Bulgaria’s wilderness areas under threat from property investors
Bulgaria’s wilderness areas, among the largest in Europe, are threatened by property investors who use legal loopholes to contest the territories’ protected status to build holiday flats.
Last week, Bulgaria’s Supreme Administrative Court stripped the protected status from the country’s largest nature area, Strandzha, which spreads over 116,100 hectares (286,890 acres) in the southeast of the country.
The court ruled in favor of a major property investor, Krash 2000, which operates in the southern Black Sea region, one of the few areas untouched by the construction boom along the coastline.
Krash 2000 had sold some 90 holiday apartments in its “Golden Pearl” complex in the village of Varvara before local environment authorities froze construction last year.
A 1995 law regulating Strandzha’s special status bans massive construction in the area, but Krash 2000 succeeded in having the law nullified in court by claiming it did not set clear boundaries for the protected territory.
Last year, another wild spot on the Black Sea — the Kamchia river estuary north of Strandzha — was similarly stripped of its protected status by a holiday resort investor.
Environmental watchdogs have warned that over half of Bulgaria’s protected wilderness areas are susceptible to the same claim as law only vaguely defines their boundaries.
“The court gave Strandzha to the mafia,” political analyst Evgeniy Daynov said in Dnevnik newspaper Thursday.
Daynov was among some 500 protestors who demonstrated in Sofia last week to protest the court’s decision.
The protestors gathered suddenly, briefly blocking traffic on major crossroads and staging a lie-in in a central square, booing police and carrying banners reading “For a concrete-free Strandzha” and “Strandzha is not for sale.”
On Monday, 35 demonstrators were arrested. Interior Minister Rumen Petkov said he would be “uncompromising” in dealing with such unauthorized gatherings.
But the protests seem to have worked as Environment Minister Dzhevdet Chakarov told journalists Thursday that the government will definitely appeal the Strandzha court ruling and fight to win back the nature area’s protected status.
“The government is categorical on its position — we will appeal the court ruling and do whatever it takes to save the Strandzha territory in its current boundaries,” Chakarov said.
If the court decision is confirmed on appeal, the government is also ready to decree a moratorium on construction in the area, Chakarov said.
He said his ministry will review the legislation and fix all existing loopholes to prevent threats to other so-called wilderness areas.
“Strandzha falls within the Natura 2000 European network of protected areas for both bird and habitat protection, so wilderness area or not, it will be protected,” Chakarov said.
Environmentalists remain doubtful, however.
“Assurances of such type do not inspire hope. It is unacceptable to rely on Natura 2000, when we have our Bulgarian law to protect a nature park that has been one for 12 years now,” Radostina Tsenova of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation told AFP.
In February, the government voted to include some 20 percent of the country’s territory in Natura 2000, a centerpiece of the European Union’s strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity.
The decision sparked weekly protests by environmental groups who said at least 30 percent of wilderness areas should be included, and who accused the government of bending to pressure from investors.
Bulgaria has one of the best preserved nature habitats and largest wild animal populations in Europe, including thousands of brown bears and wolves.