Environmental grassroots protests in Bulgaria

This article was written in August 2007.

In the last months the environmental movement in Bulgaria started to look something like the beginning of a movement indeed. There had been street blockades, big demonstrations and many other smaller and larger actions of various kinds throughout the country. We are using the word "movement", because all of a sudden different actions were organized from many different groups and individuals and the struggles went a bit out of the NGOs into a level that is more close to the grassroots forms of organizing, but still the whole thing was working close to the NGOs. It felt like all that increase in actions and all that came all of a sudden, but the truth is that what is going on now is a result of years of hard work behind. We will try to give a brief explanation of the processes that are going on here from our very subjective and somewhat anti-authoritarian perspective, so have in mind that there are many other opinions of what is going on here.

Now let's look of what has influenced the recent developments. In the last year – 2006 – there had been two large and somewhat successful campaigns that were coming not only from the NGOs, but from different grassroots initiatives as well.

What happened in Popinci?

For some years now there has been a project from one Canadian corporation for the creation of a cyanide gold mine near a village called Popinci. The people there have been resisting the project, because of various reasons. Mainly it is the understanding of the local people about that the large multinational company, that is trying to undertake the developmental project, would only use them as cheap labor in order to be able to exploit the gold in the mine as fast as possible, the natural environment in the area will be destroyed and there will be potential health problems for them and their children. There have been nearly identical cases in other countries (Rosia Montana in Romania for example) and the people in Bulgaria were very aware of them and thus of the results of similar developmental projects in other places. Speaking about the resistance it is good to know here that apart from the grassroots initiatives in Popinci and the other villages of the area, the struggle against the cyanide gold mine was supported from various environmental NGOs, individual activists (both bulgarian as well as international) as well as from the local authorities. It is important to note that the vast majority of the local people were against the project, there was a local referendum and something like 97% voted against it.

When in July 2006, against the will of the people, in the region the project started its initial work about two hundred people went on a barricade to stop them, the state had send riot police (gendarmerie), which was not finally send to attack the blockade, but some people from the mafia did. There were some clashes with the "security" forces, and one person from the village was stabbed with knife almost to death after being on the blockade. The official police statement about the murder attempt is that he had committed attempt for suicide, because of private problems – a proof of the cooperation between the state, the police, the mafia and the investors. In the end, after 36 days of constant blockade the company went away and temporarily canceled the project.

The most recent update on the case that we have is that on 25th of April 2007 there was information that the company might be trying to start the project again. The people there once again seem to be ready to fight.

The same problem emerged in Rodopi Mountain, where the corporation Dundee Precious Metals wants to create another cyanide gold mine.

What happens with "Da Spasim Irakli" (To Save Irakli)?

The other big campaign last year was the case with "Da Spasim Irakli". While it might have not been as successful as the case with the mine in terms of its own goals, it has succeeded to a much great extend to influence the environmental movement in Bulgaria.

Irakli is a protected natural area next to one small village at the black sea coast. It is very popular because many alternative people use the beach there for "illegal" camping; it's still very preserved nature with many rare and "supposed to be protected by the state" species of both animals and plants. In the beginning of last year there was information that there is a project of the construction of a resort village near to the beach. Apart from that the beach is important for a lot of people who go camping there, most of the society in Bulgaria is very angry of what is going on in the seaside – overdevelopment: huge hotels and resort areas, result of which is the destruction of environment and the impossibility of people to have a quiet and calm holidays between the huge concrete sites.

"Da Spasim Irakli" (To Save Irakli) started as a grassroots initiative in the support of that beach, first spreading call-outs in the internet, but pretty fast it grew to a very big campaign and a lot of people showed solidarity with and it became a symbol of environmental struggles and the anger of people. There were many kinds of actions and the people from the group "Da Spasim Irakli" managed to have a very successful PR campaign with the mass media and the struggle received a very strong and also positive to some extend mass media attention. The group is working closely with the environmental NGOs and many of the active people are actually working in some of them. That is why probably most of the people accepted the idea that in order to actually save Irakli their chance is to use the two directives of the European Union (Bulgaria became part of EU in 2007) forming the network of Natura2000 (I will brief that network below). The limited success in the struggle itself was that the State had freeze any developments in the area for an year and while people were hoping that this would be extended, very recently the State has removed the territories where the developmental project is to take place and the construction might soon begin as the company is already preparing. Probably the most extreme cases were when some private security forces had destroyed some small infrastructures (like little tables, benches, places for fire etc.) there, which had been made by the people who had been using the beach "illegally" throughout the years, and the other one is when the backpacks of some people who were camping there were burnt.

All of the building projects in Irakli are approved and soon will start. One of the projects is financed by AKB Forest, led by former member of the communist regime.

I mentioned the EU Network NATURA2000 and that many activists (both NGO and grassroots) have accepted it as the only chance to protect the natural environment. But what is it briefly? It is basically a network that is supposed to exist in all EU member states consisting of protected territories, where the survivor of a certain part of some endangered species has to be observed and it is backed by two EU directives. The territories themselves had to be offered by experts from the NGOs and the state to approve them. Last year a large campaign started with the idea to back up the territories that had been proposed by the NGOs to the State and what happened in the end is that the State had accepted a much lower percentage than what the NGOs had expected. The effectiveness of NATURA2000 network could of course be arguable.

The case with Stranja in the summer of 2007

This is where most certainly everyone here felt a change. On 29 June the status of the natural park Stranja had been removed by the High Court Council, after the company that started the trial – "Crash2000" – won the trial it had started few months before. Natural Park Stranja is may be the one with the most wildlife and preserved natural environment here so it was not unexpected that people got so angry. Very soon after the news different protests in different cities took place. The first 3 of them were the so called "flash mobs". On the second protest about 400 people blockaded the main crossroad in the capitol Sofia for 30-40 minutes. 35 people were arrested. Different actions went on throughout all the country for some weeks, and even there were no more blockades, many of the actions were "without permit", which here is considered a bit as a revolutionary act. The number of actions for such a short time, the fact that they were happening everywhere in the country as well as the way they were organized, was something that was unseen here after (and surely at the times of) the bolshevist dictatorship. This campaign managed to cause some pressure towards the state and in the end there was a decision by the Parliament that lead to the "return" of the status of Natural Park Stranja. This was very inspiring for people as they saw a direct effect of their actions, but still that was no victory first because on the way that it was made – the law the Parliament passed is very arguable – as well as that now the situation with the illegal construction of the hotel by "Crash2000" is just what it used to be two months ago. Still people went on passed that and accepted their struggle as a struggle for the entire natural environment in Bulgaria. On the day of the decision of the Parliament there was probably one of the biggest demonstrations in the recent history of Bulgaria, which was organized without the involvement of any of the authoritarian structures, where more than 2000 marched in Sofia to say "Nature, Not Concrete". The struggle is really going towards a direction of expansion in order to be able to cover all the environmental and nature preserving topics on a nation-wide level.

There are a lot of other and even bigger building projects ("Super Borovetz" and "Panichishte" in Rila Mountain). The investors here are also big corporations, which come from off-shore zones and work with local capitalists with totalitarian past. The protests against them already started – on 29th of August another crossroad was blocked for an hour. One person with his two dogs was arrested for no reason.

What is the position of the anarchists in all this?

(No "official" position, but something like a opinion of collectives such as "Katarzis", autonomous anti-authoritarian group "AnarhoSaprotiva", "Ecotopia" infoshop in Razgrad, who try to work closely together very positive, which are trying to help with little things and to show solidarity.)

Certainly there are lots of people with different forms of horizontal views within the movement, but we have to acknowledge the fact that it is not the only case. There have been talks about the formation of a new political party by some of the NGO leaders (they see it as a way to make a change), some people were speaking on behalf of the movement etc … As well there is a huge difference between the NGOs, like for example environmental association "Za Zemiata" ("For The Earth") – the only horizontalist NGO in Bulgaria, often seems to be interested in forms of direct action, helps with and organizes street protests and actions, works together with grassroots activist groups initiatives (such as RoR-Samba band Sofia), etc, while there are those NGOs that are very professionally oriented (they see their work as just a "job") and there are those which are really authoritarian and tied with the authority as well… But at the moment there is no open conflict between views and they coexist together as people are trying to find solutions. In its roots this movement is from below, even though the thinking of most of the people involved is not so radical.

The movement has also some problems. A lot of the people are in some way with patriotically-nationalistic thinking (some even singing the national anthem on the biggest protest), which is a potential problem. The depolitisation of politics is another problem – a lot of people from the eco-movement define themselves as apolitical, turn quite easily to simplistic right wing solutions ("free market" promises, EU savior from above or nationalistic nonsense) and try to find solutions within the capitalist system.

Environmental problems are more than what people could cover, so the only way to succeed would be when the movement understands that it has to be part of a wider movement of the struggle against capitalism.

autonomous anti-authoritarian group "AnarhoSaprotiva"

Black list of companies, organizations and individuals destroying Bulgarian nature

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