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Poland: Environmental Improvement Efforts Lead Region

Warsaw, 5 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Poland is emerging as something of a leader in the difficult task of the transition countries in cleaning up their long-neglected environments.

Like its neighbors in East Europe and the former Soviet Union, Poland carries a massive legacy of environmental degradation, affecting air and water quality, and ultimately the health of its citizens.

Taking an innovative line towards these long-term problems, the Poles in the early 1990's developed the idea of asking creditor nations to let them off part of their massive foreign debt if that money was used instead on environmental projects within Poland.

The idea was put to the Paris Club of foreign creditor governments, who in due course approved it. The governments of the United States, Switzerland, France, and Sweden agreed to decrease Poland's debt by $90 million if those funds were used for subsidizing various anti-pollution projects in Poland.

The Polish Ministry of Finance established the EcoFund Foundation in August 1992 as an instrument for using the money thus made available. Projects dealt with so far include construction of sewage treatment plants on the Baltic Coast and equipping conventional coal-fired electric power plants, as well as industrial plants, with filters to reduce air pollution.

EcoFund Foundation President Maciej Nowicki told a news conference in Warsaw on October 30 that as a result of the domestic success of the program, Poland has been giving advice on similar measures to Estonia, Russia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

Nowicki said Bulgaria is the second country after Poland to develop such a debt-swap system, with organizational help from Polish experts. He said the authorities in Sofia have arranged for Switzerland to remit part of the Bulgarian debt in favour of environment projects. He said the Czech authorities are working on a similar program, and that EcoFund experts had also traveled to the other interested countries to share their experience about the system.

Nowicki also said that the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has told EcoFund that it plans to issue a broad recommendation for other Central and East European States to follow the Polish model of handling environmental problems.

EcoFund Deputy President Andrzej Czyz told RFE/RL (November 4), that he had taken part in training of Russian officials from the Middle Volga region, and of an Estonian group, passing on the Polish experience on managing the financial aspects of the concept.

Czyz said he does not intend to trumpet Poland as having all the answers, because it has still a lot to do to catch up with European Union environment standards, "But there is no doubt we are the leaders in the region".

In addition to exporting the EcoFund concept, Poland has also formed a data bank base at the Ministry of Environment which has information on the latest technologies and environmental equipment available in the West.

Andrzej Widzyk from that ministry in Warsaw said it is giving advice to neighbor countries on which equipment is outdated, and which is the most modern available. "Some were surprised; they did not know they wasted money buying old technologies", he said.

The EcoFund's Nowicki said the agency's latest task is to fund programs to improve treatment of communal and industrial wastes. He said the EcoFund will be financing systems of recycling and utilization of wastes around medium-sized cities, those with a population of up to 50,000.