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Bulgaria's Irakli safe for a year

Date: 27.08.2006

A victory, at least for one year, was scored by the grassroots movement Da Spasim Irakli (Let’s Save Irakli). The Environment and Water Affairs Minister Djevdet Chakurov signed an order temporarily banning various activities, including construction in the Irakli region.

The order is valid for one year and bans all building except for clearing stations for waste and drinking water processing, as well as roads and landslides consolidation. The ban is in force for about 9 633 acres in the beach surroundings, which are possible protected zones under the European Union’s Natura 2000 project. In this area, 11 significant sectors with rare plant species have been identified.

The decision on the temporary ban was approved on August 3 at a Cabinet meeting and was supported by all the ministers. After the session, Chakurov said that the one-year ban was suggested in order for the status of the region’s land to be clarified. An interdepartmental group is to be formed including representatives of ministries, local authorities and the Association of Municipalities in Bulgaria. They are to examine more than 800 investment intentions concerning the Irakli area.

“My purpose is to achieve co-ordination among the institutions and interaction among all administrations,” Chakurov said.

Irakli is a natural beach area located in the region of the Black Sea city of Bourgas and is home to a variety of plant and animal species. The region is to be included in Natura 2000, the EU network of sites assigned for protection of species and habitats in certain areas in Bulgaria.

The issue about  construction at Irakli started more than six months ago, when it became clear that the Nessebar municipality council, under whose administration falls Irakli, planned to give the green light for the construction of a luxury holiday complex taking up more than 42 hectares at Irakli.

In January, Swiss property investment company Bulgarian Property Invest and its subsidiary Swiss Properties said that they had purchased several plots in Irakli for the construction of a holiday village. The village was to include 16 single-family homes, a three-storey apartment building and a small cafeteria. Construction was scheduled to start in the spring of 2006 and finish within a year.

The intention of Nessebar municipality to approve the building at Irakli, however, met strong public resistance. The non-governmental organisation Da Spasim Irakli was quickly formed. It gained popularity fast, with many Bulgarian actors, singers and other public figures joining in to express their disgust and to protest against construction at Irakli.

By June 26, more than 6000 people had signed a petition for the protection of the Irakli area. Thousands joined Da Spasim Irakli and signed the petition for the protection of Irakli and eight wild coastal areas. People from Stara Zagora, Plovdiv, Varna, Bourgas, Pleven and other Bulgarian cities came to Sofia especially to sign the petition, showing that Bulgarians are not indifferent to their country’s nature and not all in Bulgaria is aimed at satisfying the tourism industry.

A number of Bulgarian public figures and celebrities also signed the petition. Artists composed a song dedicated to the protection of the wild coastal areas.

The main effort of all the protestors against the destruction Irakli’s natural habitat was aimed at convincing authorities, first, to ban the construction and, then, to change the legal status of Irakli: legally, construction there is not against the law.

After the changes in 1989 when democracy was introduced in Bulgaria, a long, and still ongoing, process was started to return the land to its original owners. (Much of the country’s land was nationalised under communism.) This resulted in many people receiving back plots of land previously owned by their parents or grandparents.

In the case of Irakli, people who had received this land had decided to sell it to investors such as Bulgaria Property Invest, which is not against the law since the area is not protected.

This is where the interest of land owners and ecologists came into conflict. Terrain and houses in vacation complexes in Irakli were offered for sale on the websites of various property companies. Ads attractively presented buildings close to the shore.

Investors, obviously highly interested in building at the site, used the old trick of buying agricultural land at lower prices and then changing its status into land suitable for construction. Such action has to be approved by the local municipality, which, in this case, is Nessebar municipality.

Probably with public reaction in mind, Nessebar mayor Nikolai Trifonov said on June 22 that the only way that Irakli could remain an area without construction sites would be if the Cabinet declared it a protected area. The June session of Nessebar municipality drew activists from 10 ecological organisations to the front of the municipality building.

During the session, both the environmental protection supporters and the locals who own land there gathered in front of the building in Nessebar to defend their respective positions. Inhabitants have also presented declaration that requests a change in the land status. They also appealed that the councillors not permit a moratorium on construction in Irakli.

Trifonov has proposed a change in the territorial structural plan of Irakli that would limit construction until infrastructure is created. Councillors, however, turned down the idea, saying that building conditions are of normative organisation and they are not allowed to change them.

With Chakurov’s decision to ban the construction in Irakli for a year, it seems that the Government has decided to act in this case, even though it was not obliged to do so.

The ultimate solution for the Irakli issue, however, and the solution to all the other similar areas in Bulgaria is the adoption of the new Black Sea Development Act that is still in Parliament.

This act is expected to make a strict distinction among the zones suitable for construction on the Black Sea coast. Until then, the only way such investment projects could be stopped appears to be public action against it.

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