Thursday, September 20, 2007

EU Boost to Greens in Bulgaria and Romania

18 09 2007 Environmentalists have become serious opponents to business interests over the European Natura 2000 programme, leaving local governments helpless in the cross-fire.

By Albena Shkodrova in Sofia and Marian Chiriac in Bucharest

Gathering little public support, ignored, and often under pressure, environmentalists in Bulgaria and Romania had very limited opportunities for influencing their countries' decision-making before 2007. But EU membership changed everything, and did it overnight.

The outcome of a bitter fight over the EU's nature preservation programme, Natura 2000, may emerge as the first proof of the new balance of forces.

Last week Bulgarian ecologists marked an important point in their battle with developers, as an independent body of experts - the National Biodiversity Council - rejected a government plan to exclude 29 important nature reserves from the protection of the programme. Out of the 29 zones that were reviewed, 27 were found important enough to become part of Natura 2000 sites.

Ministers were hesitant to list all of Bulgaria's nature reserves as protected sites, as such a decision - officials have admitted - would block numerous plans for construction work and urban development, and might provoke massive protests from entrepreneurs and local governments.

The Council of Ministers has yet to decide on the final list of protected areas, and in theory is free to choose whether to accept the National Biodiversity Council's conclusions. Yet to leave some of these nature reserves outside Natura 2000 would be almost impossible. The EU requires that the only criteria applied over this decision is the scientific evaluation of each area’s environmental value.

To ensure this stipulation is observed, the European Commission insists that all countries’ lists receive the approval of the Bio-Geographic Seminars – Europe's forums of environmental experts.

This gives a clear signal that in Bulgaria, and also in Romania, which at the moment is undergoing similar problems with Natura 2000, the environmentalists' position has substantially changed for the better.

Organizations protecting nature, green movements and parties started to emerge in these two former socialist countries only in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

For over 15 years, they were hardly visible on the political landscape, and had no broad public support. Although local laws were gradually giving them the means to influence decision-making, little of that was put into practice.

In Bulgaria green organizations managed to amend decisions only occasionally, rather then as a rule. "We were able to influence approximately one in ten specific decisions relating to ecological issues, and had no chance to influence strategies", explains Petko Kovachev, head of the Information and Training Centre for Ecology.

The situation was even worse in Romania. The first victory of environmentalists there came only in December 2006, when local NGOs, with the Romanian branch of Greenpeace among them, succeded in halting the construction of the controversial Highway 66, thereby saving the pristine nature reserves of Retezat and Domogled parks.

Unwilling to cooperate with green movements and organizations because of various economic pressures, the Bulgarian and Romanian governments were postponing until the last possible moment any changes to their usual practices. They even managed to delay their commitments under Natura 2000: neither Bucharest nor Sofia submitted on time their final lists of protected areas, due by December 31, 2006.

But now that Bulgaria and Romania have become EU members, their governments must put an end to their practices of ignoring environmental organizations, and will have to involve them in the decision-making process instead.

The main reason lies in the local environmentalists’ newly acquired powers at the European level. Having significant weight before the European Commission, their arguments can no longer be brushed aside at home.

Participating in the Bio-Geographic Seminars, and having the right to request EU investigations into specific issues where they see violations of EU laws, Bulgarian and Romanian environmentalists have now gained the kind of influence they never enjoyed before.

“One of the examples is the problem with the gorge of Kresna, one of the zones already listed under Natura 2000”, Kovachev said. Government plans to build a highway through this protected area depends on the EU’s Cohesion Funds. But to access them, the project needs to prove it is not a threat to the gorge.

“They [the last two governments] tried to ignore our opinion at any price, but now they will have to take it into account, or they are not going to receive any money”, Kovachev said, adding that this is just one of the many recent examples of the changing conditions.

While the government still seems to treat environmentalists at times as a threat or an irritant, it is also asking more and more for their opinions, according to the conclusions of the international green organization, WWF, in its report for 2006. It makes the point that while NGOs tend to be neglected by the Bulgarian state, and the information flow to them is slow and scarce, a number of government programmes are now being developed with the participation of environmentalists.

“If any changes come, that will be due to EU influence and pressure”, says Andrey Kovachev of Balkani Wildlife Society. He says the majority of state institutions are still unwilling to communicate, and only a handful of government bodies set an example by their openness.

Yet change is perceptible even at the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Waters, which used to be viewed as showing little interest in genuine contacts with green organisations.

"Following one of the latest decisions of Minister Dzhevdet Chakurov in August, representatives of these organizations have started sitting as full members on various committees, evaluating the environmental impact of investment projects along the Black Sea coast and at other ecologically important places", said the ministry's spokeswoman, Vanya Ivanova.

However, she insisted that the initiative for this had come from Chakurov himself, and not as a result of any pressure from the EU.

Romania seems to be moving slowly in the same direction. Its eco-organizations are fewer in number, and enjoy less public support. Nevertheless they were involved in the preparation of Natura 2000 zones for Romania.

"Romania started too late to identify and evaluate the sites to be included in the Natura 2000 programme. Fortunately, the cooperation between government and local NGOs was good enough, as long as officials took into consideration all our proposals and ideas,” says Emil Burdusel, President of the UNESCO-ProNature ecological NGO.

As a result, about 12 per cent of Romania's territory was proposed as Nature 2000 sites, starting with most of the alpine zones from Carpathian mountains and ending with part of the Black Sea shore and the entire Danube Delta.

Burdusel’s organisation is part of the Romanian Coalition for Natura 2000, which comprises some 50 local NGOs. It was the public cause to protect nature from overdevelopment and business interests that brought them together for the first time ever.

Similarly, in Bulgaria the EU programme has helped consolidate the environmental movement, whose various groups previously worked chiefly in their own specific areas and came together only occasionally for individual campaigns.

Another positive development, expected by the green organizations, is that Brussels will force the new member-states to develop long-term policies.

“The government will have to build its own strategies, and develop them in compliance with the EU's common line”, Petko Kovachev said. “This will put an end to acting upon a whim on each occasion”.

These trends will certainly not put an end to the battle for nature protection in Bulgaria and Romania. Just the opposite, they only mark the beginning of a more fierce stage in it.

In Bulgaria, a victory for the environmentalists would mean that nearly 30 per cent of the country’s territory is protected – a prospect that has already triggered protests not only among industrialists, but also among the population in many regions, who prefer to see their area grow wealthier, even at the expense of harming the countryside.

The mood is similar in Romania. “For sure, it is positive that local NGOs have had a say in the process of designating special areas [in Natura 2000], but many problems have yet to come, and they are related to lack of money, lack of information, the specific interests of some investors or even people living in those areas", Burdusel said.

The card the environmentalists have up their sleeve against business and private interests is their power to bring down punishment through the EU. Bulgarian NGOs have already launched proceedings seeking the imposition of fines on local governments that have failed to comply with Natura 2000 commitments.

“If the government does not act responsibly, does not submit a full list of protected areas, or allows some of them to be damaged, Bulgaria may face the most rapid punishment in the history of the EU”, Andrey Kovachev warns.

"Environmental movements in Romania are still at the beginning of the road. But I am optimistic and hope their importance will rise significantly. Hopefully, Romania will not become a heavily industrialised country, and we will be able to preserve the country's numerous natural beauties", says Ana Maria Stoian of the Romania fara Cianuri environmentalist organisation.

Albena Shkodrova and Marian Chiriac are BIRN directors respectively for Bulgaria and Romania. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.

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