Defend the Carpathians

Help us stop a huge ski resort project from destroying the magnificent Svydovets massif in the Carpathian mountains in Ukraine !

The magnificent « Svydovets » massif forms part of the Carpathian mountains in Transcarpathia, in the west of Ukraine. It is one of the most beautiful untouched mountain zones in the country with glacial lakes and fragile alpine ecosystems immensely rich in biodiversity and endemic species. At its heart lies the source of the river Tisza, one of the region’s most important rivers.

It is here that murky investors plan to establish an immense ski resort with over 60 hotels, 120 restaurants, 33 ski-lifts, 230 km of ski-runs, shopping malls, medical and fitness centres, banks, multi-storey parking areas and even an aerodrome. The resort would have a capacity of 28.000 tourists, with around 5000 persons employed. This project violates several international conventions signed by Ukraine. This absurd project is actively opposed by the Free Svydovets Group which is probably the largest and most effective ecological movement in Ukraine’s history. It unites fifteen environmental organisations, hundreds of committed activists and thousands of supporters. In a clear and comprehensive report, « The Svydovets case », published in 2018, the FSG detailed the numerous negative impacts that the construction of a massive new resort would have on this massif. It would have a devastating impact on the ecosystem, on the forests and biodiversity and on the water regime, requiring vast quantities for the resort and for artificial snow and producing 5000 tons of sewage every day.

The FSG has unleashed a wave of protest from many thousand European citizens, from dozens of European, American and international NGOs and from leading members of the European Parliament. In its last annual report on the implementation of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine adopted on 11 February 2021, the European Parliament clearly criticizes the « unlawful Svydovets ski resort project» and « encourages Ukraine to invest in ecologically and environmentally safe and sustainable tourist infrastructure, and calls on the Ukrainian authorities to prevent future projects from harming the environment by improving scrutiny, transparency and the implementation of environmental impact assessments and due diligence ».

And yet the project has still not been abandoned. Far from it. in recent months President Zelensky and his government have increasingly made clear their determination to host the Winter Olympics in the Carpathians. In September 2021the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, visited Kiev. During this visit Zelensky confirmed his wish to make an official application to hold the winter games. In reaction, the Bruno Manser Fund and the European Civic Forum decided to send an Open Letter to Prince Albert II, president of the Sustainability and Legacy Commission of the IOC. This was signed by over 50 other organisations from about fifteen countries and sent on 1 November.

Lukas Straumann, director of the Bruno Manser Fund, and Nicholas Bell, International Coordinator of the European Civic Forum, also responded to an article « Why Ukraine’s Olympic bid could be a very smart move » by Peter Dickinson, editor in chief of Ukraine Alert published by the Atlantic Council based in Washington in the United States. An edited version of their reply has been publised by Ukraine Alert.

The ECF and the FSG are acutely aware of the severe economic and social crisis affecting the population of the Carpathian region. High unemployment, poverty and massive emigration in search of work are seriously affecting the villages and towns of the region. It is vital to develop new local economic activities. We are, however, convinced that this should in no way take the form of massive tourist infrastructures that will ruin the ecosystem and soon become unusable due to global warming. There is enormous potential for low-impact tourism, for high-quality agricultural products as well as the development of small-scale industries transforming the local timber which is at present being illegally logged and massively exported to the European Union. Several leading members of the European Parliament and representatives of the European Commission have expressed strong support for such sustainable development projects.

Another dark shadow hangs over the Ukrainian government’s plan to build ski resorts in the Carpathians, that of alleged corruption. It is well known that one of the key businessmen behind the plans to build new ski resorts is Gernot Leitner, a highly controversial Austrian entrepreneur. A group of investigative journalists from Radio Svoboda, called « Schemes » has conducted a thorough investigation into Leitner and his Ukrainian partners which was published on 28 January 2021.

Massive illegal logging in the Carpathians

The planned ski resort at Svydovets would further worsen the huge problem of illegal logging in the Carpathian mountains. Many organisations, including WWF and the Free Svydovets Group have been denouncing this deforestation for years. Western Ukraine contains some of the largest remaining tracts of ancient forest on the European continent, home to some of the last populations of brown bear, Eurasian wolf, lynx and European bison. In July 2018 the British NGO Earthsight published a damning 60-page report, « Complicit in Corruption: How billion-dollar firms and EU governments are failing Ukraine’s forests ». Ukraine is today the largest single supplier of illegally harvested wood to the European Union, exceeding all of the tropical countries of Latin America, Africa and SE Asia combined. The WWF estimates that 1.4 million cubic metres of timber are being illegally felled in the Ukrainian Carpathians each year. The EU is by far the largest destination for Ukrainian wood exports, representing 70 % of the total. EU purchases have been rising rapidly, breaking €1 billion in 2017. At least 40 % of this wood was harvested or traded illegally, with the aid of corruption.

In June 2020 Earthsight published a new report, « Flatpacked Forests – IKEA’s illegal timber problem and the flawed green label behind it ».

The overwhelming majority of illegal logging in Ukraine is being carried out by State Forestry Enterprises (SFEs). Hundreds of SFEs engage in the systematic, deliberate breaching of a wide range of regulations during harvesting. None is more destructive than illegal ‘sanitary felling’ justified to prevent the spread of disease. Corrupt forest enterprises abuse this loophole on a massive scale to cut healthy trees whose harvesting would not otherwise have been allowed. The EU buyers of Ukrainian wood include many of the world’s largest multinational wood processing companies. Many of these companies are mentioned in ongoing criminal investigations relating to illegal logging, illegal wood exports and corruption. Products of these companies are to be found throughout the EU in the largest DIY, furniture and supermarket chains. Brave activists in Ukraine are battling timber corruption at significant personal risk.

In order to give a precise picture of how this illegal logging takes place on the ground, in March 2021 the FSG published « Trees cannot scream – How unsustainability and illegality are destroying the forests of the Ukrainian Carpathians ». It is based on research carried out between December 2019 and February 2021 in two SFEs situated close to the Svydovets massif, the Yasinianske and Brusturianske SFEs. The main author of the report is a young forest expert, Yeho Hrynyk. A summary of the report is also available.

Write to President Volodymyr Zelensky and call on him to put a stop to the project : 11 Bankova St., 01220 Kiev, Ukraine. with copy to Free Svydovets.

For further information, including a detailed 70 page report « The Svydovets case – How oligarchs are planning to destroy one of Ukraine’s most pristine natural landscapes »

« Ukraine’s dangerous Winter Olympic obsession »
«Open Letter to Prince Albert II, president of the Sustainability and Legacy Commission of the IOC »