The municipality of Košice, Slovakia's second largest city, has decided to sell 19,280 hectares of forest through a two-stage international tender, sparking a major debate over the future of the sold land.
The forest area, estimated by environmental groups to be one of the largest owned by a municipality in central Europe, was sold for 3.5 billion crowns, covering a city debt of more than 2 billion crowns.
The decision to sell the land was scorned by environmentalists, who said that the forest was in danger of landing in the hands of a logging company. Ecology groups had begun to collect signatures for a referendum against selling the forest area but did not succeed in gaining the needed 20% support of the city population.
"Our ancestors owned these forests for five centuries, and now we are going to sell them without a moment's hesitation?" asked Michal Kravčík, an activist from the Košice-based environmental NGO Ľudia a voda (People and Water). Kravčík estimated the market value of the forest area, if managed effectively, at a far higher value.
"A property worth 500 billion crowns is to be sold for a couple of billion. People with money also control the laws, and for such people [forest buyers] changing the forest management plan is not a problem. We should search for alternative ways of using the forest for ourselves, and not sell it to foreigners."
Marián Krajňák, Košice City Council spokesman, said that the use of the individual forest areas the city intends to sell is specified in forest management legislation. Forests classified as natural reserves are the only areas under Slovak law where logging is categorically prohibited. However, the forest sold by Košice does not include any such reservations, leaving the sold land open to possible logging.
When asked by The Slovak Spectator if any of the potential bidders for the land was a logging company, Krajňák declined to comment.
Kravčík, however, did not hide his scepticism about the Košice forest's future management after the sale. "I doubt there is anybody in Slovakia who can afford to buy something for a billion crowns. And if somebody like that does exist, he is certainly playing the role of a puppet, and not a messiah doing it for the love of Košice," he said.Košice environmentalists together with Rudolf Bauer, who served as Košice mayor from 1990 to 1994 and is now the main activist behind the forest petition, consider President Rudolf Schuster responsible for the city's debt legacy and the subsequent sale of the forest area. Schuster is blamed for spending an excessive amount of public money as Košice mayor [1994-1998] as part of an image campaign in the 1999 presidential race.