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North Macedonian environmental management and its journey towards becoming part of the European Union

News 2019-10-22 at 8:44

Towards the end of the autumn, during Finland’s EU presidency, it will be decided whether to begin European Union accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. These countries have implemented many reforms in order to make it possible to begin accession negotiations. Finland has actively supported the development of North Macedonia’s environmental management and the initiation of scientific monitoring of nature.

The Twinning project Strengthening the capacities for effective implementation of the acquis in the field of nature protection is led by the Finnish Environment Institute and its goal is to support the development of the capacities of the North Macedonian nature protection authorities prior to the initiation of accession negotiations with the EU. The project partners have included the Lithuanian State Service for Protected Areas and Metsähallitus as well as the primary twinning partner, the North Macedonian Ministry of Environment.

Way to meeting
Director of the Twinning project Petri Ahlroth, Deputy Director Ruta Baskyte and Coordinator Kati Pritsi smile of satisfaction at the well-functioning preparations at the Skopje Museum bridge while on their way to the project’s concluding seminar. Photo Riku Lumiaro.

The purpose of the project is to develop North Macedonian environmental management and related legislation, establish scientific monitoring of nature and lay the foundation for implementing EU legislation. In addition, the project involved writing up draught usage and management plans for two potential Natura 2000 sites at the Pelister National Park and Lake Prespa.

Twinning Project Director Petri Ahlroth from the Finnish Environment Institute is satisfied with the final results. “All the project outcomes were met and we achieved even more than we were expected to. We Finnish participants gave our all to the project. Many species experts travelled from Finland at their own expense to train the North Macedonian experts in how to set up species monitoring, and we brought them equipment such as window traps and light traps for finding nocturnal butterflies and many other hard-to-find insects.”

Lack of scientific expertise slows down development

Adviser Arto Ahokumpu from Metsähallitus, who worked on the project in North Macedonia, breathes a deep sigh of relief after the project’s closing ceremony. “I feel relieved now. This has been one of the most difficult tasks I have ever faced in my career. Thankfully, the nature here is wonderful and living here is pleasant.”

Twinning activities involve offering long-term expert support to candidate countries. This involves sending advisers to work together with the beneficiary country’s administration. Good cooperation and the mutual commitment to the project are two of the keys to achieving the goals set.

“In North Macedonia, there are no institutions equivalent to Metsähallitus or the Finnish Environment Institute, and, unfortunately, North Macedonia does not have trained nature protection biologists or other such specialists. During the project, 40 local experts were trained with support from Finland and Lithuania. Protection of natural diversity cannot run ahead of other forms of social development – it has to find support among the country’s citizens. This requires investments in environmental education. In addition, corruption slows down the country’s development and expertise is not necessarily the number one priority when selecting officials”, says Ahokumpu.

Kimmo Lähdevirta
The Finnish ambassador in Belgrade Kimmo Lähdevirta mentioned in his speech that Finland, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, supports the initiation of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Lähdevirta thanked the parties involved for the good results obtained. Photo Riku Lumiaro.

North Macedonia is a treasure trove of natural diversity

“For a number of different species groups, the nature of North Macedonia is of great value. The diversity of species is large and includes many endemic species, which are those which originate from this area. North Macedonia is located in the southern Balkans and is part of the Mediterranean climatic zone. The country’s eastern region is dry and continental, while the rainfall is concentrated on the green mountain ranges of the western side”, explains Head of Unit Kimmo Syrjänen from the Finnish Environment Institute.

As the continental plates have moved, the Balkan Peninsula has received influences from different directions and is thus now home to species from Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa. In some parts of the country there are karsts, which bring their own special contribution to the diversity found here. These caves and hollows that have formed in the soft limestone enrich the area’s subterranean nature. These species have been able to develop their own partially segregated ecosystems without being much affected even by the ice ages.

For the reasons mentioned above, there is both high species diversity and a high number of endemic taxa. Despite the high biological value of the area, there is insufficient knowledge of the species and their ways of life.

European pond turtle
The European pond turtle lives in stagnant or slow-flowing, muddy-bottomed freshwater areas which have dense vegetation. The species has spread from Spain as far as the Baltic countries. Photo Riku Lumiaro.

“One of the project’s research areas was Pelister National Park, which was established in 1948 as Yugoslavia’s first National Park. At that time, they banned within the area the grazing of animals, a practice which had been very important particularly for the diversity of Alpine meadow species. For example, the rock partridge and alpine chough both thrive on open mountain slopes. The beautiful blue Crocus pelistericus and the tufty Dianthus myrtinervius, which belongs to the carnation family, are two of the area’s endemic alpine species. The national park’s forests are valuable particularly because of containing the world’s most extensive areas of Macedonian pine. In addition, the park also contains old beech and oak forests”, Syrjänen explains enthusiastically.

Funding is the key obstacle to nature sector development

Deputy Director Ruta Baskyte from the Lithuanian State Service for Protected Areas was responsible for leading the pilot projects for the creation of usage and management plans. She is somewhat troubled by the obstacles faced. “The management plans have not been implemented, because without funding it is hard to do anything. For some of the measures, new assessments should be made as to what minimum resources would be required to implement them at some point. Changing attitudes also takes time. For example, in both of the pilot locations there was a problem with illegal fishing and hunting.”

“Communication and cooperation between the Finns and the Lithuanians has gone smoothly. It has been possible in the project to learn and share expertise also between the different parties implementing the project. For us Lithuanians, a most important aspect of the project has been that we have understood the value of our own country’s environmental management and scientific research. It is in a better state than we realised”, Baskyte adds.

Beetles shells
Many animals feed on large beetles, and in forests you can sometimes come across piled up remains of large stag beetles. The stag beetle is one of the largest European Beatles and is well known for the large mouth parts of the male beetle. Photo by Petri Ahlroth.

According to Vlatko Trpeski, the Director of the Department of Nature of the North Macedonian Ministry of Environment, two new international projects are being implemented for surveying the future Natura areas and developing the administration systems for them.

“For the government, the funding of the nature sector is a large problem. Until now, development projects have been carried out only with foreign funding. North Macedonian budget funding can be obtained only through EU accession negotiations”, Trpeski says with a sigh, and adds that “this country needs an intermediate level environment and research administration. The Ministry of Environment cannot be responsible for managing nature protection areas and implementing species monitoring at the practical level.”

Prize for good work
Award ceremony photo: Petri Ahlroth hand Vlatko Trpeski hand over the certificates of honour to the representatives of the project’s pilot areas. Pece Cvetanovski (front) is satisfied to receive this mark of recognition. Photo Riku Lumiaro.

Aleksandar Nastov, the official responsible for nature protection at the North Macedonian Ministry of Environment, comments that ´”the Twinning project should have been longer – 21 months is too short a period of time for the development of administration and different kinds of systems. The project should be extended in some way, because North Macedonia does not have the resources to hold on to the people trained through the project.”

Need for investment in work opportunities, training and infrastructure

Edita Redzovic, the official responsible for the development of Natura 2000 areas, is one of the few people within the Ministry of Environment who has a qualification in natural sciences. North Macedonia doesn’t really have any job opportunities for natural scientists. Employment can be found only in schools, consulting companies and NGOs. The country needs more employment opportunities so that graduates do not need to go abroad to find work.

The project eding coctail party
Event meal photo: Edita Redzovic, Arto Ahokumpu and Petri Ahlroth enjoy local delicacies at the end of the project’s closing ceremony. Photo Riku Lumiaro.

“My interest in and appreciation of nature was formed through my studies. These days, spending time in nature is becoming more common among young people – pastimes like hiking and mountain biking have become fashionable. The infrastructure for national parks and other natural sites is still undeveloped, however. Projects should be initiated from developing nature tourism”, says Redzovic.

Pece Cvetanovski, the Deputy Director of Pelister National Park, is responsible for the administrative development of the project’s forest pilot location. Earlier on, the management of Pelister focused on forestry and other similar activities. Now the staff of the National Park have been trained in monitoring species and nature protection. The goal is that the data collected can be used for North Macedonian endangered species assessments.

“The preparation of the management plan has already increased work efficiency and improved communication between different bodies. Meetings for stakeholder groups were organised as part of the plan preparations, and the employees at the park have begun to understand the importance of research and of species monitoring. They have been satisfied with the practical teaching, and this has increased work motivation”, Cvetanovski says with a smile.

“I have personally learned a lot during the study trips to Finland and Lithuania. I understood how we should take action to develop research and nature tourism and what kind of investment of time and resources this requires. The example of the Finnish specialists’ enthusiasm and commitment to their work has changed our way of working and will turn out to be of great importance for our future”, Cvetanovski concludes.

Riku Lumiaro
Biodiversity and Communications Expert
The Finnish Environment Institute

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