Saving a pristine wilderness from an international motorway

Rospuda Valley
Planning of Via Baltica Expressway through Rospuda Valley in north-east Poland
How activist Malgorzata Górska helped protect a Polish forest valley, and changed her government's attitude to conservation in the process

North-east Poland's Rospuda Valley is one of Europe's last true wildernesses with its vast tracts of primeval forests, ancient peat bogs and valuable wetlands home to lynx, elk, wolves, wild boar, beavers, otters, orchids, eagles and 20 other endangered bird species.

When the site was threatened by a controversial road building project, Polish conservationist Malgorzata Górska spearheaded a campaign to divert it, which led to a significant legal precedent for the environment.

Gorska has won the European category of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's largest prize for grassroots activists.

Laura Sevier: When did you first hear about the plans to build the Via Baltica Expressway through the Rospuda Valley?

Malgorzata Górska: In early 2000, I heard about the plans to build the Expressway which would go from Warsaw, through the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland) to Helsinki. It was clear this road needed to go through the north-east part of Poland, a region full of very well conserved nature with really unique biodiversity. I was born there, I lived there and I had lots of information about it.

There was already a road there, just a common national road, and it was going to be upgraded to a very high technical parameter with two lanes in each direction, service roads, a big junction and so on.

Clearly the road needed to be upgraded - it's not suitable for heavy international lorries or traffic but there was no other road so big trucks were taking this road.

However, the road would cut through at least three sites that were protected in Poland as National Parks, landscape parks and nature reserves. And when Poland joined the European Union in 2004 these sites became Natura 2000 sites [important natural areas protected by the EU]. 

For us it was clear that there were alternatives routes to construct this international road.

LS: What were the first steps you took to start campaigning?

MG: From the very beginning I was working in a coalition of 3 NGOs - WWF, Polish Society for the Protection of Birds (the Polish partner of Birdlife International) and Polish Green Network (the Polish partner of Bankwatch). We've had excellent support - both financial and in terms of knowledge, from the RSPB in the UK.

Before Poland joined the EU, when we couldn't rely on their support, we were just collecting as much information as we could obtain to analyse what was going on. We found out that there was no strategic planning for the whole Polish section of the international road.

The nature protection requirements were not included in the planning process properly. So we met with the Polish Road Agency, with the regional authorities and started to talk to the media. We ran a petition to the Polish president to change the route of the international road, which was signed by more than 150,000 people within two weeks - it was very clear that people supported what we were doing.

When we joined the EU we submitted a complaint to the European Commission and after one year it opened the official infringement procedure against the Polish government.

LS: Were you confident that you could win this case?

MG: In the beginning, no. It was so hard to predict the final result but we simply felt that we had to do our best. After the European Commission started the infringement procedure it gave us a lot of hope that we might win. We got very involved on the European level, visiting the European institutions in Brussels. There were a lot of meetings and information exchanged.

Following three 'round table' meetings attended by NGOs, the Polish Road Agency and the local authority of the Rospuda Valley, Augustów city (the section of the road for Rospuda Valley was called the Augustów bypass), it was decided there was no other way but to follow the European Nature Directives. So two alternative routes for the Augustów bypass were agreed and a new environmental impact assessment was carried out.

The result was clear - the alternative was realistic and would serve as a bypass of an additional city so more people would benefit from it.
In March 2009 the Polish government announced it would not build the Via Baltica Expressway through the Rospuda Valley.

It was the first victory. And in the autumn of last year there was another good decision - the government officially decided to change the route of the whole Polish section of the Via Baltica Expressway. This meant that other important nature sites would not be cut by the international road.

LS: What were the most critical moments of the campaign?

MG: The most serious moments came as the road constructors entered the area in 2007 and a lot of Polish people and ecological activists came to the Rospuda Valley and set up a camp in the forest. It was in the middle of a very cold winter with temperatures lower than minus 20 degrees.

As a result, the actions taken by the European Commission were very fast and quick because the constructors had started building the road from both sides outside the protected area and were approaching it. The commission sent Poland a last warning - the response from Poland was not satisfactory so it sent the case to the European Court of Justice.

There was a legal precedent because additionally to send the case to court, the European Commission also applied for so-called 'necessary interim measures'. It was asking for a halt to the project because of the serious irreversible damage to the protected site and the court was examining that. Then the Polish officials decided that it was very serious and they said, 'okay - until there is a judgement of the European Court of Justice we will not construct the road within the protected area.'

Usually the European Commission sues a member state after there is a major damage. In this case they acted before. In my opinion this was a key factor for us being successful.

LS: I gather that throughout the campaign you were intimidated by local authorities and radical right-wing groups and labelled as Russian spies. Did this discourage you from continuing?

MG: There was a lot of rubbish told about what we are doing - that we were paid to be protesting and so on. We were called to the prosecutor's office for being guilty of people being killed in car accidents because there was no bypass of the city. There was a lot of pressure but we also had a lot of positive support - 150,000 people signed a petition against the road's construction. This is natural heritage for Poland and also for Europe. Unfortunately you don't have places like this in developed countries such as England.

LS: Has this case raised the profile of nature conservation at a national level?

MG: We doubt that everybody will be aware of the problems with Augustów bypass but the Road Agency's approach to nature conservation has certainly changed in a good way. Now we meet with them and consult on different projects. They are very open minded so there is a clear change.

In other sectors there are still problems but there are too many cases for us to work on.

At the moment the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds, OTOP, is implementing a project to teach people who have Natura 2000 sites close to them how to get involved, participate in the public consultation before the decision is taken and how to influence decisions. Everybody has a right to comment and have their views considered.

LS: What tips or advice would you give to campaigners in a similar situation?

MG: You need to have clear information about the threat. Sometimes there is a protected area but the planned project will not affect the protected species. So you need to know clearly what the threat is. You need to get involved officially in the decision making process - to meet with the investor, with decision makers, to participate in the public consultations just to keep an eye in what's going on. The message needs to be clear to get public support.

Another important thing when campaigning is to have the idea for an alternative solution - not to being against something but to understand that economic development is also what we need, but that there is a solution to save nature at the same time. Publications by the European Commission, particularly the guidelines on Article 6 of the Habitat Directive, are very useful.

LS: How did you feel about winning the Goldman Environmental Prize and what benefits do you hope will come from it?

I hadn't known that I was nominated before so I was very surprised. Of course my colleagues and I are very happy. We hope that now the information about the award - but mostly the victory - will be spread  widely and the lessons learnt from this case will be provided to the public and inspire other people to get involved.

Also, it shows decision makers that win-win solutions are possible in terms of transport development and nature protection and that you cannot escape from fulfilling the legal requirements for nature protection.

For more information about the Via Baltica and Rospuda see:

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

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