Bulgarians protest ‘mafia’ Forest Act

Protestor's banner reads: "Sorry but we try to save the little that's left of Bulgaria." [Dnevnik]

Bulgaria's capital has been blocked by spontaneous protests against the country's new Forest Act, which  environmentalists say will lead to the plundering of the country’s woodland resources. Dnevnik, EURACTIV’s partner publication in Bulgaria, reports.

The protests in Sofia have been led mainly by young people who denounced the “mafia’ as being behind the law, which was adopted on Wednesday by the Bulgarian Parliament.

The Forest Act is seen by environmentalists as a “licence to kill” the Bulgarian forests, which in spite of poaching and abuse, still remain an important natural asset for the country and the continent. State forests and protected areas, the last significant public resource that has not yet passed into private hands in Bulgaria, occupy about 20% of the country’s territory.

The new law enables the construction of ski slopes and lifts in previously protected areas, removing the obligation that the status of the land be changed for this purpose. Furthermore, it would allow the acquisition of building rights on public land without tender and for an indefinite period.

The law also allows riparian woodland to be no longer be classified as forests, allowing the timber business to cut them down without state approval.

The protestors, who apparently gathered on short notice thanks to Facebook messages, shouted “mafia” and “The forest is life”. Some were wearing banners reading “Sorry for the trouble, but we try to save the little that is left from Bulgaria”.

The police, some on motorcycles or on horseback, made several attempts to disperse the crowd. Twelve protesters were arrested.

'Forest Act' to benefit skiers and snowboarders

Responding to accusations that the Forest Act was a “lobbyist act” in the interest of the timber and tourism industries, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that it was indeed “lobbyist” legislation, but "to the benefit of skiers and snowboarders".

"There is no risk in this Act and no reason for alarm. It will bring more tourists to Bulgaria who will choose it as a destination instead of Germany or Austria. It will also create more jobs and better wages in winter resorts and it will attract foreign and local investors," he said.

The law was passed with only 78 votes in the 250-seat parliament, 75 of them from the ruling Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, plus three votes from independent MPs. Only 109 MPs were present during the vote.

The opposition could have blocked the law, but didn’t make an attempt. The opposition parties, which include the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the centre-right “Blue Coalition”, together have 99 MPs.

But this did not prevent opposition leaders from hijacking the protests for their own political needs. BSP and the Blue Coalition held separate press conferences and called on the country’s President Rosen Plevneliev to veto the law. Both parties accused the prime minister of having passed the law to serve “oligarchs close to him” but did not name them.

The environmental group WWF issued a strongly-worded statement, urging the Bulgarian authorities to stop the Forest Act.

Among other things, the organisation announced they were sending a signal to the European Commission, as they see the opening of the Bulgarian forests to the business as unauthorised state aid. 

“The amendments of the Forest Act go against the public interest and contravene EU and Bulgarian legislation on competition as well as nature protection”, said Konstantin Ivanov, head of Communications at WWF Bulgaria.

“To put it simply, the amendments mean further deforestation and building up of forest and protected areas. They practically allow for the construction of ski runs and ski facilities without changing land use and for the acquisition of building rights on public land without tender and for an indefinite period.”

Over the past 25 years, the EU has collectively formed a network of nearly 26,000 protected areas, covering all member states and a total area of more than 850,000 km² – approximately 18% of the EU's total area. This vast array of sites, known as the Natura 2000 network – the largest coherent network of protected areas in the world – is a testament to the importance that EU citizens attach to biodiversity.

The legal basis for the 'Natura 2000' network comes from the Birds Directive, which dates back to 1979, and the Habitats Directive of 1992. Together, these directives constitute the backbone of the EU's internal policy on biodiversity protection.

The EU has long committed to protecting biodiversity, having made a political commitment at the beginning of the centruy to halt biodiversity loss within the EU by 2010. The target was missed and has now been put back to 2020.

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