Friday, February 16, 2007

WWF: Romania and Bulgaria enrich the EU – will the EU invest wisely in these riches?

16 Feb 2007

By Andreas Beckmann*

The EU struck it rich when Romania and Bulgaria joined the Union on January 1, 2007.

Romania and Bulgaria bring with them a very rich dowry of natural treasures, including the Union’s greatest wilderness areas and rich cultural landscapes. They are home to over half of the EU’s population of brown bears, wolves and other large carnivores as well as the continent’s largest remaining fragments of natural forest.

It is a patrimony not only of these countries, but also now of the European Union as a whole. Will the EU invest wisely in these resources?

Europe’s treasures

Romania includes the greater part of the spectacular Danube Delta as well as the Carpathian Mountains – 2 of the 200 most valuable natural areas on earth. With two-thirds of the Carpathians within its territory, Romania is home to Europe’s largest population of large carnivores, including half of the continent’s bears, and over a third of its populations of wolves and lynx. The Romanian Carpathians are also home to the largest areas of virgin forests on the European continent.

Most of the Danube Delta, Europe’s largest delta and wetland area, also lies in Romania. Before flowing into the Black Sea, the Danube spreads over a surface area of about 580,000 ha, creating a wetland home for a staggering range and abundance of plants and animals, and an important stop-over point for migratory birds.

Bulgaria’s natural treasures range from the islands and floodplains of the Lower Danube to Balkan mountains and Black Sea coast. The 75 islands in the Danube river that belong to Bulgaria contain some of the richest wetland habitats in the Danube basin. Covering a total area of 10,713 hectares, the islands offer refuge and food for migratory and threatened bird species such as the dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus), ferruginous duck (Aytya nyroca), and red-breasted goose (Branta ruficolis).

The rugged Pirin Mountains in the southwest of Bulgaria include a national park (40,000 ha) that is included in the UNESCO list of World Natural Heritage sites. Equally famous for their beauty are the Rhodope and Vitosha Mountains.

The uniqueness of many of the habitats and species on the Black Sea has been recognised by the European Commission, which, for purposes of developing the EU’s network of conservation areas (the so-called Natura 2000 network), has designated a separate, special Black Sea biogeographic region.

Challenge – and opportunity

However rich Romania and Bulgaria’s natural treasure chests are, the two countries are still living well beyond their ecological means. According to WWF-International’s latest ecological footprint report (October 2006), both countries are consuming resources and producing waste at a level beyond the carrying capacity of the countries and the earth. If everyone on the planet consumed as many resources and produced as much waste as the average Romanian or Bulgarian, we would need around 2 planets – still better than the 3-planet EU average, but still living at the cost of future generations. For a start, intensity of energy use in both countries is significantly higher than in Western Europe.

The great challenge – and opportunity – in the EU’s newest members is to “have our cake and eat it too”: to raise standards of living while holding onto, and indeed profiting from, the rich store of natural capital with which these countries are endowed.

The question is not whether Bulgaria and Romania should develop, but rather how this can and should take place. We need to develop smartly – to do more with less material resources, and in such a way as to tread more lightly on the environment that sustains us.

Bold steps

Both Romania and Bulgaria have already taken a number of bold steps toward securing their prodigious natural wealth and achieving long-term sustainable development.

In 2000, the governments of Bulgaria and Romania together with those of Ukraine and Moldova signed an agreement to establish the Lower Danube Green Corridor, a band of protected and restored wetland areas stretching the Danube’s last 1000 km from the Iron Gates on the border between Romania and Serbia to the mouth of the Black Sea, and including the spectacular Danube Delta. Involving nearly 1 million ha of protected areas as well as some 240,000 ha of restored areas, the corridor is the most ambitious wetland conservation project in Europe.

The Romanian government in particular has redoubled its efforts toward these commitments in response to recent flood events, thus taking the lead among the EU leaders in shifting reliance for flood protection to natural measures.

Both Romania and Bulgaria have taken significant steps to ensure the long-term sustainable management of their exceptionally rich forest resources. The Romanian State Forest Company has secured certification for 1 million ha of forests, and has pledged to secure certification for the remaining 1.5 million ha in state hands. The Bulgarian State Forest Administration is currently working toward certification of another 1 million ha in Bulgaria. These measures have been strengthened by recent Romanian legislation that provides tax incentives for FSC certified management.

Nevertheless, substantial challenges remain for both countries.

A prominent example of the challenges facing the countries’ natural heritage is the state of national parks and other protected areas, whose protection on paper has meant little in practice. In Romania’s Piatra Craiului National Park, as in many others, large swathes of forested areas are being clear-cutted. Other natural jewels are being lost due to illegal or semi-legal construction, including private villas, hotels and holiday homes. The last natural sections of the Black Sea coastline are being lost, e.g. in Bulgaria’s Strandzha Nature Park. Ski facilities have been built illegally at Bansko within the core zone of Bulgaria’s Pirin National Park, a World Heritage Site. Plans are now underway to expand these facilities. In November of this year, the Romanian government adopted a national plan for developing ski tourism in the country, which calls for construction of ski facilities in 8 national and 3 nature parks.

As part of its Trans-European Network for Transportation, the EU has identified the Danube as one of the key transportation arteries for Europe. The EU plans call for removing a series of "bottlenecks" to shipping along the river -- areas that happen to be the most valuable natural areas on the river. Fortunately, there are alternatives, including innovative ship technology that for once fit the boats to the river rather than the river to the boats.

EU legislation and policies

Fortunately, in moving forward, Bulgaria and Romania can draw on plenty of lessons and experience – both good and bad, but all instructive – from their EU neighbours. They also can rely on key EU support and legislation.

Up to € 34 billion will be made available for development and support to agriculture and rural development through the EU Structural Funds as well as the Common Agricultural Policy.
Substantial progress has been made in reforming EU funds to promote sustainable development and conservation of resources rather than encouraging their destruction. WWF has been working closely with the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment in both countries to develop agri-environmental measures that can reward farmers for taking care of the land and its natural resources. There are also substantial opportunities to use EU regional development funding for promoting sustainable development and nature conservation.

EU legislation for Strategic and Environmental Impact Assessments provide an important mechanism for evaluating programmes and projects in order to avoid or limit negative impact to the environment.

The EU’s Natura 2000 network of specially protected sites is the cornerstone of EU conservation policy and the key tool for achieving its aim of halting biodiversity loss and achieving long-term sustainable development. Far from freezing development, in many cases, Natura 2000 enhances, and even requires, socioeconomic activities.

The EU’s innovative Water Framework Directive provides a goal and blueprint for achieving good ecological status of EU waterways by 2015 through a process of integrated river basin management involving all relevant stakeholders.

Finding smart solutions

Achieving sustainable development will not be easy. In many cases, it will require balancing the short-term interests of (often powerful) individuals with the long-term interests of society as a whole.

EU legislation and institutions can play a key role in helping Romania and Bulgaria to strike this balance. The European Commission, in particular, as guardian of the EU Treaties, must stand firm to ensure proper implementation of EU conservation policy and use of EU funds in a manner that prepares the countries for the future.

With decisions on EU accession and major funds and legislation already made, the next major legislative milestones for the European Parliament and European Council will come in a couple of years with the mid-term reviews of the EU Funds and relevant legislation. In the meantime, though, there is plenty for Members of Parliament and other Member States to do to actively promote and encourage conservation and sustainable development in Romania and Bulgaria, including through parliamentary questions and promoting awareness and understanding.

EU citizens can also play an important role by supporting the efforts of organisations like WWF to ensure that the EU indeed invests wisely in its newfound riches in Romania and Bulgaria.

* Andreas Beckmann (abeckmann@wwfdcp.or) is Deputy Director of the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.

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