Development could be counted as forest in proposed Bulgarian laws
The Draft Forest Act could also legalise many existing illegal developments carried out in protected areas, enable land to be passed with little scrutiny or safeguards from public to private ownership and control and increase the risk of corrupt dealings over protected areas.
“Formally removing the requirement to reclassify forests to carry out development will only start a trend that would do immense damage to forested and protected areas important to all of Europe,” said Vesselina Kavrakova, Programme Manager of the WWF Danube - Carpathian Programme in Bulgaria.
“The Draft Forest Act makes it easier to develop infrastructure and construct buildings in forests, including in protected areas and Natura 2000 sites. The draft provisions mean that investors could build chair-lifts, tow-lifts, wind turbines and photovoltaic facilities in forested areas without undergoing an administrative procedure to exclude the land from the forest territory.
“This would decrease the valuable forest cover, while at the same time allowing the government to claim that built up areas are forest territories”.
“It allows for the easy transition of the public’s natural assets to private hands to the detriment of state and society alike. Approved in its present state, the Draft Forest Act would represent a giant step back from the efforts to protect and sustainably manage Bulgarian forests”, Kavrakova said.
Over the past few years, protection regimes in protected areas in Bulgaria were often disregarded and nature and national parks, as well as Natura 2000 sites saw a wave of construction and development . Among the new EU member states, Bulgaria is the country with the highest number of infringement procedures for violating nature conservation regulations, having built ski facilities and wind turbines in protected areas. Violation of protected areas regulations has attracted a giant wave of public concern. Similar amendments to the Forest Act were rejected on two occasions over the past ten years due to public pressure.
“Such provisions are actually economic presents for investors receiving valuable resources without competition”, Kavrakova said. “But in several recent sociologic surveys Bulgarians have shown their strong will to conserve forests and protect the protected areas in earnest. In 2010 WWF collected over 70,000 signatures in support of sustainable management of Bulgarian forests”.
One third of Bulgarian territory is covered by forests, and these are home to two thirds of the country's species, including endangered species such as Brown Bear, Europeans Wolf, White-Backed Woodpecker, Golden and Lesser-Spotted Eagle among others. Thus Bulgaria contributes significantly to the implementation of EU policies and strategies on halting biodiversity loss and fighting climate change. Facilitating construction in forested areas would be a significant loss for the EU, something that WWF intends to raise in Brussels.
The draft also creates opportunity for sale of state property within protected areas.
“Seventy five years ago, the Bulgarian state was purchasing private lands in order to create protected areas in the public interest. Today state land in protected areas is public and no government so far has dared to change this. But under the new provisions, investors will be able to purchase the land under the buildings and facilities they operate, and in this way the door will be open for, among other things, illegally constructed buildings and facilities to be legalized.”
Investor interests are also threatening Bulgaria’s eleven nature parks, which altogether form the largest protected area in Bulgaria.
“In the draft, an opportunity is given for nature parks to be transferred for governance to municipalities. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria no positive examples exist to date of municipalities willing to take proper care of protected areas”.
Municipalities such as Sliven have lobbied to take control of natural resources as these areas are emblematic for the country and therefore easier to ‘exploit’. But local administration in Bulgaria is often accused of corrupt practices, adding to the concern that protected areas may become victims of private interests.
A startling example comes from the municipality of Tsarevo which four years ago went as far as to appeal in court the designation as protected area of Strandzha Nature Park, the largest protected area in South-Eastern Europe.
“The forest sector in Bulgaria does need a reform to ensure responsible forest management and, to this end, we have supported the efforts of the state forest administration”, Kavrakova said. “By participating in working groups, proposing texts and providing statements, WWF forest experts have worked for and today welcome a number of positive provisions in the Draft Forests Act like forest certification and payment for ecosystem services”.
In addition, WWF works in partnership with the state forest administration in the country to certify state Bulgarian forests according to the requirements of the Forest Stewardship Council, to introduce multifunctional forest management in model areas and to promote the concept of High Conservation Value Forests.
“Bulgaria has already achieved a great deal on some measures important to forest conservation,” Kavrakova said. ”We very much trust that the National Assembly of Bulgaria will reject the unacceptable texts and will proceed with the proposed Forest Act without them.”