Greek Olympic Rowing Plans in Troubled Waters

BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 12, 2001 (ENS) - Greece will violate European Union law if it builds a rowing and canoeing center for the 2004 Olympics at a coastal wetland, warned a conservation group Thursday.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says the proposed center at Schinias is the site of the most important coastal wetland in the Attica region of Greece and one of the few remaining wetlands of its type in the country.

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Artist's impression of the Olympic rowing, canoe and kayak center planned for Schinias. (Photo courtesy Athens 2004 Official Olympic web site)
Under current plans, the Olympic facilities will accommodate 10,000 people and cover a significant part of the wetland.

Conservation groups say construction of the facilities and provision of water will affect the wetland. They fear that insecticides will be sprayed in the area for public health reasons, and a bus parking area is planned inside the bounds of a stone pine forest, sometimes known as the "Umbrella Pine" forest.

WWF and four Greek conservation organizations, including the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS), and several citizen's groups are campaigning against the plans.

"We urge you to green the Olympic Games by extending your influence to issues pertaining to nature conservation and the quality of life and to ask the Greek Government to seek alternative venues for the Rowing and Canoeing Centre," says a letter to Dr Jacques Rogge, president of the European Olympic Committee, on the HOS website.

"This site is of great ecological and cultural importance," said Sandra Jen, WWF's European spaces and species policy officer.

"It should not be used as a construction site for Olympic facilities. Instead it should be protected under the Habitats Directive to conserve this important part of Europe's heritage."

The Habitats Directive was adopted in 1992 and requires the conservation of endangered species and habitats throughout the 15 member European Union. Each country must produce a list of sites for special protection under a network known as Natura 2000.

Natura 2000 will eventually be a network of nature conservation sites either now designated, or to be designated under the Habitats Directive or the Birds Directive, adopted in 1979.

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European Regional Policy Commissioner Michel Barnier. (Photo courtesy European Commission)
Despite efforts by WWF and other Greek conservation groups, Schinias has not been afforded a protected status. After Greece was awarded the 2004 Olympics, the Greek government failed to include the site on the Natura 2000 list for protection in accordance with the European Union Habitat Directive, although it was on the Natura 2000 scientific list.

Schinias is home to 176 species of birds, many rare plant species unique to the area, one rare indigenous fish species and one of only three remaining "Umbrella Pine" forests in Greece.

The Umbrella Pine forest is classified by the European Union as endangered and a priority for protection. It is an important historic site where the Battle of Marathon was fought in 490 BC.

WWF is unimpressed by the Greek government's plans to designate the development site and its surroundings as a national park.

"The size and scale of the proposed construction is not compatible with the conservation of the area and is unthinkable in a national park" said Demetres Karavellas, chief executive of WWF Greece.

Alternative venues have been suggested, including Lake Yliki, which is within the 100 kilometer (62 miles) range set by the International Olympic Committee. It is well connected to the national highway network.

WWF wants the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, to ensure that funding for any Olympic-related construction is conditional on compliance with European Union nature conservation legislation.

It has asked the Greek government to designate Schinias for protection under the Habitats Directive, as recommended by the scientists advising the European Commission - and the Birds Directive.

The group wants European Regional Policy Commissioner Michel Barnier to investigate the matter. Barnier is a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Last June, WWF claimed that governments had excluded almost one in three of Europe's important wildlife sites from protection under the Habitats Directive. It said the 15 European Union member states were not nominating enough sites to guarantee the survival of threatened species and urged the European Commission to protect an extra 2,326 sites, including Schinias.