Europe and Central Asia
11 May 2015

Hungary’s nature is in peril

Great Bustards © M. Zumrik
By Lisa Benedetti

Hungary is about to approve a law that will transfer land management rights from nature conservation organizations to an agency which has economic rather than conservation interests. If approved the new legislation is likely to damage centuries of nature conservation traditions and practices.

Hungary holds many of Europe’s natural treasures. Here you can visit Europe’s largest known stalactite cave which is an incredible 26 km long (partly shared with Slovakia), inside Aggtelek National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Or you can spend some time relaxing in steamy Héviz Lake, Europe’s largest thermal lake. But natural wonders such as these and others are in peril because the Hungarian Parliament just accepted a bill that may put the seal of doom on the country’s already severely dismantled system for nature protection.

Nature conservation has had a long history in Hungary. It goes all the way back to 1426 when Sigismund of Luxembourg, the then King of Hungary, created a special decree for the management of forests and protection of soils. But the first high-level, comprehensive law on nature conservation was the 1935 Act on Forests and Nature Conservation which gave not only plant and animal species better protection, but natural areas and habitats special status as well.

Across Europe, Hungary has been well known for its strong laws and firmly established framework to protect its nature and wildlife. One reason being its well-developed system made up of governmental institutions and large network of protected areas on government owned land. About 9% of Hungary’s territory is under federal protection and there are 63 forest reserves that have been designated as protected land. All of the country’s known 4077 caves have been protected by law since 1961. Hungary’s contribution to the Europe’s ‘Natura 2000 Network’ is quite significant as well. It’s about 21% of the country’s total land area, or nearly 2 million hectares.

But sadly, Hungary is no longer the model for getting nature conservation right in Europe. Over the last decade, the Hungarian government has done a pretty good job at tearing apart all these years of conservation work. It isn’t enough that they cut the already low budget of the National Park Directorate by forcing them to keep themselves going by generating their own income since 2004. It wasn’t enough that they abolished their Ministry of Environment, integrating it into the Ministry of Rural Development of all departments in 2010. Just recently, they passed a bill which takes away the land management rights of existing government nature conservation organizations and transfers it instead to a central agency.

The current government body that has a mandate for nature protection, the Hungarian National Park Directorates, manages some state-owned and protected land - almost exclusively Natura 2000 sites. The Directorates have direct control over this land even though some parts are leased to farmers. They’ve ensured that management is in line with nature conservation goals, i.e., timing of mowing, grazing pressure, etc. If the act comes into force, this control will be given entirely to the existing National Land Fund. This body manages the rest of Hungary’s state-owned land, but they are driven exclusively by economic considerations. If conservation agencies lose control, this will negatively impact wildlife and natural areas. For example, an area with Great Bustard, a vulnerable bird species, was formerly managed with great care but some of its key habitat was leased for intensive potato cultivation thereby negatively impacting the species.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

The law seems to be going forward even though an independent group of legal experts say the piece of legislation is unconstitutional. But a very active and passionate group of nature conservation NGOs based in Hungary, including BirdLife, WWF, and Friends of the Earth, along with some concerned citizens aren’t just waiting around quietly. They are voicing their concerns, and are now calling on every potential partner to contribute to stop the further erosion of Hungarian nature conservation and protect Hungary’s unique natural heritage. Following the Parliament’s decision, the President of Hungary, János Áder, who declares himself adamantly as a ‘Green President’ is now investigating the case and will make his decision this week.

It’s a familiar story that is being heard in other countries, so the question that still remains, will this call only fall on deaf ears? In a country where the threatened species like the Imperial Eagle, Saker, and Red-footed Falcon fly, we at BirdLife certainly hope not.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.