Nature’s Local Guardians Protesters in Tran, Bulgaria, had a reason to celebrate. Photo: http://bulgaria.zatran.org

Nature’s Local Guardians

The democratic institutions on the Balkans are not famous for their effectiveness, but several local referendums in Bulgaria and Macedonia held in the spring and summer of 2017 have given a signal that direct democracy has started to work. Contrary to the agenda enforced by the mass media and allegedly patriotic politicians, local people have demonstrated that they prefer the protection of nature and green alternatives in their economic future rather than ambitious yet potentially polluting investments.

In the two tiny neighbouring countries of Bulgaria and Macedonia, such decisions are traditionally taken not by locals, but by politicians – and usually in favour of investors. Or at least that was the case until recently.

Rumyana Boyanova, 31, lives in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, but was born in Tran, a small municipality near the border with Turkey. After years of research, a private investor backed by the Bulgarian government is planning to reopen а gold mine in her native region which was last in operation 30 years ago during Bulgaria’s communist era. Rumyana’s grandfather in fact died from silicosis – a deadly disease widespread among miners.

Rumyana Boyanova, one of the forces behind resistance to mining in Tran. Photo: Personal archive

Ten other citizens of Tran have also died from the same cause written down on their death certificates. One day in January 2017 Rumyana said to herself:

“No, I will not allow a mine again!”.

Meanwhile, 300 km away to the south-west, in Macedonia, Dimche Balevski, a farmer, came to the same conclusion.

A mine was planned near his home town as well. He is a farmer in a region where agriculture is the main source of income, and a mine will literally destroy this.

At the very same moment, 28-year-old Alex Ivanov, who lives in Bulgaria’s sixth largest city of Stara Zagora, also declared that “Enough is enough!”. His town is not facing human deaths, but hundreds of precious trees and plants are under grave risk because the local administration is planning to destroy the park where Alex relaxes every evening after a day of hard work.

These three people represent a community of hundreds of like-minded citizens, whose energy and efforts keep risky state and investor intentions at bay. And they have achieved this through the most direct form of democracy – the referendum.

Between April and August of 2017, four plebiscites, made possible due to civil efforts, took place in Macedonia. Two others took place at the same time in Bulgaria as well. These initiatives have nothing in common except one thing: “People not only try to prevent environmental risks but also insist that their towns are developed through green alternatives”, says Bulgarian political analyst Georgi Georgiev.

A story about… history

On 23 April, the small Macedonian municipality of Gevgelija, bordering Greece, held a referendum on whether Canadian company Nevsun could open two mines for gold and copper in Kojuh mountain.

The Macedonian legislature considers a referendum successful if it attracts over 50% voting turnout and over 50% support the issue in question.

In Gevgelija, there are 19,458 citizens with voting rights, 13,384 of whom went to the polling stations, or a 68.78% turnout. The vote against the mines came in at 98.84%. This was of great significance not only for the citizens of Gevgelija but for the whole of Macedonia, and not just for environmental concerns.

The referendum was of great significance not only for the citizens of Gevgelija but for the whole of Macedonia

“In the 26 years since the country was founded, this is the first successful referendum”, Macedonian activist Filip Stoyanovski wrote shortly after the vote in Globalvoices.org.

The initiative for referendum came from the civil organisation “Save Gevgelija”. This group was what provoked public interest on the topic months before and forced the local authorities to officially call the plebiscite.

The pollution of the air, waters and underground waters are just a few of the potential consequences for the opening of a new mine in Kojuh mountain, Dimche Belevski says. Photo: Personal archive

People in Gevgelija knew exactly what they voted against. “The technological process foresees the use of cyanide and sulphuric acid in open air. The air, water and underground water pollution would have grown several times. The pH level would have jumped. Daily explosions, mining…the whole agriculture, from which our region makes its living, would have been destroyed. We would simply not exist any more”, Dimche Baleski said about the potential damages.

Baleski is the president of the National Union of Bio Producers – Biosan – and owns a 24-hectare fruit farm in the region.

But the people of Gevgelija are aware not only of what they oppose but also of what they want for their region – environmentally friendly economic development.

“In the whole area of Gevgelija, plus neighbouring Bogdantsi and Valadinovo, there are around 28,000 hectares of fertile land, 3,000 of which is organic farming. Do we really have to wipe all of this away because of foreign mines which would leave non-significant profit from concessions in Macedonia?” Baleski asked.

Data from the local government of Gevgelija prove the enormous significance of agriculture for the local economy. According to official numbers published on the municipality’s website, 485 out of all 808 private companies, or more than a half, operate in the farming sector. And all of those are private firms in which the profits remain in the hands of the owners.

“If the government decides that the mines are of strategic significance, the people’s will would be considered just for the record. The referendum took place while an interim central government was in place. We have had a new one for just over a month and its opinion is not yet clear”, Baleski noted.

The battle seems far from over. According to the Macedonian law for extraction of mineral resources, the agreement of the local authorities is needed for the opening of a mine. In order to limit the uncertainties of the municipal authorities, the neighbouring municipality of Bogdantsi also organised a referendum against a new mining pit on 11 June. Over 4,100 citizens out of the 6,918 who had voting rights casted a ballot, and 98.43% of them declared themselves against the mine, making the referendum the second successful in Macedonia’s history. On 23 July another plebiscite passed the threshold as well. Only the fourth referendum, in Valandovo, was not successful as it was 377 votes short of being valid.

Gold at the cost of life

On 11 June, a referendum against a gold mine also took place in the small Bulgarian municipality of Tran. The investor is a company named “Euromax Services”, part of the “Asarel-Medet” group, a leader in the country’s copper production. In this case, 2,081 out of Tran’s 3,563 citizens used their right to vote and 94% of them voted against the mine. This made the referendum valid.

The beautiful Tran region has been saved from encroachments upon the environment for now: http://bulgaria.zatran.org

According to Bulgaria’s Direct Participation in State and Local Government Act,  a proposal that is subjected to a referendum is accepted if at least 40% of the citizens who hold voting rights from a municipality have voted and more than half of these have voted “yes”.

“We were literally going from house to house. Some people were sceptical that anything depends on them, others were encouraged, a third group was confused. But we realised that in general, we had their support. This gave us extra strength”, Nataliya Kadanova, one of the nature protection activists from Tran, explained about the mood in the town.

Gold had been extracted in the region until the 1990s, which during the totalitarian years had often lead to the pollution of the nearby Erma river as well as to tensions with Serbia since the river flows through both countries.

There is also uranium in the mountain near Tran, which makes the health and environmental risks even greater.

According to Stefan Lazarov, who led a geological research team in the area 40 years ago and was quoted by the Bulgarian newspaper Capital, uranium has never been extracted there because the deposits are too small.

But Rumyana Boyanova took the matter into her own hands and discovered other facts.

“A governmental order shows that in the 1990s the mine was used for uranium extraction for four years”, she noted.

Boyanova listed the current potential damage as the following:

“The open mines, tailing pond and enrichment plant are planned to be located right next to the people’s homes. Documented project-related risks are the felling of a least 2,000 decares of deciduous woods, irreversible damage of the soil cover, detrimental emissions. The fast moving animal species would be chased away, while the ones with slow mobility would be exterminated.”

In three separate positions the state Basin Directorate writes: “In the case of realisation of the investment intention, the underground and river waters would be permanently and irreversibly damaged”.

For Rumyana Boyanova, the gold comes at an intolerably high price.

the gold comes at an intolerably high price.

“The elderly people remember. There was radiation, too”, she notes during the period when the old mine had been operational.

After the referendum, the investor announced that it had pulled out of the project, but Tran’s citizens are still worried that the project will be extended through formal improvement of its justification.

“The means of living in our region are agriculture, livestock breeding, logging and partially tourism. The tourism sector is still underdeveloped but has great potential”, Nataliya Kadankova commented in regards to the economic alternatives to the large-scale mining project.

In fact, the real benefits to the state budget from mining activities are questionable.

“Under the existing legislation Bulgaria cannot gain profits higher than four percent of the cost of the metal contained in the ore. The widespread practice for a concession fee is less than two percent”, commented Dimitar Sabev, the Bulgarian economist and researcher of mining projects in Europe and Latin America.

“The value of the gold in Tran has been estimated at around two billion dollars – the investor will earn a fortune while the state will be given the crumbs. And the expense of salvaging the environment in 20 to 30 years will be left to the country.”

Some, however, share the opposite opinion. According to the president of the Bulgarian Chamber of Mining and Geology, Bulgaria has missed one million leva of concession fees and an investment worth over 100 million leva in the case of the Tran mine.

The park vs the neighbourhood

In Stara Zagora, a regional centre in southern Bulgaria, and the home of Alex Ivanov, the municipal authorities were planning to turn the 420-decare “Bedechka” park into a residential area.

Shortly after the change of the political regime in the 1990s, in line with restitution laws, pieces of land in the green park zone became the property of private owners. These owners started claiming that officially the territory had never been a park and for years lead a lobbyist campaign in favour of the adoption of a new territory plan that would allow them to build residential buildings in the green land.

In 2012, they achieved their goal through a decision of the municipal council, and, in 2015, the first construction works started popping up.

“But this is a park, which has always been used as such. One cannot do everything against the public interest”, Alex said.

A walk in the park as a patrol against violations. Alex Ivanov and а follower in “Bedechka”. Photo: Ivan Milanov/BlueLink Stories

The outrage of hundreds of Stara Zagora citizens became the reason for the municipality to call a referendum for the future of the park. The plebiscite, which took place on 18 June, attracted just 15.42 % of voters and could not pass the 40 % threshold needed in order to be declared valid.

Before the vote, however, the mayor of Stara Zagora, Jivko Todorov, had promised to obey the will of the voters regardless of whether the voting barrier has been reached, and 85 % per cent of the participants had voted in favour of the park. As a result, a day after the referendum, the mayor called a press conference and announced that he would take steps to keep the area green.

The alternative to the planned residential area is not just a park or a territory for taking walks, but the preservation of a whole ecosystem. In a position from 2013, experts from the “Green Balkans” organisation wrote that the park is home to hundreds of plants and animal species. The park is located near a river where the endangered otter can also be found.

“Bedechka” can bring economic benefits as well. “The southern zone, which is poorly forested, can be used for sport and recreation”, claims sociologist Parvan Simeonov, one of the defendants of the parks.

According to a territorial plan from 2005, the whole park has been designed for sports and recreation, and there is a football pitch in the zone around which other activities can be developed.

However, not everyone in Bulgaria is happy with the opportunities for direct democracy and conservation of public natural resources.

Stoyan Panchev, president of the Bulgarian Libertarian Society, believes that the referendum votes are easily influenced by passing moods. In addition, he claims, they are held on topics which require concrete expertise and often their questions are badly formulated, which makes them a favourite instrument for political manipulation.

“Going too far with referendums and getting around the constitutional limitations leads us to the worst version of democracy – the rule of the masses”, Panchev said.

Daniela Bojinova, an activist for direct democracy and researcher of referendums with many years of experience, defends the opposite standpoint.

“According to the constitution of the modern democracies, the power comes from the sovereign. This means that the people have to exercise this power. They take decisions in the name of the public interest, as referendums affect them directly. People are not some off-shore companies which are here today and gone tomorrow”, she said.

Over the recent years, politicians and the mass media around the Balkans intensified the aggressive rhetoric against “environmentalism” – the civil activism for the protection of nature.

Toma Belev, a forester and environmental activist, explained that the campaign against the environment aims to weaken the public trust in environmental policies and organisations.

“People, however, trust the environmental organisation more than the different authorities and political parties”, Belev noted.

The results of the several referendums in Bulgaria and Macedonia confirm his words: it seems that preserving the environment is far more important to the people than the promises of hypothetical jobs and profits.