Sunday, August 3, 2008

New Romanian Highway Outrages Enviros

Romanian conservationists are worried that a new road threatens pristine forests in the Retezat Mountains

Marcel, a thin, white-haired man in his 60s, has lived around the Retezat Mountains all his life. A forester, he knows and loves the natural surroundings of this southern Carpathians region better than most.

But after so many years of tranquility, he is worried that the construction of a new highway near his home will bring a noisy influx of people and vehicles to an area of once-remote forests.

From his perch on the crest of a mountain, Marcel catches his breath and watches groups of people gathering at the bottom of the peak. Some of the visitors prepare barbecues while others blare music from the loudspeakers of their cars or drive all-terrain vehicles up and down the gradually encroaching road.

"It's good people can't reach here," says Marcel, who asked that his full name not be used. "Where people go, birds stop singing and nature dies."

Significant construction has already been completed on the new national road DN66A, a nearly 100-kilometer project that would link Uricani in southern Transylvania to Baile Herculane, near where the Danube forms the southwestern border with Serbia. With approximately 10 kilometers completed so far, the construction is advancing along the edge of Retezat National Park, a 38,000-hectare (94,000-acre) natural refuge since 1935, and heading straight into Domogled-Cerna Valley National Park. Retezat is well-known as the location of the former mountain retreat of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's infamous communist leader.

Proponents of the road say the increased tourism it will bring will boost the economically depressed region. But controversy has arisen from questions about whether the government violated its own environmental laws by allowing construction to continue. The road could destroy one of the last great intact havens for nature and wildlife in the region, environmentalists say. Large-scale construction in protected areas and their buffer zones is prohibited by environmental law in Romania.

"Certainly it is crucial to develop this region, but we must always take into consideration the impact on the environment if we want development to last," says Dana Caratas, spokeswoman for the Romanian branch of the World Wildlife Fund.


Since construction of the DN66A started in 1999, the road has been depicted as a salvation for the Jiu Valley, though it has been built in fits and starts because of money problems and protests. During the communist period, the valley was noted for its prolific coal mines and many people moved here from other parts of Romania to work as miners. After 1989, however, most mines were declared unprofitable and shut down, leaving many unemployed. The Jiu Valley is often considered a "hopeless" region, as no other industries developed to take the place of mining. Although the official unemployment rate for the area is 6 percent, officials say that figure is a vast underestimate, as many of the area's jobless have not registered at the unemployment office.

Communities like Petrosani, Vulcani, or Uricani are now a sad sight to the occasional traveler passing through. The towns' few small parks are filled with people unable to find jobs, loitering in public places. Along the main streets, life seems similar to that of any other small Romanian town, but behind the main buildings lurk areas known as "colonies," decrepit residential structures that either are abandoned or house people without providing basic utilities. When asked about their lives, locals complain about the lack of opportunities and reminisce about the times when the mines were still working.

"The road is meant to help develop tourism in this area, and this is really our only chance," says Danut Odagiu Buhaescu, the mayor of Uricani, a town of 10,000 people.

Despite the possible economic benefits, environmentalists worry that the road could destroy precisely what it is supposed to promote: the beautiful nature of the region. These critics say the road disturbs ecosystems, interrupting the routes of animals, including protected species like the chamois, an endangered goatlike animal. The 3-meter-wide stretch of concrete cuts deep into forests, and workers had to build sidewalls on portions of it in order to prevent large animals from being hit while trying to cross the road when following their usual routes.

A manager at the local forest protection services who asked not to be named confirmed that animals have been spotted close to the construction area. He agreed with environmentalists who say that in the long run these animals will be affected by noise and pollution from the road and interruptions in their routes.

The WWF's Caratas says, "One of the most severe negative impacts of this road will be that the increasingly large-scale traffic allowed by this road will bring with it large-scale tourism, rather than the eco-tourism and sustainable development that are most desirable for such a region."


Critics of the road argue that the construction was never legal to begin with. When the first layers of concrete were laid, no environmental approval or urban plan existed. Between 2000 and 2007, work was repeatedly halted because the National Environmental Guard, the Romanian authority for environmental protection, protested the lack of proper permits. To further battle the construction, the management of Retezat National Park imposed several fines on the construction firm for working without permission in protected areas.

Because both the Retezat and Domogled-Cerna Valley national parks appeared on the Natura 2000 list of protected European sites, the European Commission has also expressed its concern that the road is being built without proper approvals.

Despite pressure from environmental groups, Romanian president Traian Basescu, a well-known supporter of the road, remains undaunted. Construction began when Basescu was transportation minister, and since becoming president he called the road's critics "political adversaries" who want to sabotage the project.

Romanian media has reported around a nearly 20 million euro investment in the project so far, and according to past statements by Basescu, the Romanian government plans to invest up to 80 million more. During a 2007 visit to the area, the president said that stopping the works represented "the definitive shutting down of the Jiu Valley" and "a mockery of public funds."

"They might as well not have authorized the works in the first place," Basescu told local media. "After all this money was invested in the road, construction must continue, or at least, works aimed at preserving what was built until now must be allowed."

But local authorities insist that the works were not authorized before work began. Necessary approvals were not obtained until April, after the scientific council of Retezat Park finally accepted the road, imposing two new conditions: that passages for small and large animals are built into the road and that land use plans are made by local authorities.

Zoran Acimov, the director of Retezat Park, told IPS News that the scientific council saw itself forced to give permission. According to Acimov, the most park management could do was to compromise by giving permission in order to impose new restrictions on construction. If the park had continued to withhold the permit, construction would have continued without these safeguards, the director said, adding that the management of the park "had to choose the lesser evil."


While the road controversy was unfolding, specialists at the Ministry of Environment conducted a study based on an earlier finding of ecology group Greenpeace.

The study, publicized in late June, describes Retezat-Godeanu-Tarcu as "the last intact forest landscape in temperate Europe," spreading over 97,926 hectares (close to 10,000 of which are not yet protected under national legislation). The area includes 18,046 hectares of untouched forests and 22 types of ecosystems.

An intact forest landscape is defined as one that is close to its original ecosystem and where human intervention has been minimal. Environmentalists say that safeguarding such landscapes, which are increasingly rare, is crucial to preserving biodiversity and to alleviating some of the damage associated with climate change.

Greenpeace considers the preservation of these large tracts especially important because they ensure the survival of animals in the face of encroaching development, they allow for a better understanding of similar ecosystems that have been damaged in other, non-intact areas, and they are cheap to preserve because of their remoteness.

The authors of the Ministry of Environment study called for the immediate protection of the entire tract, but the DN66A project has put a cloud over that proposal. With construction certain to continue, some have even questioned whether the road is crucial to the region's development. Caratas notes that there are alternative routes connecting Baile Herculane and Uricani, the two end points of DN66A.

Gabriel Paun of Greenpeace Romania says, "This road will be just another Transfagarasan [a road through the Fagaras Mountains] open only eight months during a year." In some portions, the road would cross regions of high altitude, where snowfalls of more than 2 meters are common in winter, making the road impassable.

Opponents like Paun suggest a compromise: halt the road at the point of current construction, before it enters Domogled National Park and damages the intact forest landscape. This existing section of the road, they say, could be used to promote small-scale tourism that that has low impact on the ecology. If the government grants protection status to the entire landscape and the area is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, significant international funds and numerous eco-tourists could be attracted to the region.

"Authorities are promising to bring life back to the Jiu Valley precisely by destroying the world heritage in the region," Paun says. "But it is only through understanding the uniqueness of this territory and conserving it that we can reduce poverty in the Jiu Valley in the long run."

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