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Dash for Wealth Dooms Wild Serbia-Bulgaria Frontier

Aleksandra Stankovic Pirot, Knjazevac, Belgrade, Berkovica, Montana, Sofia, Innsbruck and Vienna

Plans to build a winter resort in the Stara Planina mountains between Serbia and Bulgaria could have dire consequences for this unspoiled resource.

From the terrace of Mihajlo Djordjevic’s cottage in the village of Ragodesh, there is a magnificent view of the Stara Planina mountain range in south-eastern Serbia. Even in June, the highest peak, Midzor, rising 2,169 metres above sea level, is covered with snow and sparkles in the sun.

Mihajlo gazes at the pastures below Midzor, where he has spent all his life. In late summer, city folk come to pick the wild bilberries, raspberries and blackberries. Locals say the best way to feel the richness of the local herbs is through the taste of the sheep’s milk, from which hard kackaval cheese is made.

The water flowing from the peaks is so pure it can be drunk from the streams, home also to a rare species of trout. It flows into a big reservoir, Lake Zavoj, which is big enough to meet the needs of around 2 million of Serbia’s 7.5 million population. Because of its natural wealth, the Stara Planina has been designated a Nature Park, the largest in Serbia.
 
But all is not well in Stara Planina, on both the Serbian side and in neighbouring Bulgaria. The industrialization of the two Communist states after the Second World War led most people to emigrate, depopulating Stara Planina’s picturesque villages. But all this is about to change.

Not another Kopaonik, thanks
 
Serbia’s new pro-Western government is determined to revive Stara Planina but not through its once famous cottage industries of cattle breeding, dairy products and rug weaving. Instead, it has announced a tender for the construction of a large winter resort, accommodating up to 40,000 visitors.
 
Environmentalists worry that most of the ski slopes will be situated in areas now protected by law as habitats of rare and endangered plant and animal species.And, despite warnings from the state-run Institute for the Protection of Nature, that the development will breach six laws covering the protection of rare species, woods and waterways, Belgrade is determined to go ahead.
 
Goran Mijic, from the village of Topli Do, is not impressed. “What tourist centre?” he asks. “It’s too late for that now. There are no more people here!” Other villagers shake their heads, wondering how a ski resort can revive their dying community. “There’s nothing in our villages to attract tourists,” they argue. Their biggest concern is the fate of their mountain springs.
 
In the village of Balta Berilovac, on the other side of the mountain peak known as Babin Zub, where the ski centre will be built, villagers own hectares of land that, till recently, were worthless. Now, property values are skyrocketing as rumours circulate of rich tycoons purchasing swathes of land in the area.
 
Dunavka Bozinovic, a local police officer, would ideally like Stara Planina to be preserved. But she is selling her 18 hectares of land to buy a flat in nearby Nis where her children are studying.“If Stara Planina is destroyed, it will be because we are so poor,” she says.
 
The Ministry for the Economy and Regional Development has pledged to observe the law and protect the environment. But in September 2006, several government ministers, including the economy minister - and keen skier - Mladjan Dinkic, opened the construction site for the new ski slope below Babin Zub.
 
Large areas of forest were destroyed during the construction and the following spring, mountain torrents caused soil erosion and left big craters. The microenvironment was disrupted and at least one endangered local species, the Campanula calycialata, or winged bellflower, threatened.
 
Government officials defend the construction of the ski slope as the first step towards economic revival. “The Stara Planina resort is a project of national interest and this first ski slope was designed as a catalyst for future investments,” Serbia’s tourism minister, Goran Petkovic, says. He insists officials consulted an expert environmental institute during the planning phase and met all its requirements.
 
The development of the resort also receives the blessing of the local municipality. The mayor of Knjazevac, Gradimir Zivkovic, says environmental concerns must not thwart growth. “One must strike a balance between nature and man,” he says. “If some people’s ultimate objective is to preserve nature without any development, then we should all move to skyscrapers in Belgrade and let scientists examine their pet plants and animals in peace.”
 
But the head of Serbia’s Institute for the Protection of Nature, Lidija Amidzic, disagrees, dismissing claims that the government has consulted relevant experts. “The way tourist infrastructure development is being planned now is illegal,” she says.
 
Opponents of the plan believe major investment in winter tourism is foolish, because climate change is causing a drop in snowfall in mountain areas. They point out that ski centres in the Alps, which are far higher in altitude and lie further north than Stara Planina, are already in difficulties.
 
The amount of water needed to produce artificial snow in the Austrian Alps is equivalent to the water consumption of half a million households, Michael Reischer, a water expert with the regional government of Tyrol in Austria, asserts. “And as tourism-related infrastructure develops further, the need for energy and water increases,” he adds.
 
In addition, environmentalists believe production of artificial snow damages the subterranean water table and the ecosystem. It lingers on the ground longer than natural snow, disrupting vegetation cycles - in some Alpine areas, slopes remain barren well into summer.
 
A final decision on whether the planned resort at Stara Planina poses a threat to the environment will come from the environment ministry. The assistant minister, Dusan Pajkic, admits: “Our natural environment is by and large left to its own devices. Perhaps we could put some of the money from tourism into the protection of nature.”
 
But environmentalists say there will be nothing left to protect if the developers are allowed to finish the project. They cite the example of Kopaonik, the biggest ski centre in Serbia, where tourist complexes were built in the 1980s, close to the peaks. Locals have not benefited much because the city-based owners hire few of them. The lack of waste-water treatment facilities has also polluted the area’s biggest mountain river.
 
Green activists believe the resort in Stara Planina will similarly compromise the water of the Zavoj reservoir, which is already being polluted as a result of motorboats and sewage issuing from illegally built holiday homes.
 
EU restrains Bulgaria
 
One of the newest members of the European Union, EU, Bulgaria is widely seen as an ideal target for tourism investment. Construction sites have sprung up everywhere, from mountain peaks to the Black Sea coast. But many of these ski slopes and hotels have been built without planning permission, damaging the UNESCO-listed national park in the Pirin mountain area.
 
The European Commission’s, EC, environmental protection programme, Natura 2000, says sites that are home to rare species must be strictly protected. But Bulgaria has been reluctant to comply. For instance, the authorities excluded a strip of land around the Rila National Park from the Natura 2000 programme to allow several development projects to go ahead.
 
In June 2008, the EC also warned Bulgaria that it had been violating the EC Birds Directive, which obliges signatories to designate suitable sites as Special Protection Areas for the conservation of wild bird species.
 
The Bulgarian side of Stara Planina, as deserted as in Serbia, is also a target for developers. The small municipality of Berkovica, nestling on the slopes of the mountain, sees its salvation in ski resorts. In his austere office, deputy mayor Ivan Ivanov points hopefully from a window to the Kom mountain peak, his trump card in the winter tourism development game.
 
But Bulgaria’s accession to the EU has complicated matters. “Natura 2000 has tied our hands,” Ivanov complains. “We should have started construction last year, but everything has ground to a halt.”
 
“Part of the territory is protected because of bears, but we haven’t seen bears in these parts for decades,” he continues. “Another zone is protected because of rare birds. Peasants there are not allowed to use agricultural machinery in case they disturb them. Yet, many of these same birds are electrocuted by long distance power lines!”
 
Having drawn lessons from the poor experience of other mountain developments, environmentalists vehemently oppose Berkovica’s plans to develop another ski resort. They warn that building accommodation for tourists near the peaks and far from existing settlements will jeopardise nature and not benefit the community.
 
Petar Pencev, chair of Bulgaria’s Association of Environmental Organisations, says municipalities are behaving like feudal dukedoms, managing municipal land virtually as they see fit. “They’re allowing investors to build on protected areas and national parks, while corrupt public servants turn a blind eye,” he says.
 
Working closely with nature in Austria
 
Austria’s Alpine villages, by contrast, live handsomely from tourism that inflicts little environmental damage. Illegal landfills are inconceivable and waste-water is treated, ensuring rivers remain unpolluted.  Tourist complexes, unlike those planned in Serbia, are mostly situated in existing villages and at the base of mountains.
 
Olga Landerer, a Czech-born resident of Kuhtai, is in charge of the village cable car. “Nature is not endangered here,” she says, pointing to an Alpine rose growing out of virtually bare rock and the lair of a mountain fox.
 
The preservation of a pristine environment has been the mission of the Austrian Alpine Club, based in Innsbruck, since its foundation in 1862. “Politicians don’t like us, as they believe we’re against any development,” Peter Hasslacher, a member, says.
 
“In fact, we favour development but not at the cost of jeopardising nature.” He refers with pride to the millions of euros granted by the Austrian environment ministry and the EU to develop rural tourism, mountaineering, trekking and agriculture. “Why invest in skiing when there is less snowfall every year?” he asks.
 
Pressure on the Alps has not disappeared, however. The growing shortage of snow means investors are piling pressure on the Tyrol to permit ski slopes and hotels to be built at higher altitudes and on glaciers, which are protected under Austrian and European regulations.
 
But one positive aspect of Austria’s EU membership, as far as green NGOs are concerned, is that they have somewhere to turn when they feel local politicians are not playing by the rules.
 
Michael Reischer, of the Tyrol government, says an expert assessment by a respected independent body is always sought before any infrastructure project gets the go-ahead.
 
The Tyrol government also endeavours to offset the imprint on nature of such projects. “If nature is endangered, we oblige the investor to invest in something that benefits nature in another location, so a balance is achieved,” Reischer says.
 
What is happening to our water?
 
While developed countries strain to reduce and offset carbon emissions and use more renewable sources of energy, Serbia lags far behind. Apart from their concerns over the ski resort, locals in Stara Planina are concerned about the loss of water to the hydroelectric power plant in the nearby town of Pirot.
 
Two rivers run through Stara Planina, the Visocica and Toplodolska, which unite to form the Temstica. A dam, built in 1990, blocked the flow of the Visocica so the water could be diverted to the Pirot hydroelectric plant. The plant’s management now wants to divert the water of the Toplodolska River as well, through a new tunnel.
 
Locals have been fighting this plan for 18 years, partly because the water level of the Visocica is dangerously low. Nonetheless, work on building the new tunnel went ahead, without a construction permit. “Back then there were many developments without licenses,” the plant’s general manager, Jovica Stevcic, explains.
 
Times have since changed, but the tunnel’s construction continued until the Pirot municipal authority stopped work, partly because it threatened to leave some villages without a viable river.  But it remains unclear why the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD, granted a 12 million euros loan to the hydroelectric power plant in 2002 for the construction of the tunnel, when planning permission was lacking.
 
The government strongly backs efforts to increase electricity production in Serbia, which may explain why officials ignored local complaints. But locals remain resentful, recalling the reduction of the Temstica since it was deprived of the larger of its two tributaries. “It’s become arid and barren,” says Radivoje Nikolic, who used to spend his summers in the gorge. “Half of the river is gone. They should return the missing water and not take away what’s left.”
 
Dusan Mitic, a member of the Pirot town council, has been fighting to save the Toplodolska. But the struggle is hard in Serbia, where the judiciary functions poorly and public opinion is passive about green issues. Despite this, Mitic has succeeded in raising awareness on the  issue.
 
One argument he deploys against the hydroelectric plant is that Serbia suffers from the highest loss of electricity in Europe in percentage terms, as a result of faulty, ageing transmission lines and grid. “Every percentage point of lost electricity that is saved could rescue 16 rivers the size of the Toplodolska,” Mitic claims.
 
Soon it may be too late soon for Serbia
 
Unlike Serbia, neighbouring Croatia and Montenegro have abandoned plans to build new hydroelectric power plants on the Tara and Drava rivers, as a result of EU warnings, even though they are not member states. If Serbia were inside the European Union, the Toplodolska might also remain intact. The EU’s Water Framework Directive of October 2000 prohibits the use of untouched rivers for electricity production, saying they must remain absolutely untouched.
 
“It’s better to utilise energy efficiently than to build dams on the few remaining rivers,” Gerhard Eggar, of the World Wildlife Organisation in Vienna, says. “If we use them up as well, by 2020 we’ll still have rising energy needs so we must start conserving now.”
 
While Stara Planina is being undermined by ambitious projects in clean contravention of existing law, over the border in Bulgaria, the EU is threatening to cut off earmarked funding, an approach that is yielding results. The only chance for Stara Planina is EU pressure on an EU-hopeful Serbia. Waiting for membership though may be too late.

Fellow Bio

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Aleksandra Stankovic

Aleksandra Stankovic was born in 1973 in Pirot, Serbia. She graduated in 1997 in Arabic language and literature from the Faculty of philology at Belgrade University

Topic

Topic 2008: Energy

Energy is a topic that preoccupies officials, politicians and citizens across Europe - and arguably one of the biggest challenges facing this continent and the international community.