New expressway threatens Polish park

Posted: 23 May 2003

Author: Andreas Beckmann

An EU-supported expressway threatens to maul Poland's largest national park, throwing up questions about the future shape of an enlarged Europe. Andreas Beckmann reports.

In a river turned golden by the setting sun, a beaver surfaces briefly. On the river bank, a mother elk and her two young look up, startled, and then return to browsing. Further down the valley, a pack of wolves gets ready for the evening's hunt. Thousands of birds, from white storks in huge nests atop farmhouse chimneys, to sandpipers nesting in the sedge meadows, settle down for the night, their calls gradually quieting. But silence does not follow: thousands more frogs are warming up for their deafening night concert.

Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) swimmingin the Biebrza Marshes, Poland.© WWF-Canon/Fred F. HazelhoffThis scene has played out on countless summer nights in Poland's Biebrza and Narew valleys, located in the north-east of the Podlasie region near Poland's border with Belarus and Lithuania. But a stream of trucks and cars may soon be thundering through this natural paradise. A four-lane expressway built with EU funds is planned to cut right across the region, directly through Biebrza National Park and three other nature areas of international conservation importance, Narew valley and the Augustowska and Knyszynska forests.

Controversial route

Few doubt the need for an expressway stretching from Warsaw up through the Baltic countries to Finland. Ever since the borders opened following the crumbling of the Warsaw Pact, a growing stream of traffic has forced its way through the country roads of north-eastern Poland, causing communities to suffer.

But environmentalists are aghast at the planned route. The expressway might pass west of Biebrza National Park and Narew valley as well as Knyszynska Forest Landscape Park and Augustowska forest. But regional politicians lobbied heavily to shift the route east in order to pass through the regional capital, Bialystok. This new route is not only longer, but cuts straight through Poland's greatest natural areas, often referred to as the "green lungs of Poland".

The planned route for the Via Baltica expressway via Bialystok and protected areas (red) and the alternative route via Lomza (blue), which bypasses the protected areas.© Polish Society for the Protection of Birds (OTOP)

In choosing the route via Bialystok, the Polish government is running roughshod over both Polish and EU legislation, disregarding requirements to both conduct environmental impact assessments for the route and observe restrictions for nature conservation and environmental protection.

But instead of giving a clear signal that this is unacceptable, the EU is giving contradictory advice. On the one hand, Poland is being told that it must respect EU nature and environmental legislation, which would clearly forbid the project. The country is also under pressure to begin implementing the EU's Natura 2000 network of specially protected areas, which would include four bird sites of international significance in the Podlasie region.

But at the same time, there is strong pressure for Poland to complete this key section of the Via Baltica. The expressway is a priority for realising the vision of a seamless transportation network stretching across Europe from Portugal to Finland via Poland, the so-called Trans-European Network for Transportation. Plans for this network are being pushed forward with little regard for environmental concerns or legislation. Indeed, the Via Baltica and other controversial projects were formally included in the annexes of the Accession Treaty signed by EU and accession countries last month in Athens.

More to come

The Bialystok route of the Via Baltica is just one of a number of controversial transportation projects planned in accession countries. In Bulgaria, the government is intent on building a motorway through the Kresna Gorge, an area of spectacular nature value, and again despite less destructive alternatives. Czech politicians are the latest to revive dreams of a set of canals connecting the Danube to the Oder and the Elbe rivers, a project that would affect several Natura 2000 sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

More such projects are bound to follow. The amount of EU support available for infrastructure development is set to quadruple next year, when the first ten accession countries formally join the EU. Some 22 billion Euro in Structural and Cohesion Funds will become available for development projects in accession countries over the next three years, and will be swelled by loans from the European Investment Bank.

EU legislation does provide safeguards to ensure that investment does not cause undue environmental damage. But there will be immense pressure to gloss over environmental and social concerns, and to implement large projects as quickly as possible. Allocation of EU Structural Funds, for example, is based on past use of money. In areas of low income and high unemployment, it will be difficult to argue for proper decision making processes and respect for social and environmental concerns when this could appear to hamper future EU support.

Which road to development?

The decision on which route the Via Baltica expressway should take is essentially political, based on different visions for development of Podlasie, one of Poland's poorest regions. Supporters of the Bialystok route promise that the road will bring development. Opponents say the route will destroy the region's greatest asset, taking away the main reason tourists are attracted to Poland's wild north east. They paint an alternative vision for socioeconomic development that both protects and exploits Podlasie's unique natural heritage.

This vision is no utopian dream - it is already turning into reality. For more than a decade, WWF has been working with conservation authorities, farmers, and communities in the Biebrza valley to build the local economy while preserving the area's exceptional nature. These efforts have produced a network of trained guides and tourism services as well as local crafts and products. Farmers have also been working with WWF Poland and conservation authorities to produce biomass for energy and to prepare for EU-supported agri-environmental programmes.

The meandering Biebrza River.© Tomasz KlosowskiSuch grassroots efforts, relying on local qualities and resources, are perhaps the best hope for achieving the EU's vision of sustainable development, anchored in article 2 of the EU's "constitution", the Treaty of Amsterdam.

But the contradictions evident in the EU's approach towards the Via Baltica reveal broader tensions in the vision for the future shape of the EU.

Natural heritage

As the EU enlarges, will it simply be business as usual, with current approaches simply extended from West to East? The record in the existing member states is not good, with steep declines in virtually all indicators of natural wealth and health.

The stakes for accession countries are high. These new members will bring a rich dowry in natural wealth, including Europe's last great wilderness areas and rich cultural landscapes. At the threshold of EU enlargement, one would hope that the accession countries will benefit from the lessons learnt from past experience.

There are specific milestones that can test whether this experience will be heeded. In advance of the next EU funding period of 2007-13, there is the opportunity to finally introduce fundamental reforms to current approaches to agriculture and regional development support. Preparations are also already underway for the mid-term evaluation of the Trans-European Networks later next year.

As with many of the accession countries' natural wealth, whether the Biebrza marshes will be treasured or trashed depends as much on decisions made in "Western" Europe as it does on those made in the accession countries themselves.

Andreas Beckmann is EU Accession Co-ordinator at WWF International, based in Vienna, Austria.

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