Thousands of Bulgarians have braved subzero temperatures in some 20 cities across the country to protest against a government decision to amend the management plan of a major national park.
The rallies on Thursday were the latest in a number of demonstrations held this month opposing the expansion of the Bansko skiing resort in Pirin National Park amid fears it could lead to over-construction in a site that has been in UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1983.
The government insists that construction will be limited to sports infrastructure such as ski lifts and runs, covering just two percent of the park.
Environmentalists, however, argue that the new management plan, which was approved in late December, could open to development almost half of the national park.
“The protest is against [the possibility of] construction in 48 percent of the area of Pirin national park,” Jivko Djamiarov, a protester in the capital, Sofia, told Al Jazeera.
With Bulgaria holding the presidency of the European Union since January 1, protesters hope that their calls will gain the attention of the bloc’s authorities – putting the Bulgarian government under further pressure.
“The protests [have been noticed] by the European Commission and the issue is getting to this level. Questions will be asked,” said Djamiarov, a 35-year-old owner of a small business in Sofia.
snow bell flowers so that a road roller would not run over them.”]
On January 17, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was grilled on the issue of Pirin by Ska Keller, co-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, while giving a speech outlining the priorities of the Bulgarian president.
In response, Borisov described himself as a “green person”.
“I have stopped infrastructure projects for years so stork babies can hatch. I’ve made ministers personally take away [protected] snow bell flowers so that a road roller would not run over them,” he said.
“It is about a second [ski] lift, one single lift for the [ski] resort Bansko, which is within the European top 10,” he clarified.
The Bulgarian government and local businesses have said that they seek the construction of a second ski lift in Bansko in order to alleviate the long queues in front of the existing facility.
Environmental groups and protesters, however, say that construction will not be limited to a single ski lift, accusing the government that the amendments in the management plan could be used as a backdoor for additional construction in the park.
According to Katerina Rakovska, from the Bulgarian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the amendment introduces an almost five-fold increase of the area in which ski slopes and lifts are allowed to be constructed – from 0.6 percent to 2.8 percent of the territory of the national park.
It also allows the construction of water catchments in other areas of the park without them being restricted to drinking water only. This, in her opinion, could lead eventually to expansion of construction in 48 percent of the park territory.
“There can be additional logging and construction,” said Rakovska, arguing that local businesses were pushing for the amendments in the plan in order to increase the prices of real estate.
“Within the area of Bansko’s ski zone, there are century-old forests. For new ski infrastructure to be built, forests will have to be removed,” added Rakovska.
A coalition of environmental organisations, including WWF, is planning to challenge the government decision in court. The groups will also send a complaint to the Directorate-General for Environment at the European Commission and inform UNESCO.
The Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Waters did not respond to a request for comment as of publication time of this article.
After the amendments were introduced by the government, Environment Minister Neno Dimov denied that there will be construction on 48 percent of the area of the national park.
“There will be no construction of hotels and restaurants in Pirin national park. The amendments made by the government on December 28 give the right for construction of sports infrastructure only,” he said during a press conference in Bansko on December 30.
Business associations in Bulgaria have pushed back against the demands of the protesters. A statement by the Association of Bulgarian Employers accused the environmental activists of “racketeering”.
“They are ready to stop – and are actually doing so – investments worth hundreds of millions which could boost economic growth significantly and help Bulgaria get out of the category ‘poorest country in Europe’,” the statement read.
There have been also accusations by members of business circles and government officials that environmental activists are being paid for the protests. During an interview for Bulgarian television channel bTV, Deputy Prime Minister Valery Simeonov suggested that the protests had been funded from abroad.
“Finances of other countries are involved which see Bansko as competition,” he said, adding that these countries are Austria, France and Switzerland.
“While we are arguing, not a metre of a lift or a slope has been built exactly because of the sabotage of these people who are being paid,” he said.
Djamiarov rejected Simeonov’s claims that the protesters were receiving money.
“How can someone pay 10,000 protesters? This is the right-wing populism of a person who is so pitiful that I don’t even want to comment on him,” he said.
Djamiarov said the protests were attended by people across the social and political spectrum, including some who ski and snowboard.
Describing himself as someone who is not a follower of a political party and does not vote in elections, Djamiarov argued that the ongoing protests were about more than just environment.
“I’m fed up with Bulgaria being a corruption hole, of being ranked at the bottom in terms of freedom of expression [in Europe] and of having its media controlled by a few people,” he said.
Apart from shouting slogans such as “Save Pirin!”, the protesters on Thursday chanted “Mafia!” as they marched across central Sofia.
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova