Protests continue as Bulgarian government supports amendment to Pirin National Park Management Plan
At the very end of the year in which sustainable tourism has been put in focus worldwide, from Bulgaria came a new case in which natural heritage could deteriorate due to the industrial growth. Pirin national park, one of the most significant sources of biodiversity in Bulgaria and a UNESCO heritage site, has seen approval in the end of December for a construction site for further development of winter sport resorts and facilities. The decision contradicts Bulgarian legislation and the Environmental Protection Act and directly violates the European Union’s directives on strategic environmental assessment, bird conservation and habitats.
The latest amendment aims to change the Management Plan of the national park by allowing “construction, repair and reconstruction” activities on 48% of the park’s territory. Despite the fact that a substantial area of the park is already in use for tourism and other related activities, the Ministry Council has confirmed this new concession and further expansion of the capacities. Although the “official” version of the decision states that there will only be construction of second gondola line, environmentalists and NGOs have warned public that this is only a mask for a much more construction and work.
“A new draft of a management plan, currently under dispute in court, would allow construction of ski infrastructure in an area 12.5 times bigger than the current area and logging in 60% of the national park. These plans would cause irreversible damage to the World Heritage site and are based on a questionable business case,” – Milena Ignatova from Bulgarian environmental consultants Ecosystem Europe told us.
“IULEN”, a construction company involved in construction works, signed an agreement in 2001 with the Ministerial Council of the Republic of Bulgaria for the use of 99.95 hectares of the national park. However, an investigation conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Waters in 2011 concluded that they had exceeded the given territory by more than 64 hectares.
When the Bansko ski resort opened, thanks to its low prices, it quickly started to receive large numbers of tourists. As a result, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and drinking water pollution have hit the zone, which has even led to UNESCO expressing concerns over the use of the park.
Finally, years of lobbying have produced the desired outcome for the company as the Government has amended its previous plan and allowed another round of works in the park. Once again, mass tourism and the desire for increased profits seem to be winning over the environmental protection and responsible and long lasting use of the natural resources.
“Latest changes are legally questionable and do not serve to the interest of society”, Ignatova continues. “Moreover, the proposed changes do not reflect public opinion, but serve the investment interest of a company whose owner is unknown.”
Pirin is home to the second highest Bulgarian mountain Pirin and spans over 403 square kilometres. It was established in 1962 and soon started to gain attention from nature lovers and travelers. Its unique attractiveness comes from rich flora and fauna it hosts: 182 species of medical plants, 1315 other plants and 159 bird species. 45 mammal species live in Pirin of which 12 are in IUCN Red List of threatened species and 37 are part of the European Convention on the Conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats. The aforementioned numbers were not unnoticed, so in 1983 Pirin was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, it looks like that public remains divided about the issue. On one hand, the promise of economic benefits have gained support from local people, and the media is pushing this argument as the main advantage of the future project. On the other hand, there is no space in media for environmental experts and opponents of this amendment who emphasize its negative impact for the environment, the lack of responsible development, and negative long term outcomes for the whole park.
The latter view is supported by Bulgarian association of tour operators and travel agents and the Association for alternative tourism, who all expressed great concerns about the plan. Moreover, the above-mentioned institutions pointed out that a solution is achievable- instead of putting efforts only into two months of winter season, development of year round activities and other types of (less harmful) tourism could provide stable positive results. By doing so, the area could benefit from profits from tourism for a much longer period than only two months and tourism could be developed in a much more sustainable and responsible way without endangering national park resources.
Bulgarian environmental and NGO groups also see possible changes: “The position of the Coalition of NGOs in Bulgaria of which WWF is a member is that, since there have been numerous violations of environmental law in the past by the company holding the concession in Bansko ski area, the government needs to withdraw its decision amending the Management plan of Pirin from December in order to begin discussing proposals for consensus.” – concludes Ignatova.
In a situation in which opposition of this amendment is having difficulties reaching the media to present their point of view, mass protests around the country and support from abroad seem to be the only voice they have. During January, more than 30 cities across Europe and Australia gave support to the people protesting against the Government’s decision, trying to spread information and present the background of the issue. As protests continue, it remains to be seen if there will be any reaction from authorities and international bodies.
Photos: Angel Dimitrov