CYPRUS may boast an impressive number of protected nature areas within the Natura 2000 network – on paper at least with 63 of them – but the government appears to have a schizophrenic approach to managing them, according to experts.
They said the number of nature sites alone do not necessarily burnish a country’s green credentials and in some cases, areas that have been declared protected on the one hand have seen this protection walked back “in the public interest”.
Cyprus recently received a sharp and embarrassing rap on the knuckles from the EU Commission on its record of managing these supposedly protected areas.
Effectively, the commission said in a letter to the government that it must be pressured into respecting its own laws.
“Since its accession to the EU, Cyprus has generally and persistently failed to ensure that its authorities subject plans or projects to appropriate assessment of their implications on the Natura 2000 sites,” the commission said.
In other words, if any proposed development projects are to go ahead – the government must carry out studies to assess the potential damage to protected areas. The EU says projects and plans have been approved in Cyprus without the necessary assessments, and in other cases, with no plans carried out at all.
Unless the government takes action, Cyprus could eventually be fined by the EU.
Environmentalists welcomed the commission’s strongly worded letter. “We were all expecting this, it should come as no surprise. I was only hoping it would have come sooner,” said Green party MP and former environment commissioner Charalambos Theopemptou.
Natura 2000 is a network of protected nature and semi-natural areas in the EU which aims to safeguard habitats and wildlife, through the Habitats Directive (adopted in 1992) and the Birds Directive (adopted 1979).
There are strict conditions under which development can take place in or around Natura 2000 areas. Member states must release reports every six years detailing measures taken to manage and protect the sites.
However, in some extenuating circumstances development may take place, provided a detailed reasoning is provided to the EU Commission for review.
Developments may be ruled as in the “public interest”. This acknowledges significant harm will likely be caused to Natura 2000 sites, but it is considered necessary in the interests of the public.
In other cases, the government has carried out assessments but then overruled the potential damage as the projects are in the “public interest”.
One such high profile case is the proposed multi-million euro, 31 km Paphos-Polis motorway, which slices through Ezousa valley. The cabinet ruled that the project should go ahead as it is in the public interest despite studies warning of significant damage to the natural area, which is home to iconic bird species. Among these are the Bonelli’s eagle, the long-legged buzzard, the peregrine falcon, and some endemic species such as the Cyprus wheateater and the Cyprus warbler. All will suffer a major blow, mainly due to disturbance and loss of important habitat, environmentalists say.
A techno-economic study dating back to 1998 recommends that, instead of constructing a new road, the optimal solution would be to upgrade the existing Paphos-Polis road.
The Ayia Thekla-Liopetri Natura 2000 site – which is an important area for migratory birds – also suffered significant damage from the construction of the Ayia Napa marina. The marina’s location was chosen in 2001, before Cyprus entered the Natura 2000 network.
Earlier this year the agriculture minister Costas Kadis said that the project was deemed as being “of superior public interest”, explaining why his ministry gave the green light for the development despite the environmental consequences.
Among the reasons cited, was also a lack of alternative locations.
Given that Natura 2000 areas are intended to benefit local development, the EU allows some development in such sites provided it is deemed to be in the public interest. One of which is “compensating” for or offsetting the potential harm caused by developments.
The compensation takes place if a protected site is damaged, then another area must be declared a Natura 2000 protected area.
In the case of the Paphos-Polis motorway which would cut through part of the Ezousa valley, the government could simply label a piece of land further away as part of a Natura 2000 site.
As compensation for the impact of the marina on the Ayia Thekla site, the Cape Greco Natura 2000 site was extended to include the Ammos tou Kampouri rocky shore area.
“What this fundamentally fails to address is the reason why a specific area has been given special status in the first place,” said Martin Hellicar of BirdLife Cyprus.
“Delicate ecosystems cannot simply be recreated somewhere else. While it may be possible to help migratory birds settle into another area, for example, it would be a very tricky task,” he added.
This is a measure which should only be used in the most extreme cases. Using it instead to circumvent laws which Cyprus has willingly signed up to simply demonstrates a complete disregard for the institutions which put the laws in place, and the aim of the law itself – protecting natural areas.
Conversely, say environmentalists, developments such as wind farms or photovoltaic parks have been built on Natura 2000 sites when the government could easily have allocated alternative land in less environmentally sensitive areas with little natural beauty.
Theopemptou said: “The first thing to do is to decide why these areas are being designated special areas in the first place. This has been done without issue, but the hard part is to then decide how to protect them and enforce the measures.”
There have been some notable successes, he added. “Oroklini lake is a perfect example of how things have and can be improved. It was a mess, like a carnival. It’s now a paradise there full of birds, and I strongly encourage people to go and visit. There you can see what is possible for the rest of Cyprus.”
Oroklini Lake is one of the few natural wetlands in Cyprus and is designated a Natura 2000 site.
Conservation activities at the lake included water management and the fencing off of the lake so as to deter interference caused by the entrance of vehicles. Also, non-native invasive tree species such as acacias were removed and replaced by native species of shrubs and trees.
The project began in January 2012 and involved the management of the area overseen by the environmental department and the game fund, through close cooperation with other services such as the water development department.
The reclamation of Oroklini lake should be an antidote to pessimists who believe that Cyprus will never get its act together.
Cyprus has been given two months to comply with the Commission’s request. Otherwise, the commission may decide to send a reasoned opinion.
If the issue were to escalate further, Cyprus could ultimately be fined.
“It’s a long process and there’s lots of opportunities to correct the situation,” said Hellicar.
“Member states can be taken to the European Court. If the courts rule against the state (for failing to implement directives), then the government is given another opportunity to resolve the situation. If that fails, then the government would have to pay fines,” he explained.
When asked whether fines would be a useful way to get Cyprus to protect Natura 2000 sites, he said it is not ideal.
“The issue is that fines are ultimately paid by the tax-payer, not by the developers since the green light was given by the government,” he said. “But it’s good that it exists, but Cyprus is nowhere near the point of being fined,” he concluded.
Newly appointed Environment Commissioner Klelia Vasiliou could not be reached for comment.