Neoliberal Restructuring and Conservation in Greece
In the first year following election of the PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) government in 2009, the prime minister emphasized that Greece was shifting towards a “green economy” model; on many occasions big environmental NGOs clearly supported this agenda, as indicating a “positive step”.1 This green rhetoric soon faded and even though investments in areas such as renewable energy remained important, the governmental agenda ceased to be framed in terms of a “green economy” discourse. On the contrary, the government's “Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policy”, published in 2011 and 2012,2 announced the creation of a “business-friendly Greece” (IMF 2011:143), marking a shift to fiscal austerity. The IMF and the EU played a decisive role in defining debt repayment as Greece's priority: their reports regarding structural adjustment make no reference to terms like “biodiversity”, “nature”, “environment”, “sustainable development” or “green economy”, but instead to “growth” (ie IMF 2011, 2013; EC 2011); no room was made for even the rhetorical reference to capitalism's ability to “save” nature.
Between 2010 and 2012, a variety of laws were promoted by both the PASOK government and its successor (a coalition between the centre-right and the centre-left parties elected in 2012). These fundamentally changed provisions for conservation and were related, in classic neoliberal fashion, to criticism of the efficiency, effectiveness, and reliability of the state and civil servants. New regulations were accompanied by an increased role for the private sector and société anonymes, the downsizing of staff in environmental authorities, the merger of already understaffed environmental research institutes, and the dismantling of protected area administrations as well as a cut in funds for the Ministry of the Environment.3
In parallel to cuts in personnel and resources, an extensive deregulation began, aiming to boost investments by surpassing the obstacles of the legislation. Two laws (3853 and 3894 or the “fast-track” law) were passed in 2010 creating a “one stop shop” services for new businesses to attract investments and accelerate public–private partnerships. The “fast track” law defined a new category of “strategic investments” for which fundamental derogations from environmental law could be made to facilitate, inter alia, expropriations of public land. This opened up a route to “un-green grabbing”. The “fast track” law is applicable to all PA types, except Natura 2000 areas of absolute protection and responsibility for its implementation was given to a société anonyme, called “Επενδύστε στην Ελλάδα A.E.” (“Invest in Greece S.A.”).
The Greek state had a central role as market manager in facilitating “strategic” investment, and releasing capital from the restrictions of environmental protection. This involved mobilization and transformation of the whole institutional framework of the state, reflecting a close interplay of deregulation and re-regulation (see also Peck 2001). This had been a significant trend since the 2000s but in 2011 it was significantly extended by the “Aid for Private Investment” law (3908), which aimed at promoting economic growth by introducing state aid for the private sector to improve entrepreneurship, technological development, and enterprises competitiveness.
To facilitate “un-green grabbing” further, fundamental changes were made to environmental licensing, by simplifying and accelerating procedures to complete environmental impact assessments and approve environmental terms (IMF 2011; laws 3892/2011 and 4014/2011). Changes included exemption from environmental assessment of certain projects within Natura 2000 sites (eg housing development, shopping malls of up to 2000 m2) and were combined with the permission to establish “Areas of Integrated Tourism Development” (POTA4). Some forms of land acquisition combined elements of “green” and “un-green” grabbing, notably the construction of renewable energy projects within PAs. Huge public subsidies were given to renewable energy projects (creating a debt accumulation in the Renewable Energy Account; IMF 2013), and the government's commitment to privatizing the Public Power Company (IMF 2013:172) was accompanied by land acquisition and development on land of conservation status. This “un-green” grab of protected land for ostensibly “green” purposes highlights the complex interplay of “green” and “un-green” grabbing.
Again the deregulation of legislation was followed by new regulations to allow such developments. These were included in the biodiversity law (3937/2011) which was (surprisingly) welcomed by the biggest 10 environmental NGOs.5 New regulations not only opened PAs to further exploitation but also legitimized past derogations allowing, inter alia, the post-facto legalization of illegal buildings within PAs. The Government argued that legalization would require paying a fine which would be deposited in the “Green Fund” to offset adverse effects. In 2013, the Fund had 1.9 billion euros, 1.5 of which comes from arbitrary building.6 However, the “Green Fund” law (3889/2010) was amended twice, such that only 2.5% of funds could be used for environmental actions, while 97.5% would be transferred to the main state budget.
Over the same period, several laws (eg laws 4030/2011; 4042/2011) further reduced the scope of forest legislation by favouring exceptions to rules about the creation of mountain refuges, ski centres or tourist facilities in forest areas. In September 2013, the Ministry of Environment released a new draft law for consultation that proposed to declassify 15% of Greek territory, opening up real estate to lands that are mainly covered with sparse arboreal, maquis and phryganic vegetation.
Underlying these policy developments was a commitment to the privatization of public land under the Greek structural adjustment program. The Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (HRADF) was established in 2011 under the medium-term fiscal strategy and launched “the largest declared divestment programme in the world”,7 to attract revenue to be used for debt repayment. HRADF is a “société anonyme” (a private company, of which in this case the Hellenic Republic is the sole shareholder) and a Board of Directors, including business executives and two observers from the Eurozone and the EC, has the absolute authority on privatization decisions.
Natural areas have a prominent position in HRADF's agenda, and claims about “pristine natural environment” and “great natural beauty” are used to attract investors.8 The “Invest in Greece S.A.” website is dominated by images of Greek “unique” and “diverse” protected ecosystems (for example Ramsar sites).9 Public conservation land was included in privatization proposals from the very beginning: the initial list of state properties to be privatized (ICARP 201010), included the area of Prasonisi (Isle of Rhodes), to be sold for mass tourism, including a Natura 2000 site (GR421003111). A few months later, HRADF's portfolio included a new property in the area of Kassiopi (on Corfu), for the development of an upscale residential complex, including vacation villas and hotel/leisure facilities. The Kassiopi area included three inland wetlands for the protection of which the Ministry of Environment has started specific initiatives during 2012.12 In September 2012, a new list was announced of 40 islands available for development, 24 of which were Natura 2000 sites and four were within national parks.13 In February 2013, the first 100% foreign direct investment in Greek public lands for the past 15 years was agreed: the board of HRADF granted a concession for 99 years14 over Kassiopi to NCH Capital, an American fund.15 In the same month, a law passed from the Parliament further facilitating the leasing of islands16 whereas a few months later a new island (Issos) was added to the HRADF's portfolio, again including a Natura 2000 site.
The government's willingness to sell and the private sector's willingness to buy protected land, both in line with IMF's requirements, faced the same obstacle: “strict” legislation. The former minister of the Environment and the Executive Director for housing at the HRADF argued in March17 and in September18 2012 respectively that environmental licensing legislation was one of the main barriers in the state's attempts to boost investment and allow development of public property by third parties. In April 2012, the EC also noted in its publication “Growth for Greece” that land-use planning and environmental licensing rules were often “obstacles to investment”.19 In September 2012, an interview with a consultant of “Private Islands Inc” was published in Greek blogs entitled “Change the laws and you will sell all your islands”. In this context, the Minister for the Environment in a meeting of EU Ministers of Environment (Vilnius, July 2013) characterized Greek PAs as “over-protected” and “hostile … to economic activity”.20
Neoliberal Restructuring and Conservation in the UK
In the UK, transformations in provision for conservation following the crash began with the change of government at the 2010 elections. The Labour government was defeated, and a collation was formed between the centre-right Conservative and the centre-left Liberal Democrat parties. Post-election policy showed this to be strongly liberal in ideology, with a budget focused on rapid reduction of the deficit in public accounts. The shift to fiscal austerity matched (or even exceeded) the budget of 1981 (Keegan 2010), introduced under the first conservative government of Margaret Thatcher (1979–1983), the UK's archetypal proponent of neoliberalism. Yet the new Prime Minister, the Conservative David Cameron, claimed in May 2010, during a visit to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, that he wanted the new administration to be the “greenest government ever” (Randerson 2010).
A key feature of this attempt at deficit reduction was cuts to government departments and quasi-autonomous government bodies (QUANGOs), alongside public services. A number of environmental organisations were targeted, such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission. By the autumn, the RSPB observed that the UK was entering “a period of deep and prolonged green austerity” (Comerford et al 2010). The October Spending Review spelled out the deep cuts faced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). These reached 30% (£700m by 2014–2015), compared with an average of 19% across government. Significant reductions in Natural England staff numbers were reported (The Guardian reported 5000–8000 out of 30,000; Jowitt 2010).
In the Coalition Agreement published on 20 May 2010, the incoming government committed itself to a range of actions aimed at reducing regulation of businesses. These included a commitment to cut “red tape”, introducing a “one-in, one-out” rule whereby no new regulation would be brought in without other regulation being cut by a greater amount. There was also a commitment to replace what was described as a culture of “tick-box” regulation with “targeted inspections of high-risk organizations” through “co-regulation and improved professional standards”.21
In July 2011, the government announced a drastic simplification of planning regulations controlling development (GOV.UK 2011). It proposed to cut over a thousand pages of planning advice to around 50 pages, to “encourage sustainable [economic] growth” (Vaughan 2012). Notwithstanding the rhetoric of “sustainable development”, the government's aims were clear: “growth at any environmental cost to jolt the nation's flatlining economy” (Vaughan 2012).
Perhaps the most significant way in which neoliberalization found purchase in public policy for conservation after 2008 is through the idea of nature providing “ecosystem services” (Norgaard 2010). This rhetorical and material strategy is a key feature of the neoliberal turn in conservation (Brockington and Duffy 2010; Büscher et al 2012; Hodge and Adams 2012), and a key determinant in strategies of “green grabbing”. The concept of ecosystem services provides a means by which nature can be made visible to capital (Robertson 2006). It makes ecological functions subject to exchange and sale (Kosoy and Corbera 2010), and provides a standard metric for nature allowing it to be commodified (Robertson 2004). The construction of nature as a “service provider” (Sullivan 2009) in this way is a fundamentally neoliberal strategy, the essential step to the financialisation of nature (Robertson 2004; Sullivan 2013a, 2013b).
The idea of nature as a source of wealth (The Secretary of State for the Environment referred to “Mother Nature's Bank” in launching the 2011 Environment White Paper)22 matched both the new government's conservative ideology and its views of the fiscal requirements of retrenchment in public finances following the bailout of the private banking sector. The UK government engaged strongly with the Convention on Biological Diversity's “ecosystem approach”, especially Principle 5, expressing the importance of conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning in terms of the need “to maintain ecosystem services” (CBD 2013). The concept of “ecosystem services” was placed at the core of government environmental policy-making and delivery (Hopkins 2013). The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), published in 2011, sought to provide a complete account of the ecosystems that could be held to comprise natural value (UK NEA 2011). Ecosystem services were fundamental to the UK government White Paper on the natural environment, The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature (DEFRA 2011). The UK government also established a Natural Capital Committee to report to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and an Ecosystem Markets Task Force “to gain the maximum benefits for UK businesses from new market opportunities which protect and improve natural capital” (DEFRA 2013a).
A key element of UK government strategy to create economically efficient links between capital and nature was the concept of “biodiversity offsets”. These involve allowing losses to biodiversity in one place (and at one time) to be compensated by gains elsewhere. Thus valuable nature does not need to hold up development: habitats can simply be created (or the protection of existing habitats enhanced) elsewhere. The approach is controversial within conservation because of conceptual flaws and problems of compliance and monitoring (Bull et al 2013), and is widely critiqued in accounts of the neoliberalization of conservation (eg Pawliczek and Sullivan 2011; Sullivan 2013b). DEFRA tested the approach with the government conservation adviser Natural England, and local governments in six pilot areas in England, and published a discussion paper in September 2013.23 Further development involved DEFRA and a series of private organisations (including engineering consultants and contractors and the aggregates industry). In November 2013, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee described the approach as simplistic and an admission of failure of the planning system: it suggested the approach should be put on hold.24 Newspapers described the approach as “a license to trash nature” (Carrington 2013).
The UK government's enthusiasm for the ecosystem service approach (backed by engagement from ecologists and conservationists, for example in the NEA) was accompanied by a specific attempt to promote un-green grabbing by privatising public nature assets by selling off state conservation and forestry land. In August 2010, the government proposed the sale of National Nature Reserves (NNRs; Jowitt et al 2010), and in October, it proposed the sale of the government Forestry Commission estate. One newspaper commented that the government seemed intent on “asset-stripping our national heritage” (Hickman 2010).
Debate over sale of government forests proved more protracted and if anything more controversial (Lucas 2011), particularly over the question of public access to forest land (Hodge and Adams 2013). The debate focused on England, since the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly Government rapidly distanced themselves from the policy, although ongoing forest sales in Scotland were in fact extensive (Johnson 2011). Although, speaking to the House of Lords Environment Committee in November 2010, Jim Paice, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, acknowledged that the sale reflected the need to balance the government's books following the banking crash, saying “I am not going to avoid the issue here—there is a need for capital receipts”,25 the Environment Secretary claimed that “this is not a fire sale by a cash-strapped state” (Spelman 2010).