Environment Committee Approves Restrictions on Environmental NGOs

By , 13 May 2020, 11:38 AM Politics
Some of the protesters Some of the protesters Twitter, @BrezStrahu Danes

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STA, 12 May 2020 - The parliamentary Environment Committee approved on Tuesday an amendment to the nature conservation act significantly limiting the ability of NGOs to take part in administrative procedures representing public interest. Despite poor weather and a ban on public gathering, several hundred protesters rallied against the amendment.

The amendment was filed by the opposition National Party (SNS) as the committee was getting ready to debate government-sponsored changes to the nature conservation act which focused above all on tweaks needed to incorporate EU law.

The amendment, which is criticised by the opposition as an open attack on NGOs, is nearly identical to government-proposed changes recently passed to construction legislation, under which only a handful of NGOs are still able to represent public interest in construction permit procedures.

Under the changes, associations would have to have at least 50 active members, institutes would need at least three full-time employees with university degrees and institutions would need to have assets exceeding EUR 10,000.

Moreover, to represent the public, NGOs would have to meet these conditions retroactively for two years.

Also, they would have to prove their compliance by revealing annual assembly minutes, the names of those present and show bank accounts to prove membership fees are being paid.

Amid warnings that the amendment in this form would slash the number of NGOs recognised as representing public interest in conservation of natural environment from 47 to 5 and also affect key stakeholder associations, the coalition Modern Centre Party (SMC) filed an amendment to the amendment to "protect" certain environmental groups, among them the associations representing fishermen and beekeepers.

The changes were also questioned by the parliament's legal service, which took issue with they way they entered the session's agenda while also it also argued they could be at odds with the constitution.

Environment Minister Andrej Vizjak begged to differ, saying individuals would continue to be able to express their opinion and associations would be able to continue operating under the act governing associations.

He argued there were as many opinions as there were jurists and that similar arrangements were in place in other countries as well.

In the debate, the head of the Centre of NGOs, Goran Forbici, said that the amendment filed by the SMC only barely reduced the magnitude the blow. "It's like suffering a blow by a hammer instead of an axe."

He admitted there were anomalies among NGOs but called on addressing these in dialogue.

Luka Mesec of the Left said the amendment may be submitted for constitutional review, while the Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ) and the Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) also rejected the amendment.

The SNS and the coalition, on the other hand, defended it. Tadeja Šuštar of New Slovenia (NSi) said that a balance must be found between nature conservation and other projects, adding that some NGOs had no other purpose but to extort.

Mateja Udovč of the SMC meanwhile denied claims that her party filed the amendment to the SNS's amendment merely to establish "peace in the house".

Several hundred protesters gathered in front of the parliament during today's session in a rally organised by the Balkan River Defence movement. "I oppose that NGOs representing us, the people, are being excluded, first from construction and now from all court and administrative procedures," one of the protesters said.

Gaja Brecelj of Umanotera NGO told the STA that the amendment was unacceptable. "Just consider what having low food self-sufficiency meant for us in the coronavirus crisis - at the same time we are now thinking about building on these surfaces."

Blowing whistles, protesters carried banners saying "Hands off of nature" and "NGOs = Nature's Voice", among others. On social media, protesters were urged to wear protective facial masks, observe social distancing rules and ignore any provocations. The peaceful protest was monitored by police.

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