Death sentence threatens Poland's Rospuda Valley

Posted: 31 March 2007

Author: Agnieszka Gorczynska

The Polish government has confirmed that it will permit a controversial section of the Via Baltica expressway, planned to connect Helsinki with Warsaw, to plough through the country's treasured Rospuda Valley in north-east Poland, threatening an important ecosystem and mammal migration area.

Protests against the decision of the Minister of Environment to allow the Augustów Town bypass to pass through the Rospuda Valley have been organised throughout Poland. The Polish public has recently joined the campaign, with floods of emails from individuals to Poland's Prime Minister expressing disagreement with the planned Rospuda Valley route. Thousands of people have started wearing green ribbons in solidarity with the campaign. Activists from Greenpeace have settled a camp at the site, ready to defend the precious area.

Poland's Rospuda Valley
Poland's Rospuda Valley
Poland's Rospuda Valley, threatened by Via Baltica expressway.
Some European Union countries want to route the highway through Poland, offering to finance its construction in exchange for a go-ahead. But the European Commission has sent two letters to the Polish government opposing the proposed route of the Via Baltica on the grounds that it would severely damage important, and protected, natural sites.

The second warning letter - a so-called "Reasoned Opinion" - is the last chance Poland has to stop works on the controversial Augustow Bypass through the pristine Rospuda wetlands before the European Commission takes Poland to the European Court of Justice, which could see the Court insist that they stop construction and ultimately impose a severe fine.

Due to the current state of urgency - contractors are already on the site of the proposed Augustow Bypass - the European Commission has taken the unusual step of giving Poland just seven days to respond.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "I urge the Polish Government to once more consider ways of building these bypasses without causing such serious environmental damage. I believe that Poland has everything to gain by building new infrastructure without sacrificing its most precious natural heritage."

Two options

This move has been welcomed by environmental NGOs BirdLife International, CEE Bankwatch Network, and the Polish organisations OTOP (the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds), WWF Poland and Polish Green Network - all of whom have vigorously challenged the large-scale development and stressed the existence of alternatives.

Two options for its route have been put forward. The Bialystok option is being promoted by the local authorities. The expressway would cross the Augustów Forest, the Rospuda River Valley, the Biebrza National Park and probably the Knyszyn Forest Landscape Park. It would also run through the Biala Forest (the Bug River Valley Landscape Park), along the edge of the Wigry National Park and the Narew National Park, and would cross migration routes of large mammals.

Rospuda Valley alternative route
Rospuda Valley alternative route
Rospuda Valley alternative route
These areas have been proposed for inclusion in the Natura 2000 European network of protected areas, the protection extending beyond the boundaries of the current National Parks and Landscape Parks. The sites are also recognized by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Areas. Moreover, the Valley of Biebrza River is included in the list of wetlands of the Ramsar Convention.

Lynxes and wolves

The second - Lomza - option, which is endorsed by ecologists, would avoid most of the negative effects of the Bialystok option. That option would make it possible to save Rospuda River Valley. And it is much shorter.

The original scheme threatens many virtually pristine ecosystems. Via Baltica (especially the course of it that is promoted by local authorities) will lead to fragmentation of habitats of large mammals, such as elk, lynxes and wolves. It will cross their migration routes, resulting in inbreeding and increased road mortality. The scheme will also change the hydrological balance of the area, renowned for its unique peat lands and other water-dependent ecosystems with specific fauna and flora, like rare orchids. The problem is that local communities are manipulated as far as all new road investments in that area are concerned. They face very serious problems with ever-increasing transportation (especially big trucks) near their houses, and believe that the new roads will lessen the intensity of this traffic. They have been told that such investments are inevitable for increasing people's income and will reduce the unemployment rate, which severely affects that part of Poland.

In reality, the economic benefits for local communities connected with the whole road construction scheme in Northeast Poland are at best doubtful. Moreover, it will lessen the potential of that region, since this part of Poland has a unique possibility to base its development on ecotourism, organic farming and traditional food production. Its unspoilt environment is the region's most precious asset, not the fact that is located on the course of planned road, as local authorities seem to believe.

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