Protecting nature from man

  • 2011-09-28
  • Interview by Egle Juozenaite

Raimonds Vejonis has worked in the field of environmental protection since 2002, when he started service as the Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development. From 2003-2010, he was the Minister of Environment. From March 2010 – May 2010, he was Acting Minister of Regional Development and Local Governments of the Republic of Latvia. In the same year he also became a member of the 10th Saeima (Parliament). On January 6 this year, Vejonis received yet one more high level appointment, that of Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Latvia. Vejonis is a politician with the Greens and Farmers Union. This long-serving public servant responded to questions from The Baltic Times on topics ranging from Latvia’s environmental policy, the improvement of sustainable development, and renewable energy use and the protection of Latvia’s natural habitat.

What are the priority areas of environmental policy in Latvia these days?
The main environmental priorities have been on our agenda for a long time, and mostly are relevant for every European country as well. We have to work day to day to preserve our nature, not only within specially protected territories, but in the whole of the country, and we have to manage human activities in such a way that makes the least possible harm to the environment. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development has invested a lot of EU and state money over several years to considerably upgrade the environmental infrastructure - to make the drinking water clean and tasty, to collect waste water safely and to treat it according to the necessary level. We are not any more bringing our waste to many small dump sites, but to modern regional landfills, so avoiding spills into the groundwater, and making it possible to collect the waste gases and make good use of them. The famous Getlini tomatoes being one example of that.

In fact, we are looking at waste more and more as a resource, than as an environmental problem. What has really changed in the recent European environmental agenda is the way we think, the way we try to address environmental problems. Europe is moving away from the classical environmental sectors and more and more look at things in an integrated way, as the environmental problems are interlinked and often are, in fact, tradeoffs between different policies. The common agriculture policy reform works towards an environmentally more friendly agriculture practice. The European resource efficiency roadmap, to be published in September, [is to] highlight areas of action to optimize our resource use. Scientists have calculated that the demand for food, feed and fiber may increase by 70 percent by 2050 and with current consumption and production patterns we would need more than two planets to sustain the world’s population. That is a global problem and Latvia cannot avoid addressing it. We need to improve our planning, how to manage our main resources, our forests, our land.

People in the Ministry are looking at practical solutions in how to better integrate environmental concerns into municipal development plans, to make planning more consistent, to avoid fragmentation of ecosystems, to improve the planning of new economic developments and residential areas - not to have a new village in the middle of a meadow. A draft land management law has been developed to address these issues.

What is being done to protect the biodiversity and to ensure the sustainability of the environment?
The biodiversity is protected by the establishment and development of a specially protected areas network, by protection and management of species and habitats, by protection zones along the seacoast, rivers and lakes, by regulating the use of nature resources and, as well, by education and incorporation of biodiversity issues into other sectors. In order to protect biodiversity, strategic documents of the Environmental Policy Strategy were adopted in 2009, and the National Program on Biological Diversity was approved; also, the Elaboration of a New Program on Biological Diversity will be started this year. To motivate landowners to protect biodiversity, a compensation system was created in Latvia. Last year about 2.3 million lats were paid to 37 landowners to compensate for nature protection restrictions within their property. 15 LIFE Nature projects of about 17 million euros have been realized until 2006, and the next five, at about 9 million euros, have been started.

According to the Law on Circulation of Genetically Modified Organisms, a local government may determine a prohibition by issuing binding rules for the cultivation of genetically modified crops in the relevant administrative territory upon its own initiative, or on the basis of a proposal by an individual. The prohibition shall be determined for a period of time which is not less than five years. Last year almost all local governments prohibited the cultivation of genetically modified crops within their territory.

What is being done in order to improve the usage of renewable energy in Latvia? What kind of energy is the most promising?
Latvia has adopted several policy documents, promoting renewable energy: Energy Development Guidelines for 2007–2016 and Guidelines for Deployment of Renewable Energy Sources for 2006-2013. The renewable energy projects have been supported from the Cohesion Fund and from the Rural Development Program. Usage of renewable energy is supported under the Green Investment Scheme as well, particularly to promote fuel switching from fossil to renewable energy and to support small scale renewable energy projects in households. In order to promote the use of renewable sources and to improve the existing support mechanism, a draft law, “Renewable Energy Law,” has been developed. The most promising local energy source for heating and co-generation is biomass. Latvia has significant biomass potential as more than 50 percent of the territory is covered by forests. At the same time energy policy determines further development of wind electricity generation, the use of hydropower, solar and geothermal energy.

Does Latvia attract foreign investors for the green technologies?
Latvia is generally attracting, through the Latvian Investment Agency, foreign investments in the green technologies; however, in some respects foreign investments in green technologies are also promoted through international agreements in the framework of the Kyoto protocol. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development is implementing the Green Investment Scheme in order to increase the usage of renewable energy. In the framework of GIS, several project tenders have been supported. The overall financing available therein is more than 60 million euros, purely for the support of renewables in households, and more than 40 million euros for the support of complex measures - both renewables and energy efficiency.

What work is being done to reduce the increasing amounts of industrial and domestic waste in the country?
Latvia started implementation of its waste management policy already in 1998, when Latvia was divided into 10 waste management regions. For each of the regions there is elaborated and adopted in the Cabinet of Ministers a special regional waste management plan. Each of the regional waste management plans comprises different measures responding to the needs of the particular waste management region. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development is supporting implementation of activities where support from the EU is possible. Other activities, like waste processing, are tasks and responsibilities of waste management companies.

For development of waste management systems for 2007 -2013 there are allocated 81.1 million lats from the Cohesion fund, or 20 percent from the total contribution of Cohesion Fund allocations for environmental protection measures. Distribution of Cohesion Fund allocations in total for Latvia is 1.08 billion lats. For environmental protection measures it is 405 million lats, or 37 percent, for waste management,  81.1 million lats or 20 percent. The contribution from the Cohesion Fund in 2007-2013 for development of the waste management system is available in the framework of subactivities of the Amendment of the Operational Program “Infrastructure and Services.” So far there  have been 11 landfills constructed for waste disposal and all dumpsites have been closed, but they still have to be re-cultivated.

Does Latvia have many protected areas, such as forests, lakes, swamps?
There are 682 specially protected territories in Latvia. According to the goals of designation and preservation, protected territories are divided into 8 categories. In Latvia there are 4 strict nature reserves, 4 national parks, 260 nature reserves, 42 nature parks, 9 protected landscape areas, 355 nature monuments, 7 marine protected territories, 1 biosphere reserve. Specially protected areas cover 11.9 percent of the territory of Latvia and 19 percent including the North Vidzeme Biosphere Reserve. Marine protected territories cover approximately 34 percent of the territorial waters of Latvia. 332 protected areas are included into the “Natura 2000” list to protect species and habitats of European Union importance. Appoximately 18.6 percent of forests are included in the protected areas.

Which kind of animals, mushrooms, plants are endangered? What is being done to protect them?
Endangered animal and plant species are protected under the “Law on the Conservation of Species and Biotopes.” According to the Regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers “List of Specially Protected Species and Species with Exploitation Limits,” there are 236 animal species, 426 plant and 62 fungi species included in the list of specially protected species, but 22 animal and plant species are included in the list of specially protected species, with exploitation limits. Overall, 2.7 percent of known species are included in the list of specially protected species. There are also 86 protected habitat types in Latvia. “Natura 2000” sites in Latvia were designated for protection of 127 species and 58 types of habitats represented in Latvia and enlisted in the annexes of the Birds and Habitats directives. A lot of different habitat and species’ habitat management and restoration activities in different protected territories have been implemented through the projects co-financed by the EU funds, informational and educational materials published and management plans elaborated.

Local municipalities, land owners and other stakeholders were largely involved in the implementation of these projects through the elaboration of management plans for protected territories, through implementation of practical management activities. Also, significant numbers of  tourism infrastructure elements were created within the “EU Life” and “ERDF” projects.

Is eco-tourism popular in Latvia? How many places in Latvia have a “Green” certificate?
Eco-tourism and green tourism is a developing tourism branch and has become more popular during the last years. Every year the number of visitors in main nature tourism attractions - Ligatne Nature trails, Gutmana Cave in Sigulda and in all nature parks - increases. Nature is one of Latvia’s most significant tourism resources, but we need to use it sustainably. Seventy-five rural tourism places have “The Green Certificate.” “The Green Certificate” is an eco-label affirming environmental quality of vacation properties, those which save natural resources and use them rationally, offer environmental friendly tourist activities, are healthy, use locally produced food and offer extensive information on the local natural, cultural and historical attractions. Six hotels have the eco-label “The Green Key.” [It] is an international eco-label aimed to promote environmentally friendly management in the tourism sector.  The commissions for the issuing of both eco-labels are established at the Ministry and they are chaired by the minister.

From which countries do tourists come to Latvia?
Almost one fifth of all visitors, or 17.8 percent are from Russia. 9.2 percent of visitors are from Norway; 9.1 percent  - Estonia; 8.2 percent - Lithuania. Also, people from Sweden, Finland, Germany and  Great Britain come to visit Latvia. These are the numbers from last year.

How many tourists visit Latvia a year and how has that number changed during the past 20 years?
According to the Central Statistical Bureau, the number of visitors in Latvia increases every year. For example, in comparison with 2009, the number of visitors in the year 2010 comprised 1.3 million, which is an increase of 17.7 percent.