Crisis-hit Greeks chop up forests to stay warm

By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Katerini, northern Greece

media captionThe BBC's Mark Lowen meets people turning to illegal logging to stay warm, and those trying to stop them

The home of the ancient Greek gods is snow-capped and steep and the road that winds its way up the slopes of Mount Olympus leads through lush, fertile forest. But the vegetation is dotted with bare patches - precious trees ripped away.

This is now the site of some of the worst illegal logging in Greece. The practice has risen here by more than 300% in the past year since a new tax pushed up the price of heating oil by a third.

Many people are now unable to afford heating oil, instead turning to wood to heat their homes.

I travel with the forest patrol that comes here every day to try to catch the woodcutters.

Pensioners and racketeers have been found, 250 lawsuits opened and 300 tonnes of illegally cut wood confiscated.

We stop at a section of the mountainside where clumps of trees have been recently chopped down - 600 here alone. The rings on the stump of one oak are counted to check the age - 54 years. It had been felled in seconds.

Criminal charges

"I feel bad that old people are coming to cut wood," says Petros Papapetrou of the forestry department.

"It is awful that they have to do it in this day and age. But this forest is spectacular for us - it is a wonderful ecosystem and we must protect it for the next generation."

Back at the base of the mountain and away from the patrol, I meet an elderly woodcutter risking criminal charges.

He chooses an area of old olive trees, shorn swiftly by his electric saw.

"I know it is illegal but I have grandchildren who'll get sick from the cold," he says.

"My pension has been cut so I can't afford heating oil. What can I do?"

Wood that is cut legally ends up at the many outdoor markets in northern Greece. At one on the outskirts of Katerini, owner Triantafillos Zagris tells me he is doing a roaring trade - a rare Greek business bucking the trend.

"Sales are up by 30%," he says, as logs are fed into a noisy machine, sliced up for the fireplace.

"Before, there were about 25 wood markets in this area. Now there are 100."

image captionDimitris and Sofia Smirli have seen their salaries cut as a result of the government's austerity programme

Some of the chunks end up at the homes of families like the Smirlis.

Dimitris and Sofia are both teachers and their salaries have been cut in successive rounds of austerity.

With the new tax, they would have had to spend their entire earnings on heating oil, so now only use wood.

Sofia and her daughter sleep beside the fireplace in the living room as the bedroom is too cold. It's a throwback to the past that they have found hard to accept.

"At first we were shocked and disappointed that we had to do this," Sofia says, the flames licking the newly-arrived logs.

"We've gone back 30 or 40 years with this. It's not war - or rather it is, but an economic war. We hope it'll last only one or two years because we have children, we have a future. We can't live like this, for God's sake."

Air quality deteriorates

Above their modest house, smoke splutters from the chimney - and that is causing another problem.

A noticeable haze has appeared above Greece's major cities as the wood-burning trend increases.

image captionCities like Thessaloniki are noticing increasing levels of smog

In nearby Thessaloniki, the smog has thickened and it is beginning to worry the authorities.

At a mobile facility in the city, a team of chemists is carrying out a new project to test the air quality, assessing the impact of the change in heating habits.

Filters are replaced every day. When removed, the grit of the past 24 hours is clear. They are then sent off to a laboratory for analysis.

The final results are due in February, but the team has already measured an increase in pollution.

media captionWatch how filter monitoring of pollution levels has shown a dramatic increase

"We have found a high concentration of fine particles that contain toxic and carcinogenic substances," says Professor Konstantini Samara, who runs the testing.

"They're so small that they can go deep into our lung system, causing harmful effects on public health. And they've increased from the wood burning."

A harsh late winter beckons across this region and the fireplaces will only crackle more as temperatures continue to plummet.

In 21st Century Europe, these are the extraordinary lengths to which Greeks are going just to keep warm.

Mighty Mount Olympus stands tall over northern Greece. The gods may once have kept watch here but today it offers little protection - to the forests and to this crisis-hit nation.

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