In the 1990s, it was considered essential to build a motorway to connect Warsaw with the Baltic countries. Without undertaking Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA), the Polish Government decided to put the route via Bialystok – right through the Biebrza marshes and primeval Augustow forest. As those places were potential Natura 2000 sites, polish NGOs – including WWF, BirdLife and Greenpeace – proposed a feasible alternative for the motorway, which the government ignored. Even before the SEA was completed, road-building agencies were already given the go-ahead to begin construction.
Following Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, the Environmental Impact Assessments and Appropriate Assessments were finally completed for the project, but found to be insufficient by the NGOs. The NGOs referred the case to the European Commission, and two years later the Commission decided the NGO complaints were justified and urged Poland to fulfil EU legal requirements and halt the projects. The Government ignored repeated warnings – pushing environmentalists and the general public to respond with demonstrations. The case closed in 2007 when the Commission brought Poland before the European Court of Justice for breaching EU law. Construction of the motorway in the environmentally disputed area was finally halted.
The case of Via Baltica in Poland clearly illustrates how important the involvement of NGOs can be in Natura 2000. NGOs have a key role in collecting scientific information and providing it to relevant institutions at national level (such as the State Institute for Nature Protection) and EU level (European Commission and European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity). Since NGOs have the right to evaluate and comment on national lists of proposed sites, it would be good for them to prepare – at the same time as national institutions – their own list of Natura 2000 sites. This ‘shadow list’ would be a valuable and concrete tool in highlighting gaps and missing sites in government proposals.
When a country becomes an EU Member State, its NGOs have the right and obligation to participate in Biogeographic Seminars. These seminars are held for each biogeographical region to discuss the scientific assessments of the sites proposed by Member States. Seminars are chaired by the Environment Directorate General of the European Commission. After the discussion, the European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity provides a scientific evaluation of the proposals. Reference lists are reviewed – and this is when the NGOs’ ‘shadow lists’ can play a key role. It is therefore highly important for NGOs to be present in the process of designation of Natura 2000 sites. Montenegro and Serbia are fortunate to have their own NGO networks, making NGO participation in the whole process of designation of Natura 2000 sites much simpler.
The role of NGOs is not only to keep a watch on governments or to highlight insufficiencies of proposals. NGOs can also support governments in the preparation of sites and, later, in the implementation of Natura 2000. For instance, in the countries that became EU Member States in 2004, NGOs helped authorities to collect and analyse the data – and thanks to this, the process of implementation was faster and simpler. NGOs’ familiarity with the field and rich archives of data can help institutions or governments in preparing Natura 2000 proposals.
Communications constitute an extremely important activity in the Natura 2000 process, and that concerns NGOs as well. Informing the public is essential. NGOs can play a leading role with public awareness campaigns and keeping key stakeholders in the loop. Well organized lobbying to ensure policies respect EU standards is also required – so it is fundamental that NGO representatives know and understand EU rules and requirements for new and candidate Member States.
A further role for NGOs is to help in fundraising and other support for implementation of Natura 2000. EU foundation programmes are a great way to enable sustainable development and nature conservation. NGOs can help authorities in the preparation of these foundation programme applications by actively participating in the drafting process.
Petra Boic Petrac
For more information on European Commission infringement procedures as well as other potential tools available to NGOs, read:
For more information on the role of NGOs in the Natura 2000 process, visit: http://mis.org.rs/index.php/sr/natura-2000