Anyone should have noticed by now how quickly Latvia loses its forests. Regardless of what representatives from Latvian State Forests say, trees are not a field of carrots – they have to be replanted anew, notes Untouched Environment for Next Generations Association.
A certain problem uncovered by this association points to a very dangerous trend.
Under the guise of fixing up dunes, the National Alliance’s managed Environmental Protection and Regional Development Ministry has been performing actions that cannot be described as anything other than exploitation of Latvia’s national parks.
National parks are especially protected territories in Latvia. They are meant to preserve the beauty of Latvia’s landscapes and variety of its nature. Latvian residents trust the state to protect these territories, but this is not what the state has been doing lately, the association states.
It should be added that the government plans to view the controversial rules for the protection of Kemeri National Park on Tuesday, 6 September.
The desire to acquire state protected land within Kemeri National Park’s restricted area was first voiced by Gundars Vazs (NA) of Engure Council. Based on their arguments, it seems they view this land as ownerless. According to information reported by different media, politicians of Engure Municipality are known for their dismissive attitude towards the zoning of protected territories, which was established in the interest of society in the first place. The fact that frequent violations of regulations meant to protect these territories have been continuing for years shows the unwillingness of the government to prevent politicians of Engure Municipality from completely wiping out protected territories.
Special zones were created to balance out the preservation of nature and human influence in Kemeri National Park, 50% of territories of which are located in Engure. Neutral and landscape territories accessible to the municipality have been given out for the construction of mansions, children playgrounds and cemeteries (Klapkalnciems, Apšuciems, Plieņciems) illegally within protected zones.
The scale of violations is emphasized more with the fact that Edgars Zalans, now former Regional Development and Municipal Affairs Minister, had dismissed the Chairman of Lapmezciems Council Edmunds Petersons from his post in 2009 for his committed breach of protected territories. Unfortunately, the situation has not changed since then. In 2012, Engure municipal administration breached regulations that governed the municipality’s territorial planning by establishing a cemetery within one of Kemeri National Park’s restricted areas.
This particular case should be kept in mind because officials of Nature Protection Office, an authority entrusted with the protection of those territories, have also breached regulations. DAP Pieriga’s Regional Administration had coordinated Engure Municipal Council’s territorial planning that provided for the deforestation of Kemeri National Park’s restricted area for purposes of establishing a cemetery there. This was done without any legal justification.
Smoke and mirrors
Spokesperson for Untouched Environment for Next Generations Association Gints Kauniste, who was the first to point out the illegal activities in Kemeri National Park, notes that he has been made a laughing stock. On 30 October, 2014, he and representatives of the Environmental Protection Club turned to Environmental Protection and Regional Development Ministry to report on the illegal activities in Kemeri National Park. Opposite to good management practices, the ministry, instead of contacting the municipal administration and preventing the establishment of a cemetery within a protected area, replied that it had no intentions of turning away from its initiative to amend individual rules for protection and use of territories of Kemeri National Park, thereby basically legalizing the municipality’s plan.
Because other responsible institutions, including the State Audit and Prosecutor General’s Office, did not answer to G.Kauniste’s request to prevent the aforementioned violations, he decided to ask Neatkarīga Rīta Avīze for help.
Instead of providing society with objective information, journalist Imants Viksne cast a shadow of suspicion on Kauniste, doubting his intentions and calling him ‘wetland lover’. In its publications, NRA provided false information, condemning Kauniste for his protests against ‘establishing a cemetery in the only possible place’.
To achieve a constructive solution, Kauniste provided VARAM with five other proposed locations for the cemetery. Neither the ministry nor Engure Municipal Council wished to look at his proposed solutions. Not even the State Chancellery agreed to look at them.
The aforementioned NRA journalist Viksne had also mentioned unconfirmed information about the plans to finish Engure’s Ragaciems cemetery in one and a half years’ time. With that, he tried creating an impression that there is great need for the formation of a new cemetery. Even the opinion of The Director of DAP Pieriga regional administration Adris Sirov, who supports the municipal administration’s illegal initiative, that there is no other available location for the cemetery was published.
Residents are affected by this situation as well. Kauniste admits that prior to NRA’s publication of Viksne’s articles residents remained neutral, expressing only confusion with the sudden need to establish a new cemetery. Later on, however, residents became more attentive. Shortly after Kauniste refuted allegations voiced by the municipal administration about no possible alternatives, administration of Lapmezciems launched a misleading information campaign, in which preservation of natural values was put against residents’ interests. Both Untouched Environment for Next Generations Association and the Citizens’ Alliance learned that Engure Municipal Council had intentionally reported one-sided information in order to achieve permission for its illegal plan.
The most outrageous act of ethics breach, in Kauniste’s opinion, was the municipal government’s organized public meeting during which a politician told an old resident participating in the discussion that the real reason why NGO’s and Kauniste’s represented organization oppose the municipality’s plans is that they wish to protect their properties. Kauniste believes such a claim demonstrates the sense of lawlessness among politicians of Engure municipality.
The decision to equalize the dunes will directly affect the residents of Lapmezciems. Because of intense logging activities in Latvia, pine forests have become a rare sight for residents in Engure. The forest that is perfect for leisurely strolls and nature tourism attracts visitors to the park all year round is planned to be used for a new cemetery. Kauniste is certain that effective use of this natural treasure and creation of new services for visitors of the natural park would provide residents with jobs and reduce the desire of Latvian residents to look for jobs elsewhere. It should be mentioned that this complies with Engure Municipal Council’s approved Long-term Development Strategy, which provides for ‘the use of nature’s provided advantages for the development of tourism services and preservation of undeveloped territories for recreational needs of the municipality’s guests and residents’.
Engure municipality’s deputies should not only take address the matter of a new cemetery, but also consider creating new jobs and ensuring growth of the municipality as a whole, Kauniste says. The initiative to establish a cemetery smack in the middle of the most popular recreational territory of Kemeri National Park makes one question the level of responsibility Engure Municipal Council has before its voters.
The attitude of state institutions
This case has also helped reveal the unresponsiveness of the state administration to attempts of public representatives to restore justice. Aside from the clearly illegal coordination of territorial planning changes, the behavior of Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis and the head of State Chancellery Martins Krievins also warrant questioning.
After receiving refusal from VARAM, Kauniste decided to turn to the State Chancellery to address the ministry’s inappropriate behavior and oppose the illegal establishment of a cemetery in a protected territory.
One day prior to the association’s organized meeting, the head of the State Chancellery suddenly announced without any prior communication that the presence of the representatives at the meeting with Healthcare Ministry and Ombudsman’s representatives would not be necessary. This was evidence enough for the association that there is no justifiable reason for the reduction of the degree of protection of Kemeri National Park’s restricted area.
A similar outcome happened with the 29 August meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers Committee, during which ministers reviewed VARAM’s prepared draft for individual requirements for Kemeri National Park’s protected territories. During this meeting, Justice Ministry, which had previously pointed out the non-compliance of VARAM’s developer requirements, suddenly decided to withdraw its previous objections.
During the meeting, Kauniste provided a well-argumented opinion that the municipality’s statements in regards to a new cemetery are unjustified. Estimates provided by the association show that Engure’s existing cemeteries can satisfy the municipality’s needs for the next 40 years. In addition, the municipality’s chosen location does not allow for a 300m sanitary protection zone. The moment when Kauniste wanted to emphasize that the preservation of Kemeri National Park’s protected territory is done in the interest of Latvia’s population and that this territory is not owned by Engure Municipal Council, Kucinskis interrupted him.
In spite of the fact that the association proved that there is no justification for the plans of Engure Municipal Council to establish a cemetery in the protected territory the Cabinet of Ministers Committee decided to include the Kemeri National Park’s individual protection and use rules, which goes against the existing prohibition on the use of the natural park’s territory to establish a cemetery.
Considering the intense logging in the country, continued decline of territories intended for leisure and preservation of natural beauty, Untouched Environment for Next Generations Association urges residents to step up and prevent the destruction of Latvia’s natural treasures.