100% of Bulgarian IBAs are in Natura 2000 since “Rila buffer” SPA was designated as repoonse of ECJ ruling since 2018


© Iordan Hristov

Yesterday, 27 March 2019, a new Special Protection Area (SPA) was adopted by the Bulgarian Council of Ministers, which cover lower part of Rila Mountain, at the periphery of Rila National Park. The new site, “Rila Buffer” SPA, with an area of about 380 km2 is part of Rila IBA and represents the last area of IBA in Bulgaria which was not designated as Natura 2000 site.

This decision of the Council of Ministers is a result of a 12-year struggle of the Bulgarian civil society for the protection of the forests,  rivers and biodiversity of Rila. It started in 2007 after the official rejection of the proposed protected areas in Rila Mountain by the MoEW and the start of the construction of an illegal ski lift to the Seven Rila Lakes. Over 170,000 citizens' signatures to the European Parliament and the European Commission have called for better conservation of nature in Rila. Several times delegations of the European Parliament visited Bulgaria. The European Commission has opened several dossiers for the problems in Rila. The scientific discussions on the coverage of the protected areas in Rila have repeatedly found insufficient coverage for several rare species of animals.

Already in 2007, Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) deposited an official complaint because of insufficiency the SPA network due to the failure to designate 26 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) as SPAs, including Rila IBA. After years of negotiations between the Commission and the government uder two infringement proceedings, all IBIs were included in Natura 2000 in 2013, except for the territory of the Rila IBA, which is not protected as national and nature parks. The reason was the strong economic interests supported by the municipalities and the government. While this area represented only 0.2% of the whole proposed SPA network, its exclusion from Natura 2000 resulted in the lack of adequate protection for several endangered bird species typical of Rila and with limited distribution, such as the Thengmal`s  Owl, Golden Eagle, White-backed woodpecker, etc. As this contradicts European nature protection law, in 2017 the European Commission referred the case to the European Court of Justice, which in early 2018 condemned Bulgaria to declare the area of Rila-buffer as SPA.

Throughout these years several different environmental ministers have done their best to refuse or delay the procedure for declaring the two protected areas in the hope that the society will get tired and the protected areas in Rila will never be announced! At the same time, the general development plan of Sapareva Banya Municipality was adopted in violation of the European and Bulgarian nature conservation legislation. The plan includes plans for large-scale resort construction in the mountain, approved without environmental assessment.

Today, with the designation of Rila-Buffer SPA, it can be concluded that 100% of the IBAs in Bulgaria are included in Natura 2000, and thus Bulgaria fulfills at least their minimum obligations under the Birds Directive. This is an important step in the protection of the most important sites for birds in the country, as well as in general in the field of nature conservation.


However, we still face the challenge of Rila-Buffer being announced with an individual order, and SPAs to be properly protected from destruction and bird habitats are to be effectively protected. The 12 years delay in implementing Bulgaria's obligations to the EU has allowed many areas of paramount importance for conservation to be deteriorated or even destroyed. Numerous decisions have also been made allowing for the legal destruction of habitats and disturbance of threatened species of Bulgarian nature that are to be implemented.

The inadequate protection of Natura 2000 protected areas is also the subject of a infringement procedure against Bulgaria, launched in 2008 and renewed with a new Lettre of formal notice from the European Commission since 2018. We insist that the government review its current nature conservation policy in Bulgaria and bring the implementation of the law in line with European standards so as not to force the Bulgarian citizen to pay for the consequences.