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ENVIRONMENT: Bulgaria Going Down a Slippery Slope

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Mar 3 2009 (IPS) - The World Ski Cup for women last weekend was organised in Bulgaria at a ski resort whose development is partially illegal, and which is damaging a world heritage site.

A report published by the Save Pirin Coalition and endorsed by several environmental organisations in Bulgaria claims that the development of the Bansko Ski Zone has severely damaged the Pirin National Park, one of the two United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage sites located in Bulgaria. Bansko is a recently expanded and modernised ski resort in south-western Bulgaria, 160 km from capital Sofia in the Pirin mountains.

Measurements made by experts from Save Pirin, and information provided by the management of the Pirin Park show that construction has been carried out on 247 hectares of land instead of the 99 hectares for which the developers received authorisation from the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Water in 2001. Furthermore, Save Pirin claims that environmental impact assessment agreements have been breached.

The authors of the report argue that around 1,000 hectares have been modified for construction of ski slopes and associated transport and living infrastructure. Intense excavation and massive deforestation have led to the washing away of soil layers and the emergence of huge crevices. Natural habitat has been fragmented, and species like the brown bear have been driven from their usual locations.

Asked whether they had looked into environmentalists' claims of illegalities when choosing Bansko as a location for the world cup, International Ski Federation (FIS) representative Riika Rakic told IPS that "the FIS helped the Bulgarian Ski Association and the local organisers at the resort engage an environmental advisor to assess the situation and develop long-term strategies in this area."

Suspicions of past illegalities did not affect the choice of location because "FIS relies on its members to ensure that they respect and comply with all national regulations and legislations in all their activities."


The development has been controversial for some time. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) was earlier an investor in Bansko; it owned a share in the Bulgarian First Investment Bank, the institution which coordinated all investments in Bansko. But after complaints from environmentalists and from UNESCO, EBRD sold its share in the First Investment Bank in December 2006.

The Bulgarian Ski Association, the FIS partner in charge of the Bansko event, is run by Tseko Minev, who is also the main shareholder in the Bulgarian First Investment Bank.

Minev, who was in 2007 the third richest man in Bulgaria, has repeatedly expressed support for development of another ski resort in the Vitosha National Park, close to capital Sofia. Bulgaria hopes to organise the Winter Olympics in the next decade, and Vitosha would be needed to complement the facilities in Bansko.

Development of the Vitosha Ski resort has been marred by controversy from the outset. "The Vitosha Ski Company is 90 percent owned by an offshore company, Elora Management Ltd, registered on the British Virgin Islands, and one of the serious problems is that it is completely unclear who is behind the company and what is the source of the money," Katerina Rakovska from the World Wildlife Fund Danube Carpathian Programme (WWFDCP) told IPS. "As we all know, lack of transparency is the mother of corruption."

As the skiers in the Friday race were sliding down the slopes of Bansko, the centre of Sofia was filling up with people protesting the decision to fire three directors of national parks (Vitosha, Strandja and Vrachanski Balkan). On Friday morning, Bulgarian media had quoted an opposition claim that the directors would be fired soon because of their resistance to construction in the parks.

Many Bulgarians were excited over the skiing event, in the categories of downhill and Super G (super-giant) in the 2009 FIS Alpine Ski World Cup; the country has not been on the world ski cups schedule since 1984. The organisation of the cup was indication that the country is able to offer up to standard tourism and sports facilities.

Tourism has traditionally played a major role in Bulgarian development. Before 1989, the Black Sea coast was a popular destination for summer tourists from countries east of the Berlin Wall, gaining it the nickname 'the Red Riviera'. Post-socialist governments have continued to focus on tourism infrastructure development, both on the coast and in the mountains. With prices still low for Western tourists, Bulgaria was able to attract close to two million foreign visitors in just the first half of 2008 (Bulgaria's own population is seven million).

The cash inflows from the tourism industry are certainly welcome for Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union. Bulgarians themselves enjoy the new opportunities for sports and entertainment, although prices in resorts like Bansko are too high for many.

The Bulgarian Ski Federation is currently training 3,000 Bulgarian children free of charge, in an attempt to popularise the sport and breed future champions. No Bulgarian woman has yet won a World Cup event.

But Bulgarian environmentalists are now worried by the environmental cost of these plans. Far from trying to contain the damage, they fear developers in Bansko will continue to expand their reach inside the National Parks.

 
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