by Christina Dimitrova

Bulgaria may be a small country, but it has a lot to offer in terms of nature. By some miracle, the Communist regime did not manage to poison all of this with its monstrous industrial endeavours, and, as a result, today Bulgaria is home to many endangered species.

In the past few years, however, the mass destruction of nature has started again. First it was the Black Sea coast, now the construction has moved to the mountains.

Soon the coast will be one endless resort all the way from Durankulak in the north to Rezovo in the south, and all the mountains will be one giant ski run. And then, oh joy, we are all going to be millionaires. There will be no trees, no beaches, no nothing - just buildings, ski runs and resorts. Exactly which tourists will be enticed by this concrete jungle is another question.

One doesn't have to look far to see the results of this construction. Sunny Beach, Nesebar, St Vlas and Ravda used to be small seaside towns, now they are one big, ugly, overcrowded metropolis with bad infrastructure. Sozopol, a beautiful, romantic town, is now so congested that the parking situation is worse than in Sofia. And the sleepy, picturesque mountain village of Bansko is now a muddy, sprawling resort.

Add to this the fact that so far this year's ski season has seen very little snow and, if we are to believe the scientists, in a few years there will be no snow at all. What will happen then? Tourism in Bulgaria is a bit like the dot com boom: one day (and soon) the party will be over.

Now, under EU Directives for Habitats and Birds, the government is introducing the Natura 2000 ecological network. This is a nature preservation programme that protects a network of land by placing limitations on its use, for example, by imposing restrictions on construction. Current estimates envisage about 30 percent of Bulgarian territory falling under Natura 2000's protection. However, the initiative has met strong opposition from within Bulgaria, and has sparked protests among landowners.

Leaving aside the fact that the government has to introduce the programme, or face stiff fines from the EU, it is high time that everyone in the country understood that this is being done for the greater good. It is not an attempt to deprive people of their land, but to preserve our greatest asset - nature.

Instead of protesting, people in Bansko should stop to consider seriously what will happen to their ski slopes if it does continue to get warmer. Instead of buying more snow machines, perhaps the answer is to stop cutting down trees and start preserving them in order to have something to show tourists when the snow is gone for good.

The people in Obzor should stop blocking the road and think about how to make Irakli, one of Bulgaria's last remaining undeveloped areas of wilderness along the Black Sea coast, more attractive to nature lovers, instead of catering to package tourists who will sit in their all-inclusive hotels and not spend a penny in Obzor.

Instead of building a new golf course and threatening the government with protests, the mayor of Kavarna, famous for holding rock concerts in the Black Sea town, should invite another rock star or two - they attract enough tourists as it is.

But, in fact, it seems that it is the government that is at fault here. They did not bother to explain to the owners of the land likely to be included in the Natura 2000 network that they can still build hotels, so long as they abide by certain rules. No one bothered to explain that those landowners will get lots of EU money if they decide to do something with their land - like grow tomatoes or strawberries, for instance. Yes, it's easier to sell your land to someone to build a hotel and then eat and drink the money away, instead of growing tomatoes, but it is all a matter of long-term thinking.

Why did the government not do its job and explain what this Natura 2000 business is all about, one might ask. As usual, it is not serving the interests of the people, but the interests of those who paid for the party campaigns. The same people who own timber exporting businesses, hotels and ski runs. It is astonishing how the government, which otherwise demonstrated remarkable enthusiasm in welcoming the EU and paying tons of cash for various explanatory campaigns, somehow forgot to explain this one, so that now misinformed, or uninformed locals are blocking roads and complaining loudly that someone is trying to rob them of their land.

It seems that the government has done a great job. Now it can tell the European Commission that it has listened to the people and that they don't want Natura 2000.

I read recently that the government has decided to remove yet another territory in the Stara Planina mountains from the list. And I read that the WWF is sending complete maps and lists of all the areas in Bulgaria where endangered species live or rare plants grow, to the European Commission so that there will be a basis for comparison. I also read that the government has quietly decided to take as many territories off the list as it can, hoping that no one will notice.

I hope that someone will notice and will put an end to this outrage.


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