Selloff of public assets through the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (HRADF or TAIPED in Greek), in combination with the draft legislation for the coastline and the forests, turn upside down much about what we considered given and self-evident. First of all, the very term ‘public space’ is being redefined away from the concept of spaces necessary to meet basic needs of society. Also being eliminated is the concept of communal resources for which the right of all citizens to access cannot be restricted.
In the current context of the economic and social crisis, the environment and public spaces are being turned into (yet another) area of economic exploitation. Beaches, forests, rare ecosystems and even the areas surrounding archaeological sites will be able to be granted to private investors for exclusive economic exploitation. The government is essentially turning over the natural and cultural wealth of the country to large private interests.
The direct relationship between the coastline bill with the sale of beaches by the HRADF is obvious: if there is no major overhaul of current legislative framework which guarantees all citizens the right to access beaches, then the HRADF will not be able to lure ambitious ‘investors’/buyers. Yet the consequences of the destruction of our natural and cultural heritage, of unrestrained construction, even of coastal erosion, will be irreversible.
The terms cultural reserves/environment and cultural heritage do not, of course, refer only to the material artefacts of human civilisation but to the natural environment as well. The modern currents of historical thought and archaeology regard the natural environment not only as the context, the ‘stage setting’ in which human activities unfolded, but as a sum of relationships, a dynamic and living reality which develops autonomously, as well as due to human influence, and subsequently has a historical significance of its own. Monuments (ancient and newer), archaeological spaces and historic landscapes are the material expressions of these relationships.
The draft law for the coastline directly threatens hundreds of coastal and submerged archaeological areas, historic landscapes and islands which constitute, in their entirety, protected archaeological areas. More immediately, listed historic buildings and important archaeological areas already feature in the for-sale real estate portfolio of the HRADF: the Akronafplia fortress, the tomb of the Battle of Salamis, the ancient municipality of Sounion, tens of listed buildings in Plaka, the Bouboulina building, the refugee tenements of Leoforos Alexandras – the list grows by the day. Is it possible for cultural heritage to be sold off as ‘private assets of the state’?
For the legal aspect of the issue let us refer to the announcement of the Hellenic branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in which it is noted that The Archaeological Law (L. 3028/2002) is still in force, article 7, paragraph 1 of which states outright that “ancient built monuments which date to before and including 1453 belong to the state by law and are items that are not subject to trading or acquisition”. According to Greek law, that is, archaeological monuments and areas are considered to be outside of commerce (res extra commercium in Roman law), because either they belong to the state and constitute res publicae (common property) or because they are dedicated to holy worship and are considered sacred objects (res sacrae). As state property they constitute public assets and cannot be expropriated nor are they subject to transfer. Indeed they are not only untradeable, but they enjoy increased constitutional protection, as the current Constitution directly demands their protection and preservation in perpetuity.
Beyond the legal aspect however, this ‘legislative attack’ on public assets is nothing more than the implementation of a model of growth that is well known and has already failed, which facilitates large scale interventions in public spaces that have effectively been privatised. The consequences of it are already apparent in Spain, as well as in other areas beyond the Mediterranean, where it led to a large scale destruction of the coasts, prohibited access to the sea for the majority of residents, while it fostered the erosion of labour rights and the closure of many small tourist businesses.
Historic sites and monuments are not excepted from the comprehensive plan to dismantle public wealth and eliminate the concept of communal public land. They are either treated as ‘obstacles’ to growth or, at best, included in large projects as tourist ‘attractions’ for the few, and are therefore cut off from their social function, which is based on the principle of equal access by all citizens.
In the final analysis, that which is placed under doubt is the concept of the protection of the environment, natural and cultural, as that is defined today by article 24 of the Constitution. On a daily basis we come up against violations which seek to upend the concept of the preservation of the natural and cultural reserves of the country and its relationship to society, given that public wealth and its management is treated as the private affairs of state run institutions. Concern for public resources and all those who express it – simple citizens, associations or even public bodies – are in the crosshairs of the dominant, authoritarian, narrative, which in the name of the public interest is proposing a warped and destructive idea of ‘development’.
The only hope is the amplification of the protests which are already being expressed throughout the country and their coordination in the framework of a broadened social movement which will include local movements, networks, associations and protest initiatives to deter the government’s destructive plans.
*Olga Sakali is the president of the Association of Greek Archaeologists. This article was first published in Greek, in the daily Avgi and then in English in The Press Project.