Eastern Europe learns to cope with nature protection

After years at loggerheads with the EU over restrictions imposed by the Natura 2000 conservation rules, Poland and Bulgaria are starting to come to terms with the scheme. Wojciech Ko?? and Pavel Antonov report
One of the issues that Poland’s new government, voted in at the end of October, will have to deal with is the ongoing conflict between Warsaw and the European commission over construction of a flyover spanning two sides of the Rospuda river valley, a Natura 2000 site.
Much publicised – not least because of former prime minister Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski’s famous remark “It’s either Natura 2000 or development” – the standoff over Rospuda typifies the problems Poland and neighbouring countries have with the EU’s flagship biodiversity protection scheme.
Interestingly, despite adopting different approaches to the scheme, Polish and Bulgarian governments have faced similar difficulties. They have both been trying to navigate between the EU law and the need for investment.
According to environmentalists, the Polish government was cautious not to include on the list of Natura 2000 protected sites any areas where major state investment – mostly infrastructure – was to take place.

Conservation versus development
As highlighted by the Rospuda controversy, the government supported the view that Poland needed significant improvement to its infrastructure network. Limitations contained in the Natura 2000 rules would simply clash with construction of new roads, airports and railways, the argument went.
Poland’s environment ministry was slow to designate areas to be protected under the scheme. It was only under joint pressure from the commission and Polish environmental activists that the ministry expanded the list of protected areas under the habitats directive and the birds directive to cover over 20 per cent of Poland’s area (see figure 1). The original proposal was a mere 3.7 per cent for the habitats directive and 8 per cent for the birds directive.
In Bulgaria, after initially proposing that Natura 2000 sites cover as much as 35 per cent of the country, the government started removing some areas from the list. Nearly one year after the EU deadline, the list of sites to be protected under Natura 2000 is not yet complete, but the commission recently announced it was not going to take legal action against Bulgaria.
Natura 2000 protected areas in Poland and Bulgaria, in proportion to their total land area, rank in the EU average. Bulgaria’s percentage is proportionally higher – a logical consequence of it being located in the southern part of Europe, which enjoys richer biodiversity (see figure 2).
In Bulgaria, the making of the Natura 2000 network coincided with a boom in construction of tourist facilities across Bulgaria’s well-preserved natural areas, mostly along the popular Black Sea coast.
Real estate and construction businesses, as well as local administrators, raised objections to the scheme. In an attempt to avoid predictable conflict between the country’s thriving construction industry and its environmental commitments to the EU, the government tried to cut down the size of the network in Bulgaria.
In November 2006 the environment ministry removed 29 habitats and five birds sites before submitting the list to the government. In December, the cabinet removed a further 15 habitats and 17 birds sites.
Overall, the percentage of Bulgarian land covered by Natura 2000 sites decreased to less than 25 per cent of the country’s area. Several zones were temporarily left out of the list for further consideration.
“Almost half of the most important sites identified by scientists, including nearly the entire Black Sea coast, were removed from the list due to ‘investors’ interests’,” charged WWF’s Danube-Carpathian programme manager for Bulgaria Valentina Kavrakova.
“We expected the government to cut some sites from its list of proposals for the Natura 2000 network, but what remains has been seriously compromised in terms of both quantity and quality,” she added.
The most controversial aspect of the government’s decision on Natura 2000 was to allow areas with an approved spatial development plan to be excluded from the list. Municipalities along the Black Sea coast and the most attractive ski areas used the time out to urgently approve such plans, in the hope of avoiding the scheme’s requirements altogether.

Greens fighting back
Introducing ‘investors’ interests’ as criteria for defining the Natura 2000 network could breach EU requirements, according to Ms Kavrakova and other environmentalists. It also contravenes Bulgarian law, which states that the scope of the network should be determined by scientific criteria only.
In Poland, environmentalists say, the situation was similar in practical terms. The main difference was that the government initially pre-empted any grievances investors might have had about Natura 2000 by simply leaving investment areas out of the list. Green NGOs produced a so-called “shadow list” of protected areas, which the commission used when it summoned Poland to come up with a more comprehensive coverage.
But delays in extending Natura 2000 across Poland are now having a detrimental effect. The pace at which new investment – mostly transport infrastructure, but also water management networks – was agreed has outpaced the environment ministry’s action on the scheme.
It has now emerged that some beneficiaries of the so-called Integrated Operational Program on Regional Development for the period 2004-06 will have to return the EU money they received to fund projects carried out on areas now listed under the scheme.
“We’re going to finish a regional road in November in an area that was not under Natura 2000 when we started construction. Now we have to come up with an environmental assessment, which wasn’t required at the beginning,” said Leszek Wojtas, an officer at the Pozna? regional authority.
In both Poland and Bulgaria, the issues concerning Natura 2000 have been creating much tension. Mass protests swept the streets of Sophia last August, when Bulgaria’s supreme administrative court revoked the protected status of the country’s largest natural park – the Strandja mountain. The court’s decision knocked the park off the protection list, although its status was later restored.
In Poland, the former government was forced to back down on construction in Rospuda. It retained its bullish rhetoric, however, saying it was sure the European Court of Justice would not find the development in breach of EU law.
The new government, which is due to take over in early November, is rumoured to be planning to abandon construction altogether.
Whether it will have parliament’s support in doing so remains to be seen. One of the Rospuda project’s most ardent supporters is Leszek Cie?lik, the mayor of Augustów – the town due to get relief from heavy traffic thanks to the controversial flyover. He was elected to parliament in the October elections.

A new phase?
After fighting the biodiversity protection scheme wholeheartedly, it now seems business might be taking a slightly different approach.
“Natura 2000 could be very beneficial for tourist developments because pristine nature is a major attracting factor for tourists. Preserving and protecting it is particularly important for investors aiming at the higher-income tier of visitors,” explained Kiril Assenov, chief executive of the Perelik Sports and Tourist Centre (STCP).
Mr Assenov is in charge of an investment project that aims to create a high-profile skiing and recreation centre in Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountain range. The project promises a year-round mountain resort spread over 22 kilometres of new ski runs under Mount Perelik, close to Greek border.
Unlike other similar projects across the country, STCP aims to adopt a sustainable development approach that takes into account both the people and the natural resources of the unique Rhodope mountains. “This enables us to create the conditions for a direct contact with nature, for sport and tourism, while at the same time preserving an ecologically intact environment”, Mr Assenov said.
However, Mr Assenov complains of a lack of clear rules on the implementation of Natura 2000. “It is well known that construction and development is possible in Natura 2000 areas. But under what conditions and requirements is a question that no state authority, so far, has provided a straightforward answer to,” he said.
He believes the state needs to set out and clearly communicate the requirements that need to be met and the procedures that investors must follow.
“The lack of clear rules is equally bad for nature protection and for business. It creates uncertainty for investors, but it also creates the conditions for corruption and bad governance practices,” said Mr Assenov.
The rules are clear enough, according to Magdalena Polujkis, a lawyer with international law firm White and Case who specialises in Natura 2000 issues.
“It’s the business community in the new member states that still has to come to terms with what Natura 2000 means for investments,” she said.
“Investors from countries where the scheme has existed for some time are used to it and don’t consider it a problem. It could be seen as a hindrance in a way, but then again it’s a necessity now,” she added.

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