WWF award for leading Bulgarian conservationist
“It is my great pleasure to recognise Toma Belev, who has been at the forefront of efforts to protect Bulgaria’s natural treasures for two decades, with the WWF Award for Conservation Merit. Mr Belev has played an important role in the protection of some of Bulgaria’s – and indeed Europe’s – greatest protected areas,” said Yolanda Kakabadse, President of WWF International.
Toma Belev is a recognized authority on protected area management and biodiversity protection in Bulgaria. Over the years he has acted as director of Vitosha Nature Park administration, as Chairman of the Bulgarian Association of Nature Parks, which brings together the country’s 11 nature parks, and as Chairman of the Board of Green Balkans, one of the first nature conservation NGOs to be established in Bulgaria after the fall of communism and one of the leading environmental groups in the country.
Belev has also been a leading member of the “For the Nature”, a coalition of close to 50 Bulgarian NGOs that are fighting threats to protected areas from illegal developments throughout the country. He has played an important role most directly in the protection of two of Bulgaria’s greatest protected areas.
As director of the Vitosha Nature Park and head of the association of Bulgarian Nature Parks, Belev has been battling plans by an off-shore company to develop a new ski zone inside Vitosha Park. Vitosha Nature Park, established in 1934, is the oldest national park in southeastern Europe. It is one of the very few protected territories of its kind, adjacent to a capital city. It protects about 1,500 species of plants, which is about half of the Bulgarian flora.
Belev also led a campaign against attempts by a developer to remove protection from Strandzha Nature Park, one of the largest protected areas in Europe. Legal action undertaken by Belev in favor of the park closed a loophole that called into question protection of up to half of Bulgarian protected areas. Established in 1995, Strandzha Nature Park is the largest protected area in Bulgaria (1,161 km2 or 1% of the country’s territory). The area is host to very high biodiversity and one of the largest deciduous forest massifs in Europe.
“We are immensely proud that Toma Belev has been selected to receive this conservation merit award for his vision and commitment to nature protection in Bulgaria. Belev serves as a much needed example in Bulgaria and beyond not only of a dedicated, grassroots activist, but also an honest civil servant committed to serving the common good and future generations”, said Andreas Beckmann, Director of the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.
Toma Belev received the award at a special ceremony at the global environment organisation’s Annual Conference, now being held in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The award was established 30 years ago for demonstrated commitment to local, grass-roots conservation and can be awarded to individuals or institutions.
Past recipients of the award include scientists, community and business leaders, and conservation campaigners from the Himalayas to the marine depths and institutions from the European Environment Agency to the Campfire Association of Zimbabwe.
“It is a very special honour and it is my pleasure to accept this award on behalf of a multitude of Bulgarian NGOs working to protect our natural treasures, our protected areas from the interests of developers. This award is a recognition for the commitment of fellow conservationists in Bulgaria”, said Toma Belev.
About Toma Belev
Toma Belev is one of the leading nature conservationists in Bulgaria, and a recognized authority on protected area management and biodiversity protection. In the early 1990s, Belev served as environmental advisor to the Bulgarian Parliament before joining the State Forestry Administration where he worked for departments related to Protected Areas. In 1997, he was dismissed from the State Forestry Administration. For two years, between 1997 and 1999, Belev worked for the NGO Green Balkans, leading their work on policy and legislation in area of forestry and protected areas. In 1999, following a change in government and leadership of the State Forestry Administration, Belev rejoined the SFA as head of Vitosha Nature Park, a position that he retained until the end of February 2012, when political and financial interests finally succeeded in replacing him.
The struggle for Bulgaria’s protected areas
A massive expansion of skiing and other infrastructure is threatening many of Bulgaria’s protected areas. At threat are many of Bulgaria’s greatest natural treasures, including the alpine wonders of Rila and Pirin National Parks, the unique dune habitats of Kamchiya Sands, the forest and coastal landscapes of Strandzha Nature Park and the iconic Vitosha Mountain at the edge of the nation’s capital. The planned works – some of which, e.g. at Bansko in Pirin National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have already gone forward – are illegal, contravening in many cases not only national conservation laws, but also EU and international legislation.
The destruction of some of Bulgaria's greatest natural treasures - and the failure of Bulgarian authorities to do anything to address the problem - has provoked a public outcry and growing concern among ordinary Bulgarians. In a 2008 poll conducted by Alpha Research, 73.6% of respondents said that destruction of nature is the greatest environmental problem in Bulgaria and 58.3% said that illegal construction was the greatest problem. In 2007, during the highpoint of pressure on the parks as well as public concern, over 145,000 people (out of a total population of 8 million) signed a petition calling on the Bulgarian authorities to take action. “For the Nature”, a coalition of close to 50 Bulgarian environmental organizations, has come together to defend the threatened protected areas. They have mobilized thousands of people on social networking sites as well as on the streets.
The "For the Nature" coalition has already submitted a number of official complaints to the European Commission regarding the protected areas. The Commission has responded forcefully to complaints concerning the designation of Natura 2000 sites, putting pressure on the Bulgarian government to include all relevant areas in the network, but has yet to take serious action to stop some of the ongoing destruction of the protected areas.
Recently proposed changes to Bulgaria's Forest Act, which have already been approved by the Bulgarian government and are now being considered by the Bulgarian Parliament, will facilitate the emergence of ski lifts and practically all other types of buildings and infrastructure without changing land use, meaning that forests will remain forests only on paper. Furthermore, they would allow for the cheap acquisition of building rights on public land without tender and for an indefinite period. A series of protests and rallies organized by citizen groups and NGOs continue to demonstrate massive public support for the protection of Bulgaria’s protected areas.