The government is using an EU loophole in the Habitats Directive and tarmacking the island
I would like my tax money to be spent on hospitals, schools and on two carefully planned transitions: to renewable energy and sustainable farming.
I am also convinced that it makes good sense, long-term, to invest public funds in nature conservation. In reality, the first two get something (though not nearly enough), while renewables and good farming get nothing like enough. Nature, meanwhile, hardly gets a look in.
Draw up a plan for a great big new highway through a protected area, though, and tax euros are there for the taking. In fact, should the need arise, the cabinet will more than likely step in to ensure such road-building projects get the go-ahead even if the ‘plans for tarmac’ fail to pass the environmental test. There is even a clause in EU Nature protection laws that can be used to lend a hand. This is the ‘IROPI’ clause in the Habitats Directive. It stands for ‘Imperative Reasons of Overriding Public Interest’, and it is fast becoming ‘environmental enemy number 1’ in Cyprus. IROPI is the cabinet’s ‘flexible friend’. It can be used (abused, actually) to get all sorts of ‘grand plans in concrete’ past those ‘pesky’ environmental laws.
Over the last few years, our cabinet has used this ‘get out of environmental jail’ card to override negative impact assessments and give the go ahead to the Ayia Napa marina (2014), the Paphos-Polis highway (2019) and the Astromeritis-Evrychou highway (2021). These massive projects will have serious impacts on protected Natura 2000 sites – indeed, are having, in the case of the marina. The relevant Environment Department opinions were all negative, and quite rightly so. In the case of the Paphos-Polis Highway, the cabinet used the IROPI card one day after the department issued its negative opinion. In the other two cases, ministers did not even wait for the negative assessment. They baptised these projects as ‘IROPI’ cases ahead of the Environment Department’s negative opinion, for good measure. Justification for these IROPI decisions was flimsy, at best.
To be fair to them, when EU lawmakers included the IROPI provision of the Habitats Directive, they were probably envisaging it would be used by member state governments for actual cases of overriding public interest. After all, the 1992 directive is basically a force for good. It has led to the establishment of the EU Natura 2000 network of protected sites, a huge step forward for our over-crowded continent.
There are weighty caveats attached to using IROPI, but these do not seem to come into it when our cabinet makes these decisions. Chief among these caveats is a clause in the relevant article that states that a precondition got IROPI being invoked is “…the absence of alternative solutions…” If there is a viable alternative to the damaging project, then IROPI is off the table. In all three cases cited above, such alternatives were clearly available. An alternative site, not on a protected coastline, for the private marina, and the upgrading of the existing roads, in the case of both the Paphos-Polis and Astromeritis-Evrychou highways.
It is worth adding here, that in the case of both these costly highway projects, what has been cabinet-approved is sections of bigger road plans. Unless something changes, the next sections of these motorways will also get the IROPI treatment.
Similarly, and unless the European Commission wakes up to the developing pattern here, the new Androlikou quarry zone (Akamas area) and the final part of the Paphos town to Paphos airport road (Ezousa river area), both of which received negative environmental assessments, are prime fake IROPI “candidates”. All these projects will have serious and irreversible impacts on protected sites and wildlife, making a mockery of the ‘protected’ status of Natura 2000 sites.
We already have more than enough tourism development and certainly enough roads on our small island. In a 2014 publication, the Cyprus Open University’s Maria Zomeni and Ioannis Vogiatzakis state that the road network on our island has increased by 88 per cent over the previous two decades.
Think about that for a moment; a near doubling of roads in 20 years, with all the habitat loss and increased disturbance to wildlife that brings. The study also mapped ‘roadless’ areas in Cyprus, that is areas at least one km away from a nearest road. Roadless areas cover just 4.5 per cent of Cyprus.
Despite this frankly alarming picture, new roads have remained a priority for public spending for years now. Roads, byways, highways and highway bridges. A small island simply cannot have enough of them, it would seem. The pattern for tourism development follows suit.
There is another aspect to this sorry affair that is worth mentioning. When the cabinet overrides Environment Department decisions blocking big developments, it is sending a clear message that technocrats can do their best, but high up politicians are at liberty to ride roughshod over their efforts. To add insult to injury, the Environment Department is then charged with having to justify the IROPI decision to the European Commission. Do we really want our country to be run in this way?
Real public interest rests in public investment in education, health, renewables, sustainable farming and nature protection. It does not rest in the tarmac to be laid through protected landscapes like the remote Ezousa valley, where, as you read this, JCBs are carving out ‘section 1’ of the new Paphos-Polis highway.
Martin Hellicar is director of local nature conservation NGO BirdLife Cyprus