EU brings fresh hopes and fears for Romania’s Danube Delta region

MAHMUDIA – Now that it belongs to the European Union, Romania has high hopes for the Danube Delta. This vast wetland is one of the richest wildlife havens in the world. Every spring millions of rare migrating birds fly thousands of miles from Africa to nest on its lagoons. It survived late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s ill-conceived obsession with intensive farming. Much of it has also withstood the destruction wrought by the post-communist land grab. Now this remote natural paradise faces a new challenge – surviving corruption amid a race for EU development funds. From ministers in Bucharest down to fishermen in the poor delta village of Mahmudia, «tourism» and «EU money» are on everyone’s lips. The trick is to ensure this source of such hope does not kill the goose with the golden eggs, or indeed the millions of rare red-breasted geese and Dalmatian pelicans that nature tourists flock to the delta to see. «There’s lots of EU money coming in but lots of conflicting interests,» explained Daniel Petrescu, a wildlife guide, photographer and head of Ibis Tours in the delta town of Tulcea. «The Forestry Ministry wants trees on the steppe bordering the delta; the Industry Ministry wants stone quarries and wind farms; the Tourism Ministry wants big hotels and big roads to bring in more tourists; and the Environment Ministry wants to protect the wildlife and habitat. It’s total chaos and it could destroy the region,» he told AFP. «There is no coherence in Brussels either.» On paper, the 6,000-square-kilometer (2,300-square-mile) delta and the neighboring orchid-filled steppes of Dobrogea are strictly protected under Romanian, European and international law. «But,» said Petrescu, «pressure is huge because everyone wants to make money.» The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority (DDRBA) sees no contradiction between tourism and conservation. «We want to increase tourist numbers,» DDRBA Governor Paul Cononov told AFP. «But we don’t want it to be like Spain or Portugal. We want to keep the birds, flowers and animals.» Yet critics say the DDRBA master plan, for which Cononov hopes to obtain -140 million ($186 million) from Brussels, is riddled with inconsistencies. And other bodies in charge of the delta – the Fisheries Ministry and the Environmental Agency in Tulcea – appear to have rather different agendas. The DDRBA hopes to both protect the wetlands and transform the poverty-stricken local economy from fishing to tourism. The first goal means turning Ceausescu-era farming and fishing polders back into wetland, curbing poaching and stopping illegal construction, Cononov said. The second implies new roads and sewage plants to cope with the expected influx of tourists and investments in renewable energy. Officials agree on the need to stop ugly buildings and poaching, particularly of prized Beluga sturgeon, whose caviar fetches -40 per tiny 30-gram pot in Paris. But that is where agreement ends. For Petrescu, tourism can only provide jobs for some people in some villages for some months of the year. «People want to see wild places and wildlife. If you wreck the place, why should they come here when there are other, cheaper destinations?» In the village of Mahmudia, local opinion is divided. «Tourism would be good for the young people. They’ll have work,» said 64-year-old Evdokia Pavlov. As for replacing commercial fishing with tourist angling, Evdokia’s husband Kosmo is unimpressed. «What will we do if we can’t fish? Eat the cat?» Meanwhile, the DDRBA’s plans to transform abandoned polders into wetlands have met with conflict. The Fisheries Ministry wants to revive them as fish farms, with money from the EU Common Fisheries Policy, although a ministry official told AFP electricity was too dear for this to work. And the elite who bought polders for peanuts when the Communists fled, «prefer to keep the land and get EU subsidies for not cultivating it,» he said on condition of anonymity. More worryingly, national wildlife groups accuse the Environment Agency in Tulcea of giving private firms licenses to build EU-funded wind farms on protected land, at the risk of destroying the steppe and the delta forever. Petrescu pointed to a skein of hills, visible for hundreds of miles around. «There are plans for a wind farm there. Those are the first hills the birds come to when they arrive from Siberia. They fly over the top to the lagoon on the other side. «What if there’s a huge flock? Or fog? They’ll go smack into the windmill blades. It’ll be disastrous.» «People are like locusts. They devour everything and then move on somewhere else or die of starvation.» But Petrescu still remains optimistic. He and other conservationists are keeping up the pressure on local and EU officials and his own photos speak louder than words. «People see my pictures and say: ‘Wow! Which exotic country is that? Malaysia?’ I say, ‘No, it’s here, right under your feet.’»

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