Dozens of small damages
02 06 2010

As many as three of the indicators described in Nature exceeded their safety thresholds during last 20 years. These are: concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, gradually nearing level, which 400 mln years ago almost caused total destruction of life on our planet, increasing level of nitrate derivatives in the environment and DECREASE OF BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY. Despite the undertaken actions and legal acts which were supposed to halt the decrease in ecosystem diversity (for instance in form of the EU Bird and Habitat Directives and hardly perceptible in Poland the Water Framework Directive). The European Union already in 2001 noticed that these actions did not bring expected results. That’s why in the preamble to the Directive 35/2004/EU (often referred to as Environmental liability – Directive) such disheartening sentence may be found:

There are currently many contaminated sites in the Community, posing significant health risks, and the loss of biodiversity has dramatically accelerated over the last decades. Failure to act could result in increased site contamination and greater loss of biodiversity in the future.

It’s remarkable, that the Preamble was published 9 years after the Habitat Directive has been adopted and 21 years after adoption of the Bird Directive. So in fact the actions required by these directives were not effective, and the populations of the rare and valuable species of birds, other animals and plants still decrease with appalling speed.

Data of the European Environmental Agency just for the years 1990-2000 (Fig.1) show loss of habitats important for the diversity such as mires, bogs and fens (by almost 110 000 ha i.e. 4% in pan-European scale), heathland, scrub and tundra (by almost 2% in the continent), and grasslands (by 0,3%). Research showing loss of whole groups of species important for biological diversity (like butterflies which play important role in the biocenosis because of pollination of plants both wild and cultivated), is even more alarming (Fig.2). Trends for the period from 1980 to 2002 show remarkable decline in populations of 40% butterfly species related to wetlands, 30% for heathland and scrubland species, and 25% forest species and also around 25% for species of butterflies and birds related to traditional farmlands.

It should be noted that most of the negative tendencies are not caused by large infrastructural investments. These due to the numerous legal conditionings of their implementation are under close supervision and inspection of the administrative units of the Member States, non governmental organizations and the European Commission itself. Biggest changes in environment are caused by the small scale undertakings, often not a subject to permit issuing procedures (like cleaning of natural watercourses and drainage dikes or change in the use pattern of permanent grasslands), often not recognized as causing environmental damage (for example individual housing development, creation of small-scale settlements, small tourism infrastructure). Exactly these threats are addressed by the Environmental liability directive and by local initiatives similar to the „Natura 2000 Guards – monitoring violation of the natural state of species and habitats”, which is summarized here. along with description of some most characteristic cases which the Reader may find interesting. One year of this programme, first in Poland and one of very few in Europe brought somewhat surprising results, both for its authors and for those who had opportunity to learn about the consequences of environmental damages.

Most often type of damage was ploughing of grasslands by individual farmers, less often by larger investor for whom farming is an additional source of income. The fact that reported damage totalled to 70 ha of Natura 2000 meadow habitats in the dolnośląskie Voivodship (Province) may seem not very disquieting. However it must be beard in mind that the reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg, there must be much more of such cases. Comparison of topographic maps from the 1980’s, on which meadows were indicated, with the present state is very instructive. If an estimation that only 5-10% of the actual damage was reported is true, the total area of irrecoverably destroyed meadows would reach 700-1400 ha in one Voivodship and 1 year only. The damage would destroy related plant, bird, orthoptera and butterfly communities alike.
Again, stopping of two planned investments in river regulation, which lacked appropriate environmental impact assessments may seem inconsiderable. During the year several other sites where such investments were already implemented relatively short time ago, were found. Luckily for developers they were all implemented prior to 30 April 2007, before the environmental liability legislation was put in force. The team knows and will regularly monitor several watercourses where such “reconstruction” works are envisaged. Instead of reporting these as cases of violation, we would prefer to see that these investments are implemented in accordance to nature protection laws and standards.

From the interviews, field visits and consultations during the Natura 2000 Guards project, we could derive four main conclusions:

  1. Many of the investments that are potentially damaging to natural environment such as renovation of roads, cleaning or conservation of watercourses, smaller changes in land use pattern, do not require even simplest procedures concerning their potential impact on environment. Solving of this problem needs a systematic approach and changes in Polish legislation so that the requirement for even small scale investment would be clearly integrated with the land use planning procedures. Presently in Poland there are no authorities responsible for monitoring of turning of meadows and grasslands into arable fields or even more generally for regular monitoring of environment in Natura 2000 sites, except those cases when the plan or undertaking is listed as potentially affecting the conservation status of habitats and species.
  2. Important obstacle in implementation of land use planning respecting nature conservation standards lies in lack of detailed data on natural environment. Existing data is often too general and in may cases outdated.
  3. Quality of environmental impact assessments or “habitat assessments” is often low, and there is no responsibility of their authors for wrong conclusions. Whole responsibility for the environmental damage according to Polish national laws lies on the investor, which means that even permits issued according to the obliging procedures may imply substantial consequences on the investor if the investment caused damage.
  4. Large ventures and investments are subject to close, attentive control measures, and damage caused by these projects is presently smaller than cumulative effect of small scale, seemingly unimportant damages caused by every day undertakings on small plots of meadows, wetlands, watercourses and field hedges.

In less than 6 year time next national reports on the conservation status of habitats and species listed in annexes to the Habitat Directive are due for Member States. Concerning this, as a person dealing with nature conservation for 15 years, but also as a citizen of our country I am asking two questions:
Do we frankly admit then, that we do not implement obligations written down in The Treaty of Accession by allowing further decline of diversity of species and habitats? What consequences of such frankness we will bear?

Krzysztof Świerkosz

On the web page we present some examples of violation and potential threats for Natura 2000 habitats and species (so called case studies) along with the description and results of undertaken interventions.
Since January 2009, in frames of the programme for citizen based monitoring of environmental law violation, the non governmental organizations and individual volunteers report cases of damage and threats to the populations and habitats of:

  • A) species of animals and plants listed in Annex II of the Directive 92/43/EEC (“Habitat Directive”) in existing and proposed Natura 2000 sites;
  • B) species of animals and plants listed in Annex II and Annex IV of the Directive 92/43/EEC outside Natura 2000 areas;
  • C) habitats listed in Annex I of the Directive 92/43/EEC

Monitoring covered four Voivodships: dolnośląskie, wielkopolskie, opolskie and lubuskie. So far 21 cases of damage and 6 potential threats were reported, mainly from the Lower Silesia (dolnośląskie Voivodship). The cases were reported via the internet service, and by direct or telephone contact with project coordinator. Most important were then checked in the field, evaluation protocol has been prepared and consulted with the expert in biology.
In justified cases the interventions followed these procedures. In practice this meant mainly official notice to the appropriate authorities about detection of environmental damage, according to the article 24 of the Parliament Bill of 13th April, 2007 on prevention of the environmental damage and harm repair, published in Dziennik Ustaw (Parliament Acts Monitor) number 75, position 493 with later amendments. In some cases it was enough to inform the investor or land owner about the damage and propose compensatory measures or minimizing of the damage.
We hope that these examples illustrate practical aspects of the protection of Natura 2000 habitats and species, and contribute to avoiding of such conflict situations in the future.

Sabina Lubaczewska
Coordinator of the project „Natura 2000 Guards……”

Decreasing area of habitat types important for sustaining biological diversity from 1990 to 2000. (European Environmental Agency)
Decreasing numbers of butterflies and birds from different ecological groups in Europe, for the period 1980-2002 (Dutch Butterfly Conservation)
listkowiec cytrynek
Photo: Krzysztof Ostrowski
Photo: Krzysztof Ostrowski
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Co-financing: The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF)
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