Bulgarian Government moves to quell protests over Forestry Act

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and MPs from ruling party GERB met on June 15 with representatives of conservation groups to discuss the latest amendments to the Forestry Act, which led to two days of protests in Sofia.

The amendments, which environmental groups say benefit a small circle of ski resort operators, will allow developers to build on state-owned forests without requiring a change-of-land-use permit, an expensive and time-consuming procedure that is meant to prevent over-development. At the same time, the new provisions did not offer sufficient regulatory oversight on construction in protected areas.

The Cabinet had agreed to some of the demands on the more controversial provisions, including one that would loggers to cut forests faster than their replenishment rate, but not the most controversial one, which allows construction of sports facilities and related infrastructure in state forests on 30-year-long leases.

Despite the protests on June 13 and June 14, when thousands of people gathered at the Orlov Most intersection in central Sofia, blocking traffic for more than an hour, Agriculture Minister Miroslav Naidenov said that this provision protected the forests by keeping them state property.

Talks with the conservation groups are scheduled to continue on June 18, but in the meantime, more protests have been planned in Sofia, including on June 15.

Earlier in the day, Borissov asked protesters to congregate elsewhere – suggesting the Cabinet’s building and Parliament – so as not to block the traffic at one of Sofia’s busiest junctions.

“When they do so, the police is required to open up the intersection, which leads to images of police officers and young people locked in struggle, images that frighten me,” Borissov told Nova Televisia’s breakfast show.

The protests, organised on Facebook and other social media, did not have city hall permits, but Borissov said that he had reminded Sofia police directorate not to initiate any violence.

At the same time, he defended the law’s provisions, citing the example of Alpine countries with developed winter resorts as the inspiration for the law, rejecting the criticism that it opened the way for over-development of mountainous areas to mirror the over-development of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast over the past decade.

Following the meeting with environmental groups, Naidenov said that the Cabinet will delay the publication of the amended law in the State Gazette – possible if the Presidency imposes a veto – in order to fix the contentious issues.

(Photo: Alex Bivol)



Alex Bivol

Alex Bivol is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe.