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BUSINESS FOCUS - EUROPEAN UNION - BRUSSELS CAN EXPECT TWO DIFFERENT PROPOSALS FOR PROTECTED AREAS OF EUROPEAN SIGNIFICANCE IN SLOVAKIA

Natura 2000 divides Slovakia

PRESERVED nature might be one of the biggest assets Slovakia has brought into the European Union. However, its protection, non-governmental environmental organisations claim, is more a paper formality than it is an actual practice.
During the general euphoria that accompanied the celebration of the country's entry to the EU, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) raised the contentious issue.

PRESERVED nature might be one of the biggest assets Slovakia has brought into the European Union. However, its protection, non-governmental environmental organisations claim, is more a paper formality than it is an actual practice.

During the general euphoria that accompanied the celebration of the country's entry to the EU, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) raised the contentious issue.

Unsatisfied with the government's list of protected areas of European significance, Natura 2000, which each of the entering countries had to submit by the day of the enlargement, the Slovak NGOs plan to send another, so-called "shadow list" of Natura 2000 to Brussels. In it, they want to increase the definite number of protected areas approved by the government. The European Commission will give its final word on it in three years.

"The current governmental proposal of Natura 2000 is insufficient and the EU would ask for it to be reworked, or face the threat of high fines," said Ján Šeffer, from the Institute of Applied Ecology: Daphne, one of the NGOs grouped under the Natura 2000 platform.

Other new EU members face similar problems with their protected areas. The Czech Republic is at the top of the list, as it has not yet managed to approve the governmental version of Natura 2000.

The Slovak government has been criticised by the NGOs for approving only 11.72 percent of the originally proposed 17 percent of the protected areas on Slovakia's territory. The NGOs thus worked out the shadow list, which enlarges the proposal by an extra 6 percent.

According to the environment minister, László Miklós, the ministry agreed on the smaller region when negotiating with the areas' owners. "The initiators of the shadow list did not have to negotiate with the users, or owners, or anybody else. They simply took a map and submitted it," Miklós told Slovak Television.

"The average area of the [protected] regions of European significance in the EU states is around 14 percent and, moreover, it is generally known that Slovakia has exceptional biodiversity," the NGO group claims in a letter sent to the ministers of the environment, economy, defence, and agriculture, as well as the prime minister, Mikuláš Dzurinda, on April 28.

The press department of the Environment Ministry said that its minister would officially respond to the letter sometime next week.

In the letter, they listed several radical defects of the government's final version of Natura 2000 and argued that not removing them might harm protected natural reservations in the future.

They criticise the haste in which the whole process was carried out, at the expense of sufficiently informing the public, which consequently led to the adoption of an inadequate approach to the issue. They point to the generally reduced levels of protection for these areas from the original proposal, as well as their reduction in numbers.

"There is either nothing going on [in the field], or the level of protection has been lowered," said Ľubica Trubíniová, the project manager with the Bratislava Regional Environmental Association.

"[The government] decreased the level of protection for most of these areas, which practically means that they are not protected against the most serious negative interventions, such as logging," added her colleague, Jaromír Šíbl.

The NGO's platform also asks for a cancellation of the moratorium on announcing new protected areas and instead calls for a new one to prevent devastating interventions on the areas included in Natura 2000.

"If the protected areas were announced, farmers could then draw the appropriate funds from the EU," said Tatiana Šustiaková from the Association for Bird Protection in Slovakia.

Insufficient legislative environmental protection in the new EU countries was recently criticised by EU commissioner Margo Wallström. The commissioner drew attention to the fact that new members will face the same fines as old members, which might reach up to several million Slovak crowns.

"During a few days, the platform to initiate the [shadow list] has gained the support of 37 NGOs from around the country that are formed not only by many activists-volunteers, but also by experts and employees from the environmental ministry. This proves, then, that environmental protection is an important and living issue in Slovakia," said Trubíniová.

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