Bulgarian environmentalists defy developers

Article published on Jan. 14, 2009
Article published on Jan. 14, 2009
Hotels and ski resorts: more and more Bulgarians are taking a stand against environmental destruction. The cases of Strandszha park and the Rila mountains in the country's south-west

In a small park next to the parliament building in Sofia, Stefan Avramov of the ‘Biodiversity Foundation’ is standing in the middle of one of the main pathways. Ministers have to pass by him to get to one of their favourite cafés. Avramov chose this spot deliberately: the ministers should feel his organisation breathing down their necks, he says. They should know that the public is not asleep.

Ministers should feel environmental organisations breathing down their necks

‘Some of them take detours because they know I’ll accost them. That’s part of our strategy,’ he explains. His fellow protestors from the environmental group are demonstrating right in front of the parliament building, where they hope to speak to individual ministers. A dozen voluntary helpers have come. Their plan: to prevent a change in the law making it easier to sell plots of land in conservation areas to private investors.

Strandzha park: environmental action booms

Demonstrations like this are now on the daily agenda in Sofia. For some time, Bulgaria has experienced a real upsurge in environmental action. Two years ago, a network was created which now has the support of thirty similar organisations. It is named Za da ostane priroda v Bulgaria (‘Agenda: to ensure a future for Bulgaria’s environment’). Its members’ priority is to put a stop to the frenzied rural construction work threatening even conservation areas. Their most notorious battle so far was for the Strandzha national park in the south-east of the country, whose ‘mistake’ was to be situated on the Black Sea. Strandzha is famous for its giant oak forests and secluded beaches. Zarevo council, the local authority responsible for the park, is said to be under the control of the Bulgarian ‘construction mafia.’

Zarevo council is said to be under the control of the Bulgarian ‘construction mafia'

In 2007, the high administrative court finally passed an order allowing development of the national park. The alarm was immediately raised by Jordanka Dineva, the network’s coordinator, who spent those weeks fighting the environmental cause day and night. ‘At the time, we tried everything,’ she says. They organised pickets and discussion forums. They appealed to international environmental organisations. In so doing, the network managed to get on board a lot of famous musicians, actors and scientists, like director Tedi Moskov and writer Ljubomir Lewtschew. Initially it looked as though the public could stop the sale of the environment. 50, 000 Bulgarians took part in the protests and international media reported on their struggle. Eventually the Bulgarian government changed the law on environmental protection: Strandzha could keep its national park status. The environmentalists celebrated this as a massive victory, says Dineva.

In 2008, however, Zarevo council drew up a new development plan – virtually without consulting the general public – proposing extensive new tourist-oriented developments in the park. The plan remained within the constraints of the existing laws and regulations thanks to sharp legal practice, and in August 2008 the authorities discreetly approved it. Jordanka Dineva and her fellow protestors barely caught wind of it: ‘We were continually fobbed off. Then one day the environment ministry made the approval officially known,’ says Dineva. The fact that the authorities presented the population with a done deal was political expedience, she complains. Areas which just yesterday had still been protected were transformed overnight into huge construction sites.

No-go areas appear high up in the mountains

Besides coastal areas, the mountains are particularly at risk, Dineva continues. Specifically, the Rila mountains in south-west Bulgaria. They are the highest range on the Balkan peninsula, characterised by snow-capped summits and icy mountain lakes. Bears and eagles can still be found there. Many of the new developers making their presence felt in this unpopulated region considered it exempt from the law, says Dineva. During one protest, she even feared for her life: ‘One time, a man approached us with a machine gun and shouted, Everyone on the ground. I’ll kill you. Different laws apply here. I make the rules. He pointed the weapon at one of the blokes. We froze to the spot.’

(Image: Plamen Stoev/ Flickr)

Jordanka Dineva is persisting nonetheless: she refuses to be intimidated. She is already planning her next trip to the Rila mountains, as she has heard of a plan to build a ski-lift there without permission. This kind of commitment is admired by Georgi Stefanov of the environmental information centre, an NGO in Sofia. However, he concedes that one has to be realistic in terms of what environmental protectionists can achieve. Yes, a lot of people from the environmental scene have joined the cause in recent years, and with some success. But at the end of the day, the problems have increased. More natural resources have been destroyed in Bulgaria in the last five years than ever before, he explains. ‘We can only try to win individual battles. However, these are often small and the victories meaningless. And we never know whether the next minute we might have to start all over again.’