Konstantin Ivanov, a representative of the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) – Bulgaria, in an interview with FOCUS Radio
Host: Mr. Ivanov, do you agree with Prime Minister Borisov who has described the amendments to the Forestry Act as lobbying, but in favor of skiers and snowboarders?
Konstantin Ivanov: They have been persuading us for a long time that the amendments to the Forestry Act are not worked out because of the ski tourism development. Now suddenly it turns out they are worked out for this very reason. The prime minister should know that if he wants to make new ski runs in Bansko, he will have to amend a few more laws, to have a dispute with the European Commission and UNESCO, because it is a national park. Practically the Forestry Act amendments make it possible to build ski runs free of charge in the state-owned woodlands and in protected territories and in natural parks – for example, Vitosha natural park – and in the national parks, which meet tougher requirements. I will tell something else which is rarely mentioned when speaking about the ski sport in Bulgaria. I am a skier and have been skiing for more than 20 years and I have close observation of the matter. In the past eight years the price of daily ski cards has risen from about BGN 14-15 a day 7-8 years ago to the current BGN 55, which means the price is four times higher and, as you know, the inflation in this period was not so high. So, unfortunately, the ski sport in Bulgaria is becoming an expensive leisure activity in the winter. In addition, the Forestry Act amendments open a lot of opportunities for cutting trees and building in 20% of the country’s territory – this is the share of the forests and protected territories, such as natural parks, in Bulgaria. The law allows an investor, who is interested, to come and tell “I want to build sports, religious or other facilities and any other adjacent buildings in the forest.” This means that someone can go and say they want to make a curling track from Sofia to the coastal city of Burgas which is 5 meters wide and 400 km long. And if they get a permit the track can cross farming land, not only state-owned forests. They will get a right to build any facilities – from a stadium to hotels and shopping malls – in this area free of charge. So the Forestry Act amendments give many people an opportunity to behave disgracefully in Bulgarian forests. We are sure the amendments aim at building a new and bigger ski zone in Vitosha natural park. As you know most big Bulgarian ski resorts are managed by offshore companies. We do not know who is behind them. We suppose who they might be. That’s why we asked the prime minister to say who stays behind the offshore companies that own Vitosha Ski, Yulen in the ski zone in Bansko and so on. So that it does not turn out in the end that the Forestry Act amendments are made because of some MPs or ministers. However, what is most worrying in the amendments is that they actually ensure illicit state assistance. We will refer the issue to the European Commission immediately after preparing the signal. Since it is impossible for the issue to escape the eye of the European legislation on competition. We have already prepared a signal that we will send to President Rosen Plevneliev, asking him to veto the Forestry Act amendments. What is happening right now is actually the plundering of the remaining public resources, which, it seems, a group of people want.
Host: Do you think that apart from all these measures you have enumerated, the protests will bring changes to the legislation or you rely on the signal to Brussels to activate the European institutions and result in a revision of the legislative amendments?
Konstantin Ivanov: Frankly speaking, I do not know, because the civil protests are civil. I do not know where these things will end up. The protests signal piled-up public discontent, which was vented when the Forestry Act amendments were put to the vote. What is more, the draft bill was tabled at the end of last year, on the few working days in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, because there was a drama made by the owner of the ski facility in Vitosha mountain range; the privatized ski facility in Vitosha with lifts and tow-lifts. By the way, most of them were privatized when the current prime minister was Sofia mayor. Back then he said he would not launch the lifts in Vitosha, because the Forestry Act was a hurdle. Then the state said: “This is racketeering; shame on you” and suddenly a few weeks later the government adopted these amendments. I would like to tell the prime minister that indeed Austria and Italy have more ski runs than Bulgaria, but we should not forget the Alps are a higher and bigger mountain range than those in Bulgaria. If you visit one of these countries, you will see that nobody dares to build new ski facilities and resorts in a national or natural park similar to Rila, Pirin or Vitosha in Bulgaria. This is something people fail to notice. The other thing is that all these ski resorts in Bulgaria turned into concrete ghettoes in the recent years; there are unsold or incomplete apartments in them. There are half-full hotels. We believe it to be misleading that the local people will benefit from strong ski tourism. On the contrary, there will be long-term and unfavorable effects on them. Years ago the locals gave rooms for rent to skiers and now they face the fierce competition of many cheap offers from four- or five-star hotels. So the development of the Bulgarian tourism should be discussed seriously. I hope the President will stop the amendments to the Forestry Act, because the situation should not develop in this way in Bulgaria – to change laws at the detriment of the society, but in favor of some businessmen, who get a piece of forest free of charge to build ski facilities on its territory and then they get funds from the state to organize world championships and so on and in the end skiers pay ski cards that are four times more expensive now than seven years ago.