‘Social Capital: the missing factor in protection and recovery from fire disaster in Greece ’.

 Prof. Sotiris Chtouris, Sociology Department, University of the Aegean -2008 

During the last decades uncontrolled forest fires have created natural disaster in rural and semi urban areas, bringing devastation to Greece’s forest reserve. A similar trend can be noticed in most Mediterranean countries. This phenomenon has forced Greek administration agencies to develop prevention and protection systems, which, however, are centrally managed and coordinated, while they are increasingly dependent on airborne technical means, mainly fire extinguishing airplanes.

The summer of 2007 disaster, which threatened to burn down even well protected cultural heritage sites such as Ancient Olympia, revealed, at a local level, the communities’ utter inability to prevent such an eventuality or, even worse, to save lives and property. Today, there is ground to believe that one of the most important factors causing such an inability is the local low level of cooperation and  Social Capital. Of course, one should take into consideration a host of other important factors, such as the fact that local communities have a weak institutional framework, combined with an increasing dependence on centralized state intervention. Another important element in the whole configuration is the prevailing mentality in public opinion, i.e. that natural disasters can be efficiently dealt with only through advanced technical means. However, in the aftermath of the disaster, when we examined data, as documented by the press, television reports, subsequent information meetings and a small scale research carried out by the University of the Aegean, a different reality emerged: Local people, all over the stricken communities, expressed their belief that their communities should be strengthened and that they should directly participate in fire prevention and protection measures.  Bridging communal social capital can set the context for a sustainable development policy and protection from natural disasters.

The transition process, from a locally adapted traditional solidarity model / multidimensional small scale intervention by local small farmers, to a centralized state run organization model, dependent mainly on airborne fire service, as well as seasonal under qualified fire workers, curtailed the inhabitants’ awareness  and level of preparedness. This became all too evident when they were called to confront the environmental disaster, while diminishing their social capital, which would be otherwise indispensable in the context of disaster management.

  Data collected through official sources, press and television on the spot reports, as well as views and experiences presented in the context of meetings, local consultation and workshops organized by local competent authorities, NGOs, and the Eco Green Party of Greece led to a common conviction that the state was unable to manage efficiently not only fire extinguishing operations, but also recovery measures and damage compensation. Particular emphasis was given to lack of substantial support for disadvantaged population groups, i.e. elderly people, low income farmers, etc.


Conclusion: Local social capital has an important role to play in providing empowerment to local actors, as well as to regional networks that bridge and strengthen social capital. 

At the same time, modern territorial relations and cooperation schemes, developed among the state and its citizens, eco NGO, and the European Union, and other global actors (I.O.C.), have an important impact on environmental protection from natural disaster hazards.








~ by chtouris on October 18, 2008.

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