Svydovets, Ukraine – Oleg Berdishin dives into the small glacial lake nested between mountains. The water is cold, 15 degrees Celsius.
The 31-year-old mechanic from Lviv, in western Ukraine, has been coming here throughout the summer, camping by himself next to the lake and riding his motorcycle through the isolated Svydovets massif, in the Ukrainian part of the Carpathian mountains.
“There is simply no place like this one in Ukraine,” he said. “It’s unique.”
In this untouched area of the Carpathian mountains in Ukraine, 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of the Romanian border, plans to build the country’s largest ski resort have fuelled tensions between ecologist groups and the local administration.
Environmental activists say the project risks destroying a unique ecosystem as they fear that the country’s new leaders will favour economic development over environmental preservation.
Current plans for the Svydovets ski resort – which were first announced in 2017 – include the construction of around 60 hotels and 400 cottages to host up to 22,000 tourists a day, over 230km (140 miles) of ski slopes.
While the patch of land covered by the future resort is almost entirely empty of infrastructure, three villages in the Tyachiv and Rakhiv districts could be affected.
Construction has not yet started; activists are waiting for the publication of a legally-required environmental assessment.
Regional governor Igor Bondarenko told Al Jazeera the Svydovets ski resort project was “on principle a great project” that could “attract investment” and “bring more opportunities for local people, better roads, more kindergartens”.
Bondarenko was appointed in June by Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president, who called in September for renewed investment in the Transcarpathian region in order to turn it into an “East European Alps”.
In Lopukhiv, a village bordering the Svydovets massif, opposition grew as Valerii Pavlyuk and two other members of the local council filed a legal case against the local administration in October 2017, arguing that hearings about the projects had not been held according to the law.
“People who keep their stolen money offshore now want to invest it here, but that’s not what we want,” said Pavlyuk, who owns a local lumber mill. “We want to keep these mountains the way they are now for our children and grandchildren.”
Pavlyuk received support from Oreste Del Sol, a Frenchman who settled in the Ukrainian Carpathians in 1992 and helped launch the “Free Svydovets” movement to gather support.
The Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss environmental NGO, joined in 2018.
They fear that cutting several hundred hectares of forests will endanger species unique to the region, including “94 currently included in the Ukrainian red book of endangered species”, according to Oreste Del Sol, and accuse the project of violating several international agreements on the protection of the forest – already plagued by widespread illegal logging.
The Eurasian lynx, Eurasian eagle-owl, Carpathian newt and about 40 plants such as the rose root, saxifrage and fir clubmoss are among the endangered species.
Lukas Straumann, executive director of the Bruno Manser Fund, believes that water is the crucial issue, as the project could put in jeopardy an already dwindling water supply in the region, while waste from the resort could pollute the local Chorna Tysa river.
In the context of climate change, activists have also questioned the long-term viability of a ski resort where the highest mountain barely reaches 1,800 metres.
The opacity surrounding the identity of the project’s backers contributed to initial protests, with Pavlyuk and other activists convinced that plans to build the ski resort are supported by Igor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s richest men and a controversial oligarch who reportedly supported Zelensky’s campaign.
Official documents point to Kolomoisky as one of the beneficiaries of Skorzonera, a company involved in the construction of the Bukovel ski resort, currently the biggest of its kind in Ukraine.
Yaroslavna Ivanova, a lawyer representing the local administration in court cases linked to the plans, said in written answers to Al Jazeera the project only existed “on paper” and there were no investors yet.
But regional governor Igor Bondarenko told Al Jazeera he had met with the company involved in the project, which he named as “Bukovel”.
Despite questions over the resort’s potential environmental impact, many locals still support it given the prospect of an economic boost to the region.
“It will be good for the village I think,” said Andriy, a teacher in Chorna Tysa, one of the villages on the edge of the project. “People will stop leaving. There’s nothing to do here, so people leave.”
A region close to the Polish, Slovakian, Hungarian and Romanian borders, Transcarpathia has been affected by a flight of Ukrainian workers looking for better wages abroad.
“Such a project brings opportunities for local businesses,” said Yulia Zabaldina, an associate professor of tourism at Kyiv’s National University on Physical Education and Sport. “It also brings roads, and you know that’s always the number one problem in Ukraine.”
“For me the problem isn’t necessarily the ecology, because that can be discussed, it’s the lack of transparency in the project,” she added.
President Zelensky has pushed for economic investment across the country – including in the Transcarpathian region, with Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk promising to achieve a 7 percent GDP growth after 2020, more than double the current figures.
At the same time, the new government has decided to merge the Ministry of Ecology into the Energy Ministry, a decision that has concerned activists, who took the move as a potential signal that economic issues would take priority over environmental ones.
The Svydovets project, they argue, is a major test for the new authorities.
“The government needs to make a strategic choice” said Straumann of the Bruno Manser Fund. “Does it want sustainable growth or a megalomaniac development where one or two people control everything?”