VILNIUS - Mounting concerns over the preservation of Lithuania's three UNESCO World Heritage sites reached the top of the national agenda on July 30 when President Valdas Adamkus met with a delegation protesting plans to construct a major landfill near the Kernave Cultural Reserve.
Historians and local residents who met with the president in Kernave and surrounding towns complained that the site was already in jeopardy of being marred by the tons of rubbish that authorities soon plan to dump within "sniffing distance" of one of the country's most treasured archaeological venues.
The Kernave Cultural Reserve, a protected region along the banks of the Neris River north of Vilnius, features man-made mounds that once supported the first Lithuanian castles.
It was added to the UNESCO list in June.
The government, which has been planning the construction of a landfill for several years, chose the village of Kazokiskes nine kilometers from the center of Kernave to host the EU-standard mega-dump that would replace three smaller facilities and serve as rubbish hub for much of the eastern half of the country.
While the landfill would not be placed directly within the territory designated by UNESCO or even in the so-called buffer zone around the World Heritage Site, experts argue that dumping trash so close to an area of global cultural significance will damage both the spirit and practice of preserving Kernave.
"A dump is a dump-there's no way around it," said Asta Dirmaite, general secretary of the Lithuanian National UNESCO Commission.
According to her, efforts to develop Kernave as a tourist destination could be thwarted by foul smells and flocks of scavenging birds surrounding the landfill, while runoff from the garbage could harm the area's fragile aquifer.
The Environment Ministry, which together with other government agencies developed the plans for the landfill, rebuts such claims, pointing out that Kazokiskes was chosen after years of study and with the blessing of local councils.
"The spot for the landfill is far enough away from the UNESCO site that it will not cause any harm. This has been proven in our scientific studies," said Aleksandras Spruogis, the ministerial secretary most closely linked to the project.
Nonetheless, the passion raised over Kernave has spilled over into discussions on the future of the country's two other World Heritage sites: the Curonian Spit, which environmentalists claim is threatened by a Russian oil rig constructed nearby at sea, and Vilnius' Old Town, whose baroque church spires have recently been dwarfed by towering skyscrapers.
UNESCO leadership this summer passed a resolution threatening that the Curonian Spit World Heritage Site, which is shared with Russia, would be placed on the organization's endangered list if Russia did not consent to a feasibility study outlining containment measures should an accident at Lukoil's D-6 oil platform in the Baltic Sea just 22 kilometers from the coast occur.
In light of Kernave, Lithuania's indignation over D-6 has taken on shades of hypocrisy now that the government is, in the view of conservationists, planning to pollute the ancient capital.
"There is absolutely no way you can compare D-6 and Kazokiskes," Spruogis argued. "We have prepared a full study that we have made open to the public for Kazokiskes. It is exactly this type of study for D-6 that is the subject of the UNESCO resolution."
Vilnius-based bureaucrats and activists may have to look no further than out their own office windows for evidence of UNESCO violations in Lithuania.
A team of international experts from the organization is currently compiling a report that will rule if the recent construction boom in and around Vilnius' Old Town has spoiled the architectural integrity and uniqueness that made it the first of the Baltic capitals to be placed on the list in 1994.
Cultural watchdogs worry that Vilnius may be going the way of Riga, which was censured by UNESCO in late July for the Saules Akmens (Sunstone) highrise that was erected across the river from the historic Old Town area and inside the buffer zone, which was established by law.
"I'm personally worried both about the trend of building skyscrapers near the Old Town and the renovation of buildings in the Old Town that doesn't keep the historical feel of the building," said Dirmaite.
The World Heritage list is composed of 788 sites, five of which are found in the Baltic states.