There have been several articles in the media about how the pandemic with its lockdowns and related measures have helped nature — at least in some places if not globally. The air quality has improved because of lower traffic and reduced production in some factories. Some animals have prospered as a result of people not being around all the time. It was said that nature just “needed a break.”
But meanwhile, some have decided to use this break in another way: To quietly change the law in favor of investors or suddenly approve controversial projects, to construct hydropower plants without the necessary permits and to persecute activists — as shown in the recent report by the Czech NGO Amika, Environmental destruction in times of coronavirus.
Some of the violations were related to individual cases, but others show attempts to enforce systemic deterioration.
This is why, at all times, we should be wide awake and protect our right to access environmental information, as established by the Aarhus Convention (signed by 47 countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Greece too).
Now more than ever, we should be helping each other, focusing on the pandemic and fighting together for a better and safer future. We could use the crisis beneficially — to let the natural world heal.
But instead, some governments, authorities, private companies and investors were (and unfortunately probably still are) harming it. Because people’s focus logically shifted to the new coronavirus and dealing with all of the serious problems that were coming along.
Was this happening only because of the pandemic?
Of course the weakened public monitoring and participation in decision making or protests were not the cause of the following cases, but unfortunately it made them easier to happen.
Balkan nature destroyed
A typical violation against the environment in the era of COVID-19 could be the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. While attention was weakened in the spring of 2020, investors began the construction of other hydropower plants on the Bjelava and Mala Bjelava rivers, without an official permit.
That showed ignorance of the law, as well as depriving the public of an opportunity to raise their concerns, questions and comments. All of that despite the fact that there are already over 120 dams and small hydropower plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina and several hundred more are proposed, damaging some of the last wild natural rivers in Europe.
Speaking of ignoring important processes, in Croatia, the extraction of sediment from the Drava river at Petrijevci also started without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or Nature Impact Assessment (NIA) being conducted. Moreover, permits allowing the project were issued quickly, even though some of the river sections are protected by Natura 2000 — a network of protected areas covering Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats.
For a change, in Bulgaria, while the public was focused on dealing with the pandemic, many mining and industrial enterprises took advantage of this situation to release stored waste into rivers. They were already polluted and threatened mainly by the extractive industry.
What may be even worse than violations within individual projects destroying our natural environment, are the attempts to make systemic changes that cause long-term damage.
At a time when Greece was fighting COVID-19, the government submitted a bill titled “The Modernization of Environmental Legislation” to the parliament. Environmental defenders point to the fact that the government misused the pandemic to introduce legislation weakening environmental standards, especially in the field of protected areas, EIA procedures and licensing, legalizing illegal constructions, or waste management. Therefore, they demanded the withdrawal of this bill.
However, the parliamentary vote on the bill was held on May 5, 2020, and the controversial bill was approved.
In Slovenia, the government took advantage of the pandemic to defeat defenders of the environment with recent amendments to construction and nature conservation legislation. These amendments introduce unreasonably strict conditions for civil society organizations to participate in administrative procedures. According to the new regulations, the organizations must have at least 50 active members, three full-time employees with university degrees, and assets exceeding 10,000 euro, and they have to meet these conditions retroactively for two years.
Only a few NGOs will be able to meet these and other very narrowly defined conditions and represent the public interest in the decision-making processes and also express their opinion within an EIA or construction permit proceedings.
What if we put the same effort into fighting for good?
In the other part of Europe, in Armenia, the government has approved a draft amendment to the Law on Freedom of Information that introduced restrictions on the provision of environmental information. In Belarus, the state didn’t hesitate to take advantage of its weakened civil society by persecuting those who still went out to protest against the construction of a battery plant in Brest.
Czechia has prepared a new version of the Building Act with the aim of speeding up the process of issuing construction permits, while inhibiting the protection of the environment, and has taken fast steps to secure the construction of a nuclear power plant.
Would it be a utopian idea to wish similar pace and determination for environmental interests?
The dangerous consequences for nature and also for citizensʼ rights are obvious, as it shows us only a part of the destructive projects and processes that are happening, regardless — or because of — the grueling and so far unprecedented circumstances.
Moreover, there are changes in the law that can change the rules of the game and can be very difficult to reverse. It also means weakening of democracy and lowering the level of environmental protection in general.
Unfortunately, the next wave of the pandemic has opened the door for private interests and governmental abuse, so we must continue to protect our environmental rights and the environment in general. Continue to watch what’s going on in the turmoil of the coronavirus crisis, and collect information about cases like these.
And you can help us with that! To get involved, you can follow our activities, read and share the full report or this article or inform us about similar violations.
Feature image: Courtesy of Katja Jemec/Arnika.
This blog is based on the recently published report from the Czech NGO Arnika Environmental destruction in times of coronavirus. The full report, including 15 cases of violations of environmental justice from Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, is available in English and Russian . Suggestions or documentation for similar cases from Kosovo or anywhere else can be sent to Arnika’s Citizens Support Centre: email@example.com.