Protests were scheduled for February 11 in Sofia and several other Bulgarian cities and towns to save Strandzha nature park from large-scale resort construction, and similarly to protect other nature areas in the country.
The organisers, the For the Nature Coalition in Bulgaria, said in its initial announcement of the protest that 10 cities and towns would take part – Sofia, Bourgas, Plovdiv , Tryavna, Rousse, Stara Zagora, Sliven , Pernik , Pazardzhik and Veliko Turnovo – but as word spread of the protest, participants in social networks said that they would organise protests in places not on this list.
A Supreme Administrative Court decision in January opened the way for the implementation of the Tsarevo development master plan which in turn would mean large-scale construction in Strandzha, a hitherto relatively pristine area along Bulgaria’s southern Black Sea coast.
The court decision was followed by an outcry against the threat to Strandzha, environmental conservation groups began to mobilise protests and said that they would approach the European Commission because the master plan violated EU conservation directives, and questions were asked in the National Assembly.
In Parliament, Regional Development Minister Desislava Terzieva said that she would initiate the process of a revision of the plan.
The For the Nature Coalition said that in spite of the ministerial order suspending the 2008 Tsarevo master plan, the plan remained in force, and the coalition wanted a permanent legislative solution to ensure that in the future, no development plan would be approved without a prior environmental impact assessment.
Environmental conservationists want changes to the Spatial Planning Act and the Black Sea Coast Act allowing appeals against master plans.
Lawyer Svilen Ovcharov, who acts for the For the Nature Coalition, said that the procedure of amending the master plan could take at least two and probably up to four years, and during this time development could go ahead.
Reports have quoted Environment Minister Iskra Mihailova as saying that while the overall plan for Tsarevo municipality will be amended, permission could be given for tourst complex construction projects near the sea in the area.
Andrei Ralev of the Balkans Wildlife Society said that there was a serious risk that Terzieva’s order to suspend the Tsarevo plan could be defeated in court because there was no legal provision for the regional minister to be able to suspend such a plan.
Ralev said that it would be more effective if a suspension order came from the Environment Minister on the grounds that the plan had been adopted without an environmental impact assessment.
If the Environment Minister accepted that there was no breach in the issuance of the master plan, this would mean that any municipality in the future could adopt such development plans without environmental assessments, he said.
Media reports said that environmental conservationists in Bulgaria did not trust the ministries of agriculture and the environment because of changes to the management of national parks in the past six months.
These changes have followed the return to power of a Bulgarian Socialist Party-Movement for Rights and Freedoms ruling axis.
Ralev said that at the moment, both ministries were doing nothing to protect nature.
“At the moment there really is a lot of money going to the park directorates. First, there is a risk that these funds go to the so-called ‘our people’. Second is the danger that again, development projects, possibilities of logging in ancient forests, again come into force,” he said.
A report in local daily Dnevnik said that the new director of the Bulgarka national park, former MRF municipal councillor Ali Aliyev, was recorded as a collaborator of Bulgaria’s communist-era State Security secret service with the code name “Victor”. Apart from having headed the party in Sevlievo, he also had a business related to logging and transport.
The For the Nature Coalition said that party activists without the necessary qualifications were being appointed to manage protected areas. Recently, in five of 11 nature parks and at all three national parks, new directors had been appointed.
It added that the precedent set by the Supreme Administrative Court decision was that a municipality could request that its master plan could be approved without an environmental assessment.
The suspension ordered by the regional minister “could be cancelled tomorrow by the same or the next minister,” the coalition said.
The For the Nature Coalition said that the protest in Sofia would start at Eagle Bridge (Орлов Мост) at 6.30pm and proceed via Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard and the National Assembly Square to Slaveikov Square on, along William Gladstone Street, to the Enviroment and Water Ministry building, reaching there by just after 8pm.
* Update: On February 11, ahead of the scheduled protest, Environment Minister Mihailova said that she had signed an order suspending the implementation of the Tsarevo master plan.