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01/10/2016

EU money should not help destroy Bulgaria’s Kresna Gorge

Climate & Environment

EU money should not help destroy Bulgaria’s Kresna Gorge

A view from the Kresna Gorge. [Friends of the Earth Bulgaria]

The Bulgarian government is planning to carve a major motorway through the spectacular Kresna Gorge, one of Europe’s richest nature havens, using EU funds. The consequences for wildlife and the local community could be damaging, writes Magda Stoczkiewicz.

Magda Stoczkiewicz is Director of Friends of the Earth Europe

Bulgaria’s Kresna Gorge, a stunning protected haven for some of the EU’s most threatened species, is in danger of being damaged forever.

In a move that would have catastrophic consequences for nature and the local people that rely on this unique ecosystem, the country’s government is set to start building the last remaining section of the trans-European Struma motorway – linking Germany and Hungary to Greece – through this stunning 17-kilometre valley in south-western Bulgaria.

The motorway is regarded as a vital tourism and trade route, and is being financed with hundreds of millions of euros from the EU. Yet if construction – currently poised to start – goes ahead routed through the Gorge, this wildlife hotspot would be scarred with 11 bridges, 11 overpasses, seven dual tube tunnels, 59 fortification walls and 10 supported slopes.

This could imperil the thousands of species of flora and fauna that make their home in the Gorge, including rare snakes, butterflies and bats found nowhere else in the world. Dozens of strictly protected animal, insect and plant species would be directly threatened, such as the land tortoise, European wolf, and brown bear, designated by EU law as requiring strict protection. And it would do harm to the local community who rely on the Gorge for tourism and small-scale agriculture. The motorway would pass just 30-100 metres from a local school and the outlying homes of Kresna town, causing noise and pollution and compromising the local economy.

The European Commission has long stipulated that it does not support the routing of the motorway through the middle of the Gorge, as alternatives exist (such as a bypass, or their preferred option of a large-scale tunnel through nearby mountains). Moreover it would potentially violate the Union’s strong nature protection laws: the Habitats Directive states that all alternative solutions must be pursued before damage is allowed to occur to protected Natura 2000 sites such as Kresna Gorge. Indeed, over half a million citizens, a record number, recently called on the Commission to uphold and better put into practice these vital EU nature laws, in response to a public consultation calling them into question.

But in defiance of the Commision’s condition, the Bulgarian government looks intent on moving ahead with its plans to rip right through the heart of the Kresna Gorge – pressured by the Bulgarian Chamber of Construction Companies who complain that the tunnel alternative is too complicated for Bulgarian companies to construct. According to reports, contracts have been signed to begin construction within weeks of two sections of the motorway leading right up to either end of the Gorge, leaving just the wildlife sanctuary as the final bottleneck of the motorway. If that happens, all alternatives are cut off, and Kresna Gorge is almost certainly done for.

Within weeks, millions of EU taxpayer’s money could end up funding a development that would forever damage a European natural treasure and the local community – and breach EU nature laws.

Up to now, European Commission officials have not commented on whether the Bulgarian government’s actions undermine their stipulations. But time is running out. The EU can no longer turn a blind eye. It must step in now to prevent a crime against nature and the mis-spending of EU funds.

If the EU nature laws – some of the stronger pieces of nature conservation legislation in the world – are to mean anything, then the Commission must ensure that not a cent of EU money is used to finance construction of this motorway through the Gorge.

The Commission must pursue with the Bulgarian government one of the alternative viable routes as quickly as possible, as the laws require – for the sake of the incredible, irreplaceable Kresna Gorge, and the vibrant wildlife and people that call this natural oasis their home.