Saturday

28th May 2022

Investigation

Lithuania - where 'biodiversity funding' is cutting down trees

  • The wooded picturesque old town of Trakai in Lithuania is part of the Trakai Historic National Park (Photo: Žygimantas Abromavičius)
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The EU Commission website proudly proclaims that "cohesion policy funding is delivering €52.5bn in EU budget investment in climate action."

But the picturesque town of Trakai in Lithuania tells a story of well-intentioned biodiversity and green infrastructure investment nearly costing its old town one-fifth of its trees.

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  • Activist Ona Staniulionienė, who campaigns against the project, says, 'It's time to stop feeding those parasitic project implementers with European money' (Photo: Elena Reimerytė)

The old town is part of the Trakai Historic National Park. Pointing at two tall, thriving trees, Andželika Kriaučiūnienė, head of the national park's landscaping department, regrets that they were destined for the chop, merely because they are not of a protected species and obstruct lake view from some angles.

Public procurement data show that the technical project, drafted by Trakai municipality's tenderer, envisages cutting down 451 trees and planting merely 132 saplings, mostly decorative, in their stead.

Experts maintain that saplings are no match for mature trees, which store carbon, support wildlife, and reduce flooding. Activist Ona Staniulionienė, who campaigns against the project, says, "It's time to stop feeding those parasitic project implementers with European money."

According to Kriaučiūnienė, a biology graduate, removing some trees is justifiable. Besides, Lithuanian municipalities are obliged to convene tree protection commissions, which consist of civil servants, experts, and representatives of the public, and such a commission in Trakai successfully demanded to save some of the doomed trees - 49 in total, according to minutes of its meeting.

But Kriaučiūnienė is dismayed at the municipality's reluctance to listen to critics.

She agrees with activists that more experts should have been consulted before green-lighting tree removal. "That's why EU-financed projects, when money is received only once and one wishes to do everything in one go, turn into a kind of disaster," she says, pointing out that a 2018 inventory of trees, which underpins the project, clearly states that some trees risk falling and must be cut immediately, while others can be cut within five or ten years - not all at once.

'Sweeping gestures'

"Municipalities otherwise do not always have the money to implement projects and plans like this, and when they get an opportunity to receive funding for [landscape] management, you get these sweeping gestures," agrees Aistė Lazauskienė, who researches local government at Vytautas Magnus University.

Forestry expert Julius Bačkaitis, whose company was contracted for the tree inventory, explains that "a tree's condition and safety are the main things", and stands by his recommendation to cut the trees - they are either sick or compete with what he calls "more valuable" trees.

Still, the tree-removal permit has been challenged in court, and until its verdict (which has been repeatedly postponed) Trakai District Municipality is only addressing factual queries and refuses to respond to criticism.

One of the unanswered questions is why, when formulating selection criteria for the tender to carry out this project's works, the municipality required tenderers to prove only construction, not landscaping or tree care, experience.

Accordingly, the winning contractor is a construction company. The project also includes installing benches and paving footpaths.

Other funding streams are available for landscaping projects – the funding for tree removal in Trakai, however, came from investment priority: "Protecting and restoring biodiversity, soil protection and restoration and promoting ecosystem services including Natura 2000 and green infrastructures".

"A one-directional view of prioritising only the ecological aspect would be difficult in a city," explains Justina Čunderova, senior specialist at the Ministry of Environment when asked to explain why €311,000 of EU funds dedicated to biodiversity and ecosystems were diverted to landscaping projects.

Sixty-eight out of 95 projects funded under the same measure mentioned "landscape" in their title, and only 17 mentioned "ecology". "Given the level of [local] capabilities, we should accept the result we get today," Čunderova says.

Whether or not a project like Trakai's will benefit biodiversity and ecosystems, the ministry cannot say, as it reports to the European Commission only a number and surface area of habitats managed with EU funds. If the territory's size is appropriate, the project is good to go.

Trusting locals with biodiversity funds is also the approach taken by the European Commission.

Asked about the use of climate change and biodiversity funds to finance town embellishment in Lithuania, a commission official, who did not want to be named, replied that no major risks associated with this investment priority have been identified so far, and that project selection criteria should ensure that funded projects are appropriate.

CEE Bankwatch Network, a coalition of NGOs, research found that this attitude has more recently allowed central and eastern Europe to neglect biodiversity when spending European post-pandemic recovery funds - despite stated biodiversity goals.

As for cohesion funds, Lithuania reports statistics into the climate tracker by broad investment categories, which means that a biodiversity investment priority under which the Trakai project was funded receives a 40 percent weight.

It is not clear how many projects funded under biodiversity and climate change priorities actually finance urban embellishment and tree-cutting.

Author bio

Daiva Repečkaitėis based in Malta and covers politics, health and environment in text and audio, Vaida Pilibaitytėis Vilnius-based public radio producer and environment journalist., Elena Reimerytėis a London-based documentary filmmaker focusing on various social issues and the urban forest concept.

This investigation is a part of "Media4Change – Future Investigative Story Lab" project. The project has been co-funded by the European Commission. The support for the production of this article does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views of the authors only and are their sole responsibility. The commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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