Every autumn and spring for the past millennium or so, 40,000 storks, 2,000 pelicans, 1,000 honey buzzards, 3,000 buzzards and 2,000 spotted eagles, red-breasted geese and cormorants fly over Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast. This territory lies on the Via Pontica, a migratory route for birds from northern and eastern Europe and Siberia. As they pass by, they stop and find refuge in Strandzha's thick, centuries-old forests and wetlands, which reach all the way to the seashore, broken up in some places by golden beaches.
Next year the birds won't be able to recognise the landscape they've known for centuries.
Until now the Black Sea coast to the south of Tsarevo was one of the few stretches of Bulgarian shoreline that has remained free of hotels and resort complexes. Varvara, Ahtopol, Sinemorets and Rezovo were spared the construction mania that turned Golden Sands into a mega-resort for up to 200,000 guests. This part of the coastline was a sure bet for those who love peace and quiet, deserted beaches and pristine natural surroundings, as it was part of Strandzha Natural Park. As the largest protected natural park in Bulgaria, it is part of the EU's Natura 2000 ecological network.
Strandzha is home to unique flora and fauna, due to the fact that the Mediterranean and Black Sea climates meet there. The migratory birds are the most noticeable – and most breathtaking – part of its biodiversity. Strandzha is the only place in all of Europe where you can find seven relic plant species, the most famous of which is the strandzhanska zelenika, or pontic rhododendron.
Surprisingly, Bulgaria's Communist regime is primarily responsible for the preservation of Strandzha's biodiversity. The mountain falls within the border zone with Turkey, so the Communist authorities restricted access to it, causing the depopulation of the entire region.
After 1989 these restrictions were lifted. And when the massive construction boom along the southern Black Sea coast began, in anticipation of the hordes of tourists and investors looking for vacation properties, locals who lived south of Tsarevo felt cheated. Like natives of Sozopol and Nesebar, they, too, owned unused agricultural land near the coast. Why shouldn't they be allowed to sell their property to building contractors at a good price? So they began looking for ways to skirt the restrictions on construction in protected territories.
In February 2006 one expert at Strandzha Natural Park discovered that a massive construction project had begun on the coast near the village of Varvara. Building in the park is not strictly forbidden; however, developers must go through a string of special procedures and obey certain parameters. The company behind the Zlatna perla, or Golden Pearl, residential complex announced they had received permission to build from the Municipality of Tsarevo and had a letter from the environment minister that allowed them to sidestep certain procedures. The minister, Dzhevdet Chakarov, however, replied that he did not recall signing such a letter and halted the project. The company appealed the decision but continued building. Construction was subsequently frozen again. In the meantime, foreign investors, primarily Britons, had already purchased more than 50 apartments off plan.
In 2007 the Municipality of Tsarevo and the company turned to the Supreme Administrative Court, or SAC, to challenge the way Strandzha Natural Park had been declared a protected territory in 1995. There was a precedent – several months earlier the SAC revoked the protected status of the small Kamchiyski Pyasatsi area on the Black Sea coast, arguing that its declaration as a protected zone in 1980 failed to mark out boundaries. Rumour has it that Yuriy Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, plans to build a "children's camp" there.
This legal loophole has allowed many developers to turn to the court to revoke the protected status of any territory in Bulgaria they want to build on – with the exception of preserves and national parks. Strandzha Natural Park suffered the same fate as Kamchiyski Pyasatsi – the SAC revoked the park's protected status, once again on the grounds of "imprecise boundaries." This time, however, the decision provoked massive outrage from environmentalists. After a summer of protests in 2007, Strandzha made the headlines and parliament quickly passed an amendment to the law banning appeals on territories already declared as protected.
For the moment Strandzha Natural Park was saved. In 2008, however, the Municipality of Tsarevo adopted changes to its general zoning plan that allowed construction on agricultural lands on the coastal strip of Strandzha Natural Park. According to the plans, new hotels and residential complexes with a capacity of nearly 50,000 beds will be built there. Golden Pearl was included in the newly zoned construction territory, and there will be a golf course near Varvara. Tsarevo Mayor Petko Arnaudov, who was one of the leaders of the attack on the natural park, even announced that he would seek European funding to build water treatment plants, sewerage systems and other infrastructure for the new complexes. Not everyone in Tsarevo is happy with the plans, however. Locals have complained that even after the changes, their land has remained agricultural and thus unusable, while all municipal property can now be developed.
Only two protected areas are safe from construction: the mouth of Veleka River and Silistar, where building is prohibited by law. More than 30 percent of the park's remaining coastal habitat will be destroyed. To prevent this, environmentalists will appeal to the European Commission, arguing that Tsarevo's new zoning plan will destroy a habitat protected by Natura 2000. Their main complaint is that the changes to the plan were announced publicly a few days after the deadline to appeal them had passed.
What will Brussels decide? In the end, it may not matter too much. The Municipality of Tsarevo, investors and the administration have already shown that they are masters at finding legal loopholes to allow construction on protected territories, and that they don't particularly care about what a few thousand storks might think about it.