Kresna gorge / Struma motorway, Bulgaria
The Struma motorway is tragically emblematic of an EU-funded project that has wrought havoc on European biodiversity and the wishes of local communities. In spite of two decades of protest by civil society and citizens, part of the Struma motorway section is planned directly through the Kresna gorge, a Natura 2000 site and Bulgaria’s richest biodiversity hotspot.
We closely follow international public finance and bring critical updates from the ground.
- EIB: EUR 57 million
- EU funds: EUR 605 million
1. The proposed motorway cuts through the Kresna gorge, threatening to drive dozens of unique species to extinction.
2. The road also endangers the livelihood of local people who rely on their fertile land, clean air, and tourism opportunities.
3. The case points to substantial loopholes in the management of EU funds, which allow the destruction of a valuable natural site.
4. At least one viable alternative routing outside the gorge exists, but the Bulgarian government refuses to acknowledge its benefits.
The Bulgarian government planned to build the Struma motorway many years ago. The initial route of the motorway was supposed to go directly through the Kresna gorge, a Natura2000 site, and the town of Kresna.
In 2002, an alternative routing plan had been designed by independent engineers, passing outside the gorge and avoiding inhabited areas, arable lands, the most precious natural habitats and biological corridors, and the mineral springs in the region.
After intervention by the European Commission and the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention, the Bulgarian government initiated a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in 2006 to ensure that all proposed variants for the motorway were properly studied.
In 2007, as a result of the final EIA, locals, road authorities, non-governmental organisations and relevant ministries agreed on a concrete route for the motorway outside of the Kresna Gorge, only to abandon it in 2017 under the pressure of construction companies.
In 2017 and 2018 the Bulgarian government and parliament changed laws and rules restricting democratic civil rights in the country to allow special “fast-track approval” of strategic projects like the Struma Motorway. It has become significantly more difficult to challenge the project of “national strategic importance”.
Thousands of citizens across Europe signed a petition calling that European laws for the protection of nature are respected and the pristine valley of Kresna Gorge in Bulgaria is saved from destruction. Don’t stand by, add your name to the petition.
Invaluable natural site
Kresna gorge is home to 92 protected species, and part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network of protected areas. More butterfly species live on one square kilometre of the Kresna gorge than in all of the UK.
Since construction of the motorway started in 2011, the traffic through the Kresna gorge has caused severe decline of the populations of protected bats, turtles and snakes.
Any construction work in the Kresna gorge risks exacerbating and making irreversible damage to the protected habitats and species of the gorge.
Photos: “Save Kresna gorge” coalition
Impacts on local livelihoods
The town of Kresna at the southern end of the Kresna gorge will suffer from the construction as well: the motorway will pass at a distance of 30 metres from outlying homes and the local school.
The people of Kresna would lose their most fertile agriculture lands, their clean air and the possibilities of tourism development in the region. Ecotourism, such as white water rafting, kayaking and biking, has already developed in the Kresna gorge area and will be significantly hampered by the motorway construction.
Diverting the motorway out of the gorge and away from the town will protect the natural environment and will turn the existing road into a tourist route, as opposed to a massive transportation corridor.
In January 2019 we petitioned the Ombudsman to end the prolonged maladministration by the Commission of EUR 605 million in EU Cohesion funds that the Bulgarian government intends to spend on the Struma motorway.
In 2013 the Commission conditioned funding of the Struma motorway on “avoiding the environmentally sensitive Kresna Gorge”, a prerequisite for further financing of other parts of the motorway. But insufficient oversight of Bulgaria by the Commission has allowed the project to proceed in spite of violations to the EU’s Habitats Directive, the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, and international conventions.
The decision by the Bulgarian government to extend the southbound routing of the motorway through the Kresna gorge has been called a compromise to enable a speedier and less expensive completion of the motorway.
Yet according to our analyses, the costs of construction of this ‘version’ will be the same – if not more – than if the motorway was constructed entirely outside the gorge. This is because our calculations include more than just the construction costs of the project, but also the economic opportunities resulting from lost livelihoods of local farmers whose lands in the area of Kresna will be appropriated and destroyed, and as well as costs to tourism like rafting, which is a key contributor to the economic activity of Kresna.