Via Baltica - Poland's nature under threat
What is the problem?Key Natura 2000 sites in North-East Poland have been under threat from damage by a series of road projects on the so called ‘Via Baltica’ international road corridor, which will link Helsinki to Warsaw via Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The corridor upgrade was taking place as a series of separate individual projects (an approach commonly referred to as ‘salami-slicing’) rather than being planned in a strategic way. When the individual projects are being planned, the obligations of the nature Directives were not being properly taken into account. The sites currently under serious threat include Knyszyn Primeval Forest and the famous Biebrza Marshes. The pristine Rospuda Valley in Augustow Primeval Forest was also threatened, but after years of campaigning this is now safe thanks to BirdLife International and other NGOs! We recognise the need for transport infrastructure improvements in North-East Poland, but believe that these must be planned in accordance with European law to ensure sustainable projects that integrate nature considerations.
What is BirdLife doing?
BirdLife has been working on the Via Baltica case for over seven years. OTOP (BirdLife in Poland) and other Polish NGOs have worked together to bring the case to the attention of the Bern Convention – which as a result in 2003 adopted a strong recommendation that a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) should be carried out to inform the decision on the route for the Via Baltica and minimise as far as possible damage to important nature sites.
In early 2006, a coalition of Polish NGOs, including OTOP submitted a complaint to the European Commission about very serious concerns that planning for seven road projects in north-east Poland, including Augustow Bypass, did not comply with the requirements of EU nature laws. The Commission investigated the case and when it was unable to resolve it through informal contact with Poland, in December 2006 opened legal proceedings sending Poland a ‘first written warning’ about eight road projects – new roads, bypasses and upgrades all linked to the Via Baltica corridor. When Poland failed to provide a satisfactory response and in February 2007 gave contractors the green light for forest clearance work for the Augustow and Wasilkow Bypasses the Commission sent Poland a ‘final written warning’. Unfortunately, Poland remained unmoved and construction work on the two projects continued. In response in March 2007, the Commission referred the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and asked for an urgent order to stop damage which would be caused by part of the project (a compensatory program affecting another Natura 2000 site). An order was made in April 2007 – the first time such an order was made to protect a Natura 2000 site from imminent damage by development – a new precedent!
Since submission of the complaint, BirdLife has played a key role in providing the Commission with information about developments in the case in Poland, including through submission of five formal updates to the complaint.
As well as bringing the case to the attention of the Commission, BirdLife has worked to raise the profile of the case with MEPs – through submission of a Petition to the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee in 2006, participation in MEP visits to Poland, MEP briefings – and with the media. We also support OTOP in their Polish actions in the case – meeting officials, participating in planning processes, taking national court cases.
In October 2007 there was a change of Polish Government and the new Environment and Infrastructure Ministers established a ‘Round Table’ to seek a compromise solution for Augustow Bypass, in which the Polish NGOs participated. As an outcome of the Round Table a new environmental assessment was carried out looking at three different routes – two going around rather than through the valley. Based on the results of this new study, in March 2009 the Polish Prime Minister announced that his Government would avoid building a highway through the Rospuda Valley Natura 2000 site. Instead, they will solve the traffic problems by building the road on an alternative route that avoids the Valley.
This decision is a great victory for Europe’s natural heritage and for all who care for it! It clearly shows how infrastructure development and Natura 2000 can go together, provided that there is political will and respect for the EU legislation. In recognition of this decision in April 2009 the European Commission closed its legal case against Poland on the Rospuda Valley.
However the Via Baltica campaign did not stop here. Unfortunately, Rospuda Valley was only one of the Natura 2000 sites threatened by the Polish authorities’ preferred ‘Bialystok route’ for the Via Baltica road corridor. Others still under threat included the world famous Biebrza Marshes. In summer 2008 the Polish authorities presented a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report to inform the choice of the Via Baltica route corridor for consultation. This SEA strongly recommended an alternative western route for Via Baltica via Lomza which would be much less damaging to Natura 2000 sites than the eastern route via Bialystok and is also shorter, cheaper and technically simpler. In October 2009 the Polish Council of Ministers took the strategic decision to route the Via Baltic via Lomza based on the SEA results. This is great news and BirdLife is now urging the Polish authorities to implement this decision as a matter of urgency and include the new route in the upcoming revision of the TEN-T in Poland.
In December 2009 there was more good news when the Polish authorities released the new consent for Augustow Bypass which confirms that the road will bypass Augustow Primeval Forest and the magnificent Rospuda Valley. This will be the first section of the Via Baltica corridor built on the new (less damaging) route!
We applaud these recent decisions – there is already much we can celebrate! But the case is not quite over yet.
There are concerns that Poland is still going to proceed with the other upgrade projects on the old Bialystok route for Via Baltica. With the new route for this corridor settled there is a need to reconsider the scale of the projects on the old route to avoid damage to Natura 2000 sites.
Furthermore, the Polish Government is now attempting to include in the Polish TEN-T network a new road corridor that partially overlaps with the old ‘Via Baltica’ route – the 'Via Carpatia'.The 620 km planned Via Carpatia international road corridor in Poland would affect 18 existing and planned Natura 2000 sites. Given the strategic importance of the Via Baltica case - potential impacts on the individual sites and the precedent it sets - BirdLife will continue to follow it closely.
In April 2010 Malgorzata Górska from OTOP (BirdLife in Poland) was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize - the world’s top prize for grassroots activists - for her leadership of the successful campaign which stopped a road being built through Poland’s precious Rospuda Valley. We are delighted that Malgorzata has won this prize. Her determination to protect the area’s vast tracts of primeval forests, ancient peat bogs and valuable wetlands should serve as an inspiration to fellow conservationists across the world and demonstrate that it is possible to find win-win solutions which reconcile nature and economic interests.
What can you do?
- Support our casework by joining BirdLife
- Contact OTOP (BirdLife in Poland) for more information about Via Baltica and how you can help
- Visit the Campaign website
- If you are Polish – ask your government to implement the positive decisions on Augustow Bypass and the new Lomza route for the Via Baltica as a matter of urgency and to stop the piecemeal upgrades along the old Bialystok route and challenge the rebranding of this as the ‘Via Carpatia’. Also to amend key strategic documents such as the Operational Programme and the Polish TEN-T network to reflect the new Via Baltica route.
- Join BirdLife’s e-news circulation for updates on this and other cases Visit Rospuda Valley and other Natura 2000 sites in Poland
Next Page » Casework - Bulgarian Black Sea Coast
- OTOP website
- Polish NGO coalition website
- Article in Osteuropa
- Some reports, opinions and statements on Via Baltica road
- Bern Recommendation
- European Commission takes Poland to court to protect threatened wildlife habitats (21 March 2007)
- Polish Government Via Carpatia concept
- Rospuda Valley finally saved from destructive road works!
- European Commission closes two nature cases against Poland (14 April 2009)
- Via Baltica update- construction continues under a new name, Via Carpatia (June 2009)
- Via Baltica update - new imminent damage to Natura 2000 site (August 2009)
- Via Baltica photo update New imminent damage to Knyszyn Forest Natura 2000 site (September 2009)
- Via Baltica - Another landmark victory for Poland’s nature, environmentalists remain vigilant (October 2009)
- Briefing on Via Baltica expressroad in Poland for the Bern Convention Standing Committee meeting (November 2009)
- BirdLife Partner staff wins world’s top environmental prize (April 2010)
- Goldman Prize website