athens to discuss mitigation strategies, including proposals to restore heating-oil subsidies.
On Christmas Day, Greece’s environment ministry said, particulate in the air over one of Athens’s biggest suburbs, Maroussi, was so bad that it was more than two times the European Union’s acceptable air-pollution standards.
“The average Greek will throw anything into the fireplace that can be burned, ranging from old furniture with lacquer, to old books with ink, in order to get warm,” said Stefanos Sapatakis, an environmental-health officer at the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said the smog could affect vulnerable groups, including the elderly, children and people with asthma. He likened the air conditions in Athens to an instance in postwar London where smog from wood fires blanketed the city for five days in December 1953, contributing to the deaths of more than 4,000 people and leading British authorities to ban the use of fireplaces in the city.In northern Greece, where climatic conditions in winter are closer to those in continental Europe than the Mediterranean, the struggle to stay warm amid government cutbacks is forcing tough choices on local municipalities. In late December, one of Greece’s teachers’ associations warned that many schools, particularly in the north, could soon be forced to suspend lessons because there was no money to heat classrooms.