A €9-million report on the state of species and natural habitats in Bulgaria, paid for with EU taxpayers’ money, may in fact be a sham, Valia Ahchieva reports.
Valia Ahchieva is an award-winning Bulgarian investigative journalist, author of the weekly program ‘Otkrito’ on the national television BNT, broadcast since 1994. However, last January the BNT director stopped ‘Otkrito’ without explanation. Since then Ahchieva has published her reports on the website EUelectionsBulgaria.com. She joined EURACTIV Bulgaria from the day of its inauguration, on 20 September.
Every six years, EU member states are required to report about the state of protected areas in the Natura 2000 network, and 2019 is the year for Bulgaria to report. Following a public tender, Bulgaria’s Environment Executive Agency chose a consortium named ENVIMON as the contractor for drafting the report.
Sofia sent the report to Brussels on 30 August this year. And it makes for alarming reading. According to the report, the development of animal and plant species on Bulgarian territory are deemed unfavourable or negative. Simply put, animals and plants in the country would be under threat of being entirely wiped out.
Officials who controlled the implementation of this EU project made critical comments about the findings in a separate report. However, those comments were ignored. As a consequence, the Ministry of Environment and Water (MOSV) and the Environment Agency sent the report to the European Commission without corrections.
One element is striking. Some sentences in the controllers’ report end with exclamation marks. Apparently the controllers themselves were amazed at the findings of the report, which was written by unknown authors. Indeed, no expert has signed up to the final text.
According to the controllers, the report contains manipulated facts. Comparing the data between the years 2007-2012 and 2013-2018, it is clear that there is an increase in the population of some animal species in Bulgaria. But in its general conclusion, the report nevertheless says that “the population size is decreasing”.
The report by ENVIMON states that wolves in Bulgaria will disappear in the coming years. According to scientific calculations, the wolf population in Bulgaria must be about 1,200 in order for the species to be sustainable. But according to hunters in the Burgas region, there are many more wolves in this region – about 2,000 (Bulgaria has 27 regions). And hunters have evidence for this.
Ahchieva met two of them who are members of the Hunters and Fishermen’s Association ‘Lebed’ in Burgas. It is one of the oldest and largest associations in Bulgaria, which manages a huge territory comprising the Strandja Natural Park and the Atanasovsko Lake. Members of this association have participated in public discussions on plans for the management of these Natura 2000 reserves.
Todor Todorov, a PhD candidate at the University of Forestry, has a doctoral thesis about the wolf in Bulgaria. He has collected genetic material from 174 wolves over the last 8 years. He says it is absurd to claim that the wolf in Bulgaria is in danger of extinction.
The Chairman of the Association of Hunters and Fishermen in Burgas, Neven Karavasilev, is adamant that the authorised regular shooting of wolves is in itself evidence that there are many wolves in Bulgaria. So far, 5 wolves have been shot in the territory of the association. The last two were in the vicinity of a village called Krushevets, only 30 km from the Black Sea city of Burgas. According to him, this is proof that the wolf population is probably increasing rather than decreasing.
Karavasilev says that nobody has consulted him in relation with the European project aimed at counting wolves, bears, fish, frogs or turtles.
Neither Tododrov nor Karavasilev have been invited for public discussion on the project, although in previous years hunting and fishing associations have always participated in discussions related to species and habitats. Both learned from Ahchieva that there was a report sent to the European Commission warning on endangered species in Bulgaria.
The critical analysis says the mention “lack of data” appears too often in the report. The controllers argue that in most cases there is sufficient information and observations, but it was not been taken on board.
As an example, the report says that red-bellied frogs and wolves are today as many as they were in 2013, but for a future perspective it says that they will disappear from Bulgaria. This conclusion was reached without indicating any scientific facts or data from fieldwork.
Ahchieva has looked for the office of the ENVIMON Consortium, the contractor for the project. And she didn’t find it, because the signed contract only specifies the street and the number, without an office number. The consortium’s logo is not visible. She found a telephone number of the manager of ENVIMON, Boris Karakushev, but he refused to meet her. He was also unable to specify even one name of any scientist or expert with whom the consortium worked on the project. He told her she was harassing him and asked to receive questions in writing.
The investigative journalist sent 12 questions. But she never received answers, and Karakushev didn’t show up at a proposed time and venue for a meeting.
The sound of silence
The Minister of Environment Neno Dimov has also remained silent until now. Ahchieva asked him almost the same questions in writing after waiting for him for 3 hours for a meeting, without success.
The most important question for Minister Neno Dimov was: Why did you send this report to the European Commission in Brussels before it was corrected, after such harsh criticism by the controllers?
Similar were the results from Ahchieva’s meeting with the Executive Director of the Environment Agency, Georgi Balchev. It was him who actually signed the contract with the ENVIMON contractor.
Ahchieva waited for him early in the morning in front of the building of the Environment Executive Agency. He arrived, but when he saw the microphone and camera, quickly rushed into the elevator. Ahchieva and her camera went in after him, trying to interview him in the elevator. But Balchev didn’t mum a word.
The authorities in Bulgaria have denied answers to Ahchieva about the Serbian experts in the project.
It looks strange that one of the 5 partners in the contractor of the ENVIMON Consortium is the Institute for Biological Research at the University of Belgrade. The contract lists key experts, five of who are Serbs. There are also five Greek experts from Thessaloniki University, and two Bulgarians. But they are not scientists.
Serbs have never reported to the European Commission on species and habitats because Serbia is not an EU member country. So Ahchieva asked how could Serbian experts evaluate Natura 2000 in Bulgaria.
According to the contract, the Serbian and Greek experts had to make teams and go out on the field. They were supposed to be touring natural habitats with Bulgarian scientists who participated in the mapping years ago. But Assistant Professor Anna Ganeva, the Director of the Institute of Biodiversity at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, said this has not been done. She claims that the Institute had not received a formal invitation to publicly discuss the data presented in the ENVIMON report.
Ahchieva asked whether the report sent to Brussels is a manipulation. She also asked the fundamental question: on what basis have European subsidies been used – a total of €750 million so far to finance all Natura 2000 activities?
€100 million have been disbursed by the European Commission for the Operational Program “Environment” alone, precisely to improve the status of species and natural habitats.
If the report is to be considered valid, then this money was probably misused, because the situation has become worse. And if there is no deterioration and the report proves to be manipulated, then who will bear the responsibility for misleading Brussels?
We are still waiting for answers, Ahchieva concludes.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Frédéric Simon]