Borzhava ridge. Source: uncg.org.ua
Ecology was never a priority in the Soviet Union or post-Soviet Ukraine, where profit has always been the ultimate goal, initially for the communist party and later for private companies. Ecological norms, although nominally in existence, could be easily violated via corruption.
Things have changed since the entering into force of the new Law on the Strategical Estimation of the Impact on Environment, which introduced a transparent procedure of ecological monitoring at the end of 2017. Each new construction project is required to pass it.
Other reforms empowering transparency and public control over government also help, including the huge work done towards the creation and implementation of the internationally recognized Emerald Network of nature reserves in Ukraine.
What is Borzhava ridge
The Borzhava ridge is one of the most picturesque places in the Ukrainian Carpathians. The ridge is about 50 kilometers long. It is the longest mountain meadow in the Zakarpattia region and can safely claim the title of being the most picturesque. The surface of the mountains is grassy, covered with blueberries, in some places with cowberries.
The flora and fauna on the ridge include dozens of Red Book species of plants and animals. Importantly, international migration routes of birds pass over the ridge. It is included in the Emerald Network, which is a network of Areas of Special Conservation Interest to conserve wild flora and fauna in Europe and North Africa.
Apart from ecology, the ridge is also a picturesque tourist site. After the occupation of Crimea by Russia, Borzhava ridge became the most popular site for gliders. It is also the third most popular hiker and bicycle route, after the highest Chornohora and Gorgany ridges.
Sustainable energy populism and activist’s blockade
Since 2017 several Ukrainian NGOs have been fighting against the proposed wind power plant consisting of 34 windmills on the ridge. The construction would not only destroy valuable species on the ridge and prevent the migration of birds but also destroy the landscape of this beautiful mountain chain.
“The construction of windmills is large-scale construction work. To build a 200-meter-high windmill on a mountain meadow, it is necessary to build roads that will bring construction equipment, in fact, cut off the top of the ridge to lay rails, which will drive a derrick that will lift the generating plant. Power grids will be laid underground, so deep trenches will have to be dug, and all this earth will fall down. Meadow will be destroyed, as well as rare species and habitats that are included in Resolution 4 of the Bern Convention, protected in Europe,” explains the head of the Ukrainian Environmental Protection Group Oleksiy Vasyliuk.
This case is also an example of ecological populism. Recently, Ukraine has encountered a boom in green energy power plants that enjoy high green tariffs for the state. To build windmills at this high altitude would be super-profitable. And it was presented as allegedly being a good ecological thing that contributes to sustainable energy production. In fact scientists who prepared documentation on the estimation of the ecological impact of construction lied straightforwardly in their conclusions for the sake of investors.
“In the report, they investigate whether the construction and operation of windmills on the Borzhava ridge will harm otters which have never been there. At the same time regarding the Red Book Alpine woodpeckers, over whose heads it is proposed to place wind turbines, pseudo-scientists suggest simply catching and relocating them to other places. They propose builders (!) to catch Red Book animals. These allegedly experts also provided winter photos of the area where the windmills are planned to be located, and wrote that no types of flora and fauna protected by law were found there,” says ecologist Kateryna Polianska.
In old times, this kind of simulation of ecological assessment could easily work. However, since the end of 2017, the new law establishes proper procedures in assessing the ecological impact of new construction which includes full transparency, public hearing of the assessment and the opportunity for everyone to question it. This procedure allowed ecologists to criticize the fake and unprofessional assessment that was allowing construction. After their comments and critique were not taken into consideration, they sued the company which planned to construct windmills and won in March 2020. The assessment of ecological impact was recognized as invalid by the local court. The company, however, won an appeal and the legal battle continued in the Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, no construction of big objects is possible without impact assessment being publicly presented and recognized – a reliable safeguard against ecological harm which at the very least helps activists to win time.
Pressure from international organizations are another working tool used by activists
At the same time “scientists did not expect that the state would be able to protect the charm of the Ukrainian Carpathians and filed a complaint to the Bern Convention. The Permanent Committee of the Bern Convention appealed to Ukraine to stop any dangerous construction on the ridge,” writes ecologist Tetiana Shamina, claiming that the final court decision can still come in favor of the company.
International law is another mechanism that helps to save nature in Ukraine, while the state is fulfilling its functions of protection only under pressure — from civil society or international institutions.
“It is important to understand that the territories of the Emerald Network were created at European level. At national level, the state is often unable to adequately regulate the system of protected areas. However, if there are any threats to the territories of the Emerald Network, the Berne Convention always reacts and encourages the state to react, because protecting these territories is an international obligation of Ukraine,” explained Igor Hrynyk, a biologist at the Ukrainian Environmental Protection Group.
New threat to Borzhava ridge comes from President himself
The conclusion of the Permanent Committee of the Berne Convention is extremely important to prevent the construction of windmills as well as a new threat – the proposed construction of a ski resort presented by President Zelenskyy himself as a promising investment project for Ukraine, ignoring ecological threats.
This new dangerous idea is now being blocked in two ways: internationally by the decision of the Permanent Committee of the Berne Convention and domestically due to the absence of ecological assessment without which any construction cannot begin. There were no announcements of a transparent strategic environmental assessment of this project yet. Therefore talks about Ski resorts remain only talks so far.
An expert from the Berne Convention will visit Ukraine this year to study the situation regarding the threat to the natural value of the Borzhava Meadow. Borzhava’s issues were considered by the Permanent Committee of the Berne Convention in the winter, and all participants unanimously supported the proposal to conduct an independent on-site examination in 2021. It is now known that according to the decision of the Permanent Committee of the Convention, Ukraine should not start any work on Borzhava until it receives the final conclusions of the committee.
The sad thing is that the president himself popularized this idea, ignoring ecological risks. Activists should constantly monitor the situation so as not to miss any implementation of the idea. This perfectly demonstrates the thesis that rule of law already starts working in Ukraine, but without strong public control the temptation for old permissiveness remains.
Creating a nature reserve in Borzhava would help end any further battles there
Considering the last thesis, it is obvious that new threats will continue to endanger Ukraine’s valuable national assets until such time as the government learns to protect these assets not only under pressure but willingly. Environmentalists are convinced that one of the leading mechanisms that could help save Borzhava and other valuable objects is the creation of nature reserves. However, this procedure in Ukraine is complicated and bureaucratic. For example, two years ago there was an intention to create a landscape reserve called Zelenytsa. However, the local administration refused to approve its creation.
Another attempt took place in early March 2021. Activists are working now to approve the creation of a regional landscape park called Borzhava Meadows. With the consent of land users, it is possible to create a regional landscape park which the defenders of Borzhava very much hope for. In that case, any construction not related to the protection of the area, or any demolition groundwork will be prohibited, explains Tetiana Shamina.
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