By Constantinos Psillides
ENVIRONMENTALISTS fear a bill tabled by the interior ministry to convert seashores into real estate is no more than an attempt to sell the country’s beaches to the highest bidder.
The activists are accusing the government of being willing to allow investors exclusive access to Cyprus’ beaches – which are all designated public land.
The article in the controversial bill reads: “The definition of the term ‘real estate’ now includes marine space, which with developments or activities or facilities is connected directly or indirectly with private property, as is defined in the legislation.”
In general the bill aims to correct chronic mismanagement of beaches – including putting in place binding procedures for a seaside development and forcing competent authorities to hold tenders.
But it also contains a number of provisions activists believe would be detrimental to the environment and the public good.
Besides converting the seashore into real estate, the bill also allows the interior minister to issue planning permits without a permit application being filed and lists a number of constructions considered legal development and allowed within the seashore boundaries.
This list includes port construction projects, wind farms and similar renewable energy facilities, sub-sea pipelines for desalination or transporting fuels and recreational facilities beyond just water sports and aqua culture infrastructure works.
On Thursday the House interior committee begun discussion on some of the bill’s less thorny aspects, but the major amendments (the controversial articles 2, 20 and 22) have yet to hit the parliament floor.
That the bill is in for a bumpy ride is evident in an online petition launched by activists who have pledged to attend every House committee meeting on the subject and escalate to demonstrations if necessary.
“The bill falls within a broader set of neoliberal policies aiming at the appropriation and privatisation of the commons [public land]. With the environmental legislation to protect the beaches, the coast and the sea being ignored continuously, we are now witnessing efforts for the legalisation rather than the punishment of the offenders,” reads an online petition launched last month by Hands off our Beaches. “Once again, corporate profits and private interests trump over, and are blatantly placed above the rights of people and environmental protection.”
The petition requests government officials to cease any attempts at privatising beaches and instead focus on protecting both the seashore and the environment.
Marine specialist, Maria Hadjimichael, is one of the organisers of the protest.
“We plan on attending all relevant House committee discussions, where we will present our position and keep collecting signatures until we have the bill thrown out. If the ministry doesn’t back down we will be moving forth with demonstrations,” she told the Sunday Mail.
The government insists the fears of the protesters are groundless. An official from the town planning department told the newspaper that the bill actually aims at protecting the environment.
“What we wanted when we introduced this bill is to put an end to the chronic coastal line mismanagement and make sure that further seaside developments would be properly monitored and scrutinised,” said the official, who did not wish to be named. “As the law stands now the department doesn’t have the necessary oversight over such projects.
It’s a mess of overlapping jurisdiction of various departments. We want this mess sorted out so as to exercise proper supervision over such projects.”
Asked about the amendment that would allow the interior minister to approve planning permits without the interested party first filing for one, the official specified that this provision wasn’t new.
“It’s been in place since 1990. The minister actually used it 11 times to allow for small scale developments. What we are adding now is the last part, so people won’t have to file. It’s a way to tackle excess bureaucracy, nothing else.”
Regarding the provision declaring the sea front as private property, the official argued that this is the only way for the department to exercise proper oversight over developments on the seaside.
“By including this amendment we can force investors to adhere to the rules and regulations imposed by the department and not run rampant on our beaches. This will act as a protective shield for the coastal line,” claimed the official, adding that there was no way the bill would allow for beaches to be privatised.
“No one can be denied access to any beach. Beaches are state property and thus a common good. If we even suggested allowing hoteliers the right to buy beaches and fence them off we would have a rebellion in our hands.”
The official admitted, however, that the department had not done a good job of informing the public about what the proposed changes mean and said a planned press conference within the month should allay fears.
Protesters such as Hadjimichael remain unconvinced. She said she had little trust in the government’s motives and her concerns are shared by noted activist and former Environmental Commissioner, Charalambos Theopemptou.
He pointed out that Cyprus has refused to implement the protocol of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), an EU directive the state has been ignoring since 2009.
Implementing that legislation would settle the matter of protecting the seashore, he said.
The ICZM provides that all seashore be treated as a protected area, imposing strict limitations on construction on and near beaches. It also provides for environmental protection, requesting an environmental impact study for each and every project, no matter the scale. The ICZM was also based on the Aarhus Convention, which gives the right to individual citizens to challenge government decisions in court, when it comes to protected areas.
Asked whether this provision would effectively derail future investments, Theopemptou was clear. “It’s not as if we have a say on the matter. This is EU law and EU law supersedes national law. It won’t just go away if we keep ignoring it. We have to honour our obligations towards the EU and protect the environment,” he told the Sunday Mail.
In an interview to Sigma TV station, Theopemptou said that by refusing to implement EU law the state paved the way for developments that have a negative impact on the environment.
“Permits are given for facilities like umbrellas and sun beds on beaches that act as breeding grounds for endangered turtles, contractors remove rocks and sand from beaches included in the NATURA 2000 network [EU-declared protected zones] and many more,” he said.
The bill is a culmination of the government’s determination to fast track issuing building permits, to attract investors. And the government has not exactly hid that determination.
Last week Archbishop Chrysostomos arranged an urgent meeting with Agriculture Minister Nikos Koyialis and Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos with a single item on their agenda, the €7. 5 billion beach leisure project in Yeroskipou named “Eden City” in which the church has an interest. He complained the project had been plagued by bureaucracy and constant delays in issuing building permits.
While there were no official statements following the meeting, newspapers reported the next day that the ministers committed to fast-tracking the project.
Later in the week, President Nicos Anastasiades stopped just short of apologising to the owner of the newly constructed golf resort Minthis Hills in Tsada, after he was informed that it had taken seven years for the building permits to be issued.
“Which foreign investor would wait around for seven years to be issued a permit? I’d like to think that thanks to our improvements this will be a thing of the past,” said the president.
As the legislation currently stands, the authority in charge of the country’s coastline are the district officers, who then delegate to local authorities. The result of this arrangement borders at the chaotic, according to a recent report drafted by the office of the Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides and released last week.
The report detailed the total lack of coordinated management, the lack of oversight by local authorities, the lack of environmental policies and rampant, unchecked development.
Inspectors tasked with overseeing whether businesses operating at the coastline – such as beach clubs – adhere to regulations almost never carry out inspections, the report said. In some cases the competent authority didn’t even bother to appoint an inspector.
And when it comes to ignoring EU law, according to the report, Cyprus hasn’t drafted a list with endangered species as is required by the EU.
The auditor-general noted in his report that Cyprus’ policy on protecting sea turtles and the Mediterranean seal has been rated by the EU as “bad” and “insufficient”.
The report also said that Cyprus is in constant violation of EU law when it comes to nature reserves, since beaches included in the Natura 2000 protected zones have not been specified by state decree.
The report underlines the desperate need for new legislation regarding Cyprus’ coastline, but many questions remain whether the bill currently before the House is the answer.
Petition opposing the bill http://reclaimthesea.org/hands-off-our-beaches-cyprus