The Swiss-based NGO the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF)¹ has called on the Ukrainian government to reject plans to build a mega ski resort on the Svydovets mountain range and develop a strategy that protects the local environment.
“Immediate action is required to protect Svydovets and prevent the irreversible destruction of this biodiversity hotspot in the Carpathian Mountains,” the BMF said.
“Building a large-scale infrastructure in the middle of wildlife habitats, glacier lakes, and old-growth forests would lead to the devastation of the whole ecosystem.”
Today (Tuesday) the fund released a detailed report² about the plans for the resort and the damage the project would cause and presented the document to the Ministry of the Environment in Kyiv.
“Our report shows that the Ukrainian company Skorzonera LLC is behind the billion-dollar project. The responsible authorities had so far claimed that the project was not connected with private commercial interests,” the BMF’s executive director, Lukas Straumann, said.
“Skorzonera belongs to the oligarchs Igor Kolomoisky and Gennady Bogoliubov, who are involved in several ongoing court cases in Ukraine, Great Britain, and Switzerland.”
The planned ski resort would be the largest in the Carpathians and one of the biggest in Europe.
“The current plan for a mega ski resort on the Svydovets mountain range must be rejected because of its serious environmental impacts,” the BMF said.
“The scale and location of the project leave no doubt that its implementation would cause detrimental effects to the undisturbed ecosystem, which is home to 93 endangered species.”
The high-mountain zone of the Svydovets massif above the timber line is exceptionally significant for biodiversity conservation because of the high concentration of rare, red-listed, and endemic plant, animal, and fungi species.
The Svydovets massif is home to 42 plant species and 51 animal species that are listed in the Red Data Book of Ukraine as endangered. The endangered animal species include the European brown bear (Ursus arctos), the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), the black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix), and the Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo). There are also species endemic to the region like the Carpathian newt (Lissotriton montandoni).
All of the ten woodpecker species of European deciduous forests can be found in the Svydovets massif.
The red-listed plant species include the rose root (Rhodiola rosea), the Carpathian saxifrage (Saxifraga carpatica), the fir clubmoss (Huperzia selago), and the stiff clubmoss (Lycopodium annotinum).
Svydovets has one of the most pristine forest landscapes in the whole of Europe. It comprises diverse spruce, fir, and beech forests and contains the richest flora of the Ukrainian Carpathians.
The Svydovets ecosystem is partly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its exceptional biodiversity and primeval beech forests.
“The project is directly adjacent to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and therefore a threat to pre-alpine primary forests of the Svydovets massif,” the BMF states in its report.
“According to the minimum estimates, 500 hectares of high-altitude spruce, fir and beech old-growth and virgin forests are situated on the territory of the project.”
More than half of Ukraine’s glacial lakes are located on the mountain range and the massif provides the hydrological regime³ of the region. The source of the international Tysa River, which is a main tributary of the Danube, is in the Svydovets.
According to a study by Kanarsky et al. in 2018, the implementation of the resort project would have destructive consequences for natural ecosystems and landscapes of the whole Svydovets mountain range, deteriorating the hydrological regime and contaminating the upper Chorna Tysa river catchment.
The resort would include 230 kilometres of ski slopes, 390 apartment buildings, 120 restaurants, sixty hotels, 10 shopping centres, 17 rental equipment units, two bank branches, three fitness centres, and five multi-storey car parks with spaces for 6,000 vehicles.
The planned complex is designed for a capacity of 22,000 tourists per day and there would be 5,000 employees.
A total 1,430 hectares of land are to be taken over for the resort. This comprises 1,187 hectares of forest land and 243 hectares of state-owned agricultural lands, such as pastures, highland meadows, and hayfields. Plots currently used by local people would be privatised.
Water would be used for artificial snow production and 89.9 kilometres of road would need to be built to provide access to the resort, the BMF points out.
The large amount of sewage produced by the planned tourist complex would pose a serious threat to the Tysa River’s water cycle, and this would inevitably have transboundary environmental impacts, the BMF says. There would also be an increased risk of flooding.
The highest peak of the territory is below 1,900 metres, therefore the long-term viability of the resort project is highly doubtful, even from a purely economic perspective, the BMF says.
“What is particularly striking regarding the recent boom of ski development in the Carpathians is that the likely changes in snowfall due to climate change are not taken into account.
“Most of the skiing areas that have been developed in the last years are located at less than 1,500 meters above sea level. According to climate change models, skiing at this altitude will become economically unviable already within a few decades.”
The ski resort project would violate national protected areas and international treaties, the BMF says. The Carpathians represent a natural heritage of Ukraine that should also be protected for purely economic reasons, it adds.
“The damage caused by the destruction of old-growth and virgin forests in Svydovets to satisfy the plans of dodgy investors outweighs by far the unclear economic gain for the region.
“Considering the long-term costs and the short-term benefits that can be expected from a ski resort on this territory and altitude, the competent authorities should reject the project.”
In the Transcarpathian region there are already 54 mostly small-scale ski resorts with a total of 73 kilometres of ski slopes.
The authors of the new report recommend three concrete steps to overcome the current threat to the Svydovets massif and to develop a long-term perspective for the region.
They say that the Ukrainian government, with support from the international community, scientific institutions, and civil society groups, should not only reject the plan for the ski resort but also identify alternative models of development together with the local population.
The BMF says that the fragmented landscape of different protected areas in Svydovets does not protect the massif from threats such as illegal logging and the construction of ski resorts.
“The fragmented protected areas that exist on the territory of Svydovets must be integrated into a comprehensive framework,” the fund said. “There is already detailed scientific evidence supporting the creation of such a new protected area.”
The southwestern area of the Svydovets massif is part of the Carpathian Biosphere Reserve and four zones are protected areas (zakaznyky) of local and national importance.
The BMF says the Ukrainian authorities are not being transparent about the development of the ski resort.
The lack of involvement of the local population in the project amounts to a clear violation of the Aarhus Convention, which prescribes transparent planning procedures, the BMF says.
Given the lack of public information, residents from the affected village of Lopukhovo filed a lawsuit against the authorities and the case is pending at the Supreme Court of Ukraine.
“However, the Transcarpathian government continues to pursue the project behind the public’s back, preparing the necessary change of land use for the implementation of the project,” the BMF says in its report.
“Moreover, construction of a new road connecting the two districts to the planned Svydovets tourism complex has already begun, before the results of the environmental impact assessment are known.”
The BMF says that, despite the fact that the Svydovets ski resort is officially being promoted as a government project, it is the investors who are in reality steering the process.
“Official documents from the Tyachiv District Administration provide evidence that the company Skorzonera LLC is behind the Svydovets project,” the BMF says in its report.
“Skorzonera is the owner of Bukovel, the largest ski resort in Ukraine at present. The company is currently the object of ongoing investigations by Ukrainian authorities concerning the suspected misappropriation of state funds.”
Those promoting the resort project present it as a cure-all for the “depressed” economic situation and the high unemployment rate in the Transcarpathian region.
It is stated that local residents will be able to create thousands of tourist lodgings in their houses, which would indirectly create another 15,000 jobs in areas close to the resort.
The BMF says residents of the affected villages, and regional tourism experts, have expressed strong doubts that these promises will be realised. “Experience from the adjacent Bukovel ski resort shows that most jobs are not held by local people,” the fund states in its report.
Experience from other countries with similarly oversized tourist projects in mountain areas, such as in the Pirin National Park in Bulgaria, shows that local people do not adequately benefit from such massive ski resorts, the fund says.
“The big promises about the creation of jobs are unlikely to come true. On the contrary, the local population often loses control over their villages and has to deal with the negative consequences of large-scale infrastructures,” the BMF said.
“These include the privatisation of community land, pollution of drinking water, water shortages, and deterioration of natural resources.”
Last year, 21 NGOs wrote to the then president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, urging him to stop the resort project and to do all in his power to protect the Svydovets massif.
“While we understand the need for jobs in poor rural regions the permanent damage to core ecosystem functions cannot be replaced,” the NGOs said. “Hence there is a need to develop livelihoods that do not create such disturbance.”
The BMF says that, in order to find a solution that is widely accepted and respected in practice, local people from the affected villages should be integrated into the decision-making process.
“Alternative income opportunities should be identified and a strategy for low-impact tourism should be developed in cooperation with the local population.”
The ecological value of Svydovets and the traditional livelihoods of the region provide opportunities for a local economy that is based on an intact environment, the BMF says.
“Raising awareness of social and environmental issues among all stakeholders is essential. For example, hiking in a ‘Svydovets’ natural park, accompanied by a local guide, generates an income for local communities without adversely impacting the ecosystem of Svydovets.”
Currently, mushrooms, blueberries, and other berries are picked by local people from the surrounding villages and are sold unprocessed in Hungary, Italy, and Switzerland instead of being processed on site.
The infrastructure needed to ensure the added value of these products is currently beyond the reach of the local population. It is therefore essential to build up the infrastructure and knowledge to transform these high-quality products on site, the BMF says.
“Alpine pastoralism, traditional in this region, should be supported and associated with ecotourism and gastronomy to provide a livelihood for hundreds of people.”
A comprehensive reform of forest management should make it possible to develop Svydovets’ main resource after water and biodiversity, the fund says in its report. This would require the reintroduction of tree species native to the massif and a form of forest exploitation that respects the ecosystem and promotes the diversity of species.
“Clear-cutting or industrial monoculture coniferous plantations must be stopped, as should the use of huge felling machines that destroy vegetation and soils.
“Instead, soft methods to access the timber should be promoted, such as horses, light, small-scale machines, and cabling.”
The BMF says the Ukrainian authorities should make sure that no more wood is harvested than the annual natural regrowth. “Local small and medium-sized wood processing companies should be encouraged. This will require at least the enforcement of the existing export ban of logs.”
In July 2018, the British NGO Earthsight revealed the massive scale of illegal logging and timber corruption in Ukraine in its report “Complicit in Corruption: How billion-dollar firms and EU governments are failing Ukraine’s forests”.
After a two-year investigation, the report’s authors concluded that at least 40 percent of the Ukrainian wood exported to the EU was traded or harvested illegally and corruption was widespread within the Ukrainian forestry sector.
According to the latest report by WWF Ukraine, up to a quarter of the timber from the Carpathians is felled illegally, amounting to one million cubic metres of wood per year. This includes logging without permits and in unauthorised areas like national parks. The State Agency of Forest Resources (SAFR) says that less than 50,000 cubic metres are illegally felled across the entire country.
Straumann said: “The Svydovets massif is one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas. The protection of this area is of international importance and must be promoted by Ukraine and supported by the European Union.”
1. The Bruno Manser Fund was founded by the Swiss rainforest advocate Bruno Manser, who has been missing since his last trip to Sarawak in May 2000.
2. The report was researched between June 2018 and June 2019 by the BMF in collaboration with the Longo Maï network of agricultural co-operatives and the Free Svydovets group in Ukraine.
3. A hydrological regime is the variations in the state and characteristics of a water body that are regularly repeated in time and space and pass through phases, e.g. seasonal.