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Land surveying for the Strandzha fence has started Land surveying for the Strandzha fence has started Anthony Georgieff
Anti-foot-and-mouth disease fence to cut through national park

You might think East Europeans would be very wary of walls and fences, as it was not so long ago that their countries were encircled by barbed wire in what was collectively known at the time as the Socialist Camp. In 2012 the old Iron Curtain is, of course, no more, travel is visa-free, and even governments in the Balkans hope to join the Schengen free travel zone. Fences are not in vogue at all.

Except in Bulgaria, where a new project already underway seeks to resurrect the old Communist-era barbed-wire fence that cut off Warsaw Pact Bulgaria from most of its non-Socialist neighbours. This time, however, the official justification put forward by the Boyko Borisov government is that the new fence is not designed to prevent unfriendly foreigners from entering Bulgarian territory, but to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in the southeastern corner of the country.

Following an outburst of foot-and-mouth disease in early 2011 that resulted in the mass slaughter of thousands of livestock in the regions of Burgas, Yambol and Haskovo, the Bulgarian authorities decided that the disease must have originated in Turkey, and been spread by wild animals crisscrossing the Strandzha. Boars that Turkish hunters did not shoot, they concluded, were responsible for the spread of the disease, and the best way to stop them from crossing the 259 kilometre border with Turkey would be to build a 209.5 kilometre, 2-to-5 metre-high barbed-wire fence along the route.

To the applause of local farmers, who claimed that state compensation for the livestock they had lost was insufficient, the government quickly decided to go ahead with constructing the barbed-wire fence. Plans were drawn up, local administrations were involved, contractors were chosen, and surveyors are already mapping out the route.

There is, however, one small problem that everyone involved in the would-be fence project seems to have overlooked. A long stretch of the fence will pass through the Strandzha National Park, the largest and oldest nature reserve in Bulgaria, and home to much indigenous flora and fauna.

To understand why the Strandzha is so important to Bulgaria's environment, one needs to look at its not-so-distant history. Under Communism, almost the whole of the Bulgarian Strandzha (the mountain is a third in Bulgaria and two-thirds in Turkey) was a closed-off military zone administered by Bulgarian People's Army troops. Strict border controls were in force and even Bulgarians needed diffi cult-to-obtain special permits to approach the area. Dozens of East bloc refugees, notably from East Germany, were shot dead while trying to cross undetected into Turkey. The border area started just aft er Ahtopol on the Black Sea coast, about 10 kilometres from the actual border at Rezovo. In the hinterland it extended to as many as 50 kilometres north of Malko Tarnovo. Various checkpoints and surveillance equipment were installed, and practically no unauthorised entry into the Bulgarian Strandzha was possible. A number of towns and larger villages, notably Malko Tarnovo (about fi ve kilometres from the border) did develop some industry – for example, mining – but the larger part of the Strandzha remained pristine nature, except for the military installations and various barracks.

The project envisages parts of the former military security fence to be reinstalledThe project envisages parts of the former military security fence to be reinstalled

With the collapse of Communism's planned economy, most of the region's loss-making enterprises folded. The abandoned ruins of many of them can still be seen, especially in the towns of Malko Tarnovo and Sredets, formerly Grudovo. Hundreds of workers and staff were laid off. The younger left for the bigger cities in search of work. Out of 20,000 people living in Malko Tarnovo pre-1989, there are now about 3,000 mostly elderly residents.

The region's political and economic isolation imposed by the Communists, however, had one signifi cant positive side eff ect. No part of the Strandzha was ever heavily industrialised, and the construction boom of the 2000s left the area largely unaff ected. As it is now, its landscape and ecosystem, unlike many other places in Bulgaria especially along the Black Sea coast, remain relatively untouched.

The planned fence along the border with Turkey may change this, especially in its immediate vicinity, while its supposed effi cacy remains, at best, unproven. The government quotes unattributed "expert opinions" that the new fence will not aff ect the biodiversity in the national park, but environmentalists remain unconvinced. While it is true that it may halt the spread of foot-and-mouth disease by wild mammals, they claim, it cannot stop birds – and foot-and-mouth is carried by birds as well. Its construction, which will require the use of heavy machinery in parts of the mountain that have no roads, will probably damage the forest beyond repair.

And, of course, the new fence will be a unsightly blot in the middle of Bulgaria's only virgin forest.

Some critics have voiced their suspicions that there is an entirely diff erent agenda behind the desire to construct the fence in the first place. One resident of Malko Tarnovo, who did not want to be named, said Bulgaria was building the new installation in order to protect itself from illegal migrants and refugees seeking to enter from Turkey. Whether this, if true, is part of some grander design by the EU will probably remain enshrouded in mystery, the man said.

Asked about his sentiments regarding the new border fence, Turkish Ambassador Ismail Aramaz said: "Of course, what the Bulgarians do on their own territory is entirely up to them. There are no proven cases of foot-and-mouth in Turkey, and I do hope that the Bulgarian Government has conducted a thorough analysis of the effects the planned fence will have on the environment on both sides of the border."

Read 5534 times Last modified on Friday, 01 July 2016 12:12

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