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East: Report Says Natural Wealth Of Carpathians Threatened

  • Eugen Tomiuc

The conservation agency World Wildlife Fund International (WWF) is warning that the Carpathian Mountains are under increasing pressure from human activities as well as growing poverty. In a report released today to coincide with World Environment Day, WWF International says that the unique natural and cultural wealth of the Carpathians is threatened by deforestation, hunting, and road development as well as pollution. It also points to the fact that the expected accession of some Carpathian countries to the European Union may bring in some new threats to the region -- especially in terms of the common agricultural policy and proposed road networks.

Prague, 5 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The environmental organization World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned in a report released today that the natural diversity of the Carpathian Mountains -- the largest mountain range in Europe -- is threatened by increasing human pressure and economic hardship.

"The Status of the Carpathians" report, released to coincide with World Environment Day, is the first-ever overall assessment of the natural and cultural richness of the Carpathians, which straddle seven European countries -- Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Poland, and Romania. Some 18 million people live in the Carpathian area.

The report says the Carpathians, which are home to some threatened species of bears and wolves, are under growing pressure from deforestation, road development, pollution, and hunting as well as increased poverty due to drastic economic changes after the fall of communism.

The document was developed by the Carpathian Eco-Region Initiative -- a partnership of more than 50 organizations facilitated by WWF's International Danube Carpathian Program.

Paul Csagoly, the program's communications manager, told RFE/RL that the report's aim is to present the Carpathians as an entity where people and countries share common riches and problems:

"The main point of the report was that we wanted to put the Carpathians more on the international map and more into the minds of people everywhere. Until now, most people have not seen the Carpathians as one unit like they have the Alps. Until now, the Carpathians have been perceived more as separate pieces belonging to many countries, but it truly is one mountain range sharing many similar natural and cultural riches, and problems, and threats, and solutions. So, this new status report and the CD-ROM which goes along with it show these common riches and problems between the different countries and the mountains."

With a surface of more than 200,000 square kilometers, the Carpathians spread across an area larger than any other mountain chain in Europe, from the Vienna basin in Austria to the Danube's Iron Gates Gorge.

The report says the Carpathians are home to 481 unique species of plants and is Europe's last region outside Russia which can support sizeable populations of large carnivores. On a continent where some 40 percent of the species of mammals are under threat of extinction, the Carpathians offer one of the last opportunities to repopulate such carnivores.

The Carpathians host some 8,000 brown bears, 3,000 lynxes and 4,000 wolves -- 45 percent of Europe's total wolf population. Furthermore, the mountains are home to the only European bison population, estimated at some 160 animals in Poland's Bieszczady Mountains.

The document says that up to 45 percent of Europe's population of imperial eagles -- a globally threatened species -- live in the Carpathians, together with other endangered species such as the lesser-spotted eagle and the white-backed woodpecker.

With a maximum altitude of 2,655 meters in Slovakia's Tatra range, the Carpathians also hold Europe's largest areas of mountain forests outside Russia. The mountains have numerous glacial lakes -- 110 in the High Tatras -- and mineral water springs and provide 80 percent of Romania's freshwater reserves.

During communism, many Carpathian areas avoided certain negative effects of a planned economy, such as land collectivization, due to their remoteness and rough terrain.

But the report warns that the region's ecological balance and its centuries-old, self-sustaining lifestyles are increasingly threatened by the consequences of the last decade's economic and political transition -- deforestation, pollution, hunting, increased poverty, and the breakup of small communities.

Csagoly says the transition proved particularly difficult for people living in the Carpathians:

"Now, since 1990, when the region has opened up to the global economy, it's ever more difficult from a market perspective, because a lot of local markets were lost -- now they have to compete in the global marketplace. And this isn't very easy because again in the Carpathians, the lifestyles they're used to supported local populations. But now with Western European products coming in, which are often subsidized, the people there [in the Carpathians] are having a tough time."

The report warns that, in the coming years, the likely accession of some of the region's countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania to the European Union may place further pressure on the Carpathians.

While EU membership will have an overall positive effect on the region's economic development and environmental protection, the document points out that certain EU policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy and proposed highway networks may place additional pressure on the Carpathians.

Csagoly explains why: "The main threat in terms of directives and processes is the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU. With the experience in the member states, the problem has been that it has a lot of subsidies which promote many activities that are often quite environmentally destructive: very intensive agriculture on small pieces of land, too-high use of fertilizers and pesticides -- and in many cases, the result of that has been a decreasing number of species."

Csagoly also says several EU-proposed road networks and pipelines could lead to deterioration of the Carpathian environment.

The report identifies 30 priority areas in the Carpathians which require protection, covering some 15 percent of the range's total area and including the Fagaras Mountains in central Romania, the eastern Carpathians on the border of Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine, and the High Tatras on the Slovak-Polish border.

The document says that only some 40 percent of the priority areas' total surface is currently part of zones under protection. It adds that even some of the areas which are currently under protection have in fact little or no protection or management.

The WWF report provides a series of recommendations to improve the long-term management of the Carpathians' resources.

Recommendations include expanding currently protected zones to all 30 priority areas, supporting sustainable small-scale farming and ecotourism and promoting improved forest-management programs -- such as the Romanian government's recent commitment to harvest 1 million hectares of forests in a sustainable way.

The report also call for the reform of certain EU policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, as well as the development of an international legal framework -- possibly under a Ukrainian-proposed Carpathian Convention and for the development of major funding resources.

Csagoly says a first positive step was already taken last year in April, when 14 heads of states and governments from Central and Eastern Europe participating in an environmental summit on the Carpathian and Danube region adopted a joint declaration in support for the rehabilitation of the Carpathian Mountains.

But Csagoly says that in order to achieve results, organizations of the WWF's Carpathian Eco-region Initiative will have to step up cooperation with national governments and national park officials as well as local communities in the Carpathians.

(The full report is available at: http://www.carpathians.org/launch/index.htm)

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