19 AUG 2019: Last week two Macedonian municipalities responsible for the Ohrid region announced a moratorium on construction within the World Heritage Site, matching a UNESCO recommendation to temporarily end all transformation of coastal and urban areas in the World Heritage property.
Usually, when authorities take steps towards environmental responsibility in Macedonia, there is some kind of trick involved. Is anything different this time?
CONSTRUCTION WILL CONTINUE
Announcement of the moratorium will not affect building that is already happening now or extensions to existing buildings, so transformation of the World Heritage Site will still be moving forward even under moratorium conditions.
BUILDING WILL NOT NOT STOP FOR LONG
When the municipalities announced the moratorium, they stated that it will only be effective until a management plan for the Ohrid region is complete. The date set for completion is January 2020, so one of Europe’s most important areas for wildlife will be rested from diggers and bulldozers for five months only.
CONSTRUCTION PLANS WILL STILL BE PROCESSED
Applications for construction that have already been received will still be processed like normal. In other words, fans of cement who wish to exploit Lake Ohrid’s shores will face little inconvenience. Their permits will be ready just in time for the moratorium to be lifted, when the next wave of constructors will be able to submit more development plans.
Instructively, approval for a controversial nine-story building in the Municipality of Struga was passed just before the moratorium conditions were announced. Last year, it was the center of severe procedural anomalies during meetings of a special board that had been established to oversee development plans in the Ohrid region.
UNESCO first requested a moratorium on all coastal and urban transformation throughout the Ohrid region in 2017. Authorities ignored this request and even misrepresented the situation in their official November 2018 report to UNESCO, which inaccurately claimed that moratorium conditions had been put in place. This behavior, which the World Heritage Committee totally failed to sanction, has allowed two extra years of habitat destruction around Lake Ohrid.
If UNESCO’s recommendation is accurately applied, lifting of the moratorium should only occur when laws, planning documents and other development controls are established in the Ohrid region. Progress towards this goal so far has included the development of a law with tiny punishments that has not been able to pass parliament; and the creation and withdrawal of a tourism strategy designed by students. No steps have been taken to address the high-school level of environmental assessments or calculate the Ohrid region’s carrying capacity, and the Mayor of Struga was recently photographed opening a restaurant that has been built illegally on state property in Ohrid City’s protected old town core.
A lot of work is still needed before January.
Yet again Macedonia is likely to be rewarded for delaying and misleading UNESCO, proving that recommendations from the institution that is supposed to represent the highest level of protected areas on the planet can be functionally avoided with a few delays and well-worded statements.
As happened earlier this year, the World Heritage Committee will praise the five months of limited action Macedonia has taken and allow the destruction of the Ohrid region to continue.
That’s how conservation seems to work these days.