Malgorzata Górska from OTOP (BirdLife in Poland) has been awarded the
world’s top prize for grassroots activists having led a successful
campaign which stopped a road being built through Poland’s precious
“Górska led the first successful environmental campaign where the EU
has sued a member country to protect Natura 2000 sites”, commented David
Hammerstein, former Member of the European Parliament. “This was a big
deal with the new countries coming into the EU regarding the
environment . [..] and the President of Poland finally had to give in to
the pressure and stop the Expressway”.
The Goldman Environmental Prize – often called the Nobel Prize for
the environment – is awarded to men and women around the world who take
great personal risks to safeguard the environment. Throughout the
campaign, Górska and her colleagues were intimidated by local
authorities and radical right-wing groups, and even labelled as Russian
"I’m so pleased to win the prize because this will – I
hope – promote the requirements for protection of Natura 2000 sites. The
Via Baltica campaign and saving the Rospuda Valley showed that it is
possible to combine nature protection with transport infrastructure
development. On the other hand it proved that ignoring nature
conservation as a factor of sustainable development leads to serious
problems", commented Górska.
Górska was awarded the prize at the
San Francisco Opera House, along with $150,000 to pursue her vision of a
renewed and protected environment.
The Rospuda Valley is one of the last undisturbed flora and fauna
reservoirs in Europe, acknowledged for its beauty and environmental
importance. Its designation as an EU Natura 2000 site should have
offered it permanent protection, but it was threatened by a major
road-building project – called Via Baltica – which aimed to link
Helsinki and Warsaw.
Despite early opposition from scientists and conservationists, the
Polish government supported the Via Baltica project believing that,
having joined the EU in 2004, the new road would facilitate the
increased flow of international traffic between Poland and the Baltic
To save the Rospuda Valley from destruction, Górska – alongside with
her colleagues in OTOP, BirdLife International, the RSPB (BirdLife in
the UK) and other NGO’s such as Polish Green Network and WWF –
spearheaded the campaign against the construction of the expressway.
Górska led the coalition to develop a legal case against the Polish
government, coordinated research into the environmental impacts of the
road construction, and raised public awareness of the irreparable damage
it would cause to the area and its wildlife.
By submitting a complaint to the European Commission, an official
infringement procedure was opened against the Polish government but, as
the government’s response was not satisfactory, the EU referred the case
against the road building to the European Court of Justice. By taking
the case to the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament, Górska’s
objections to the road building were adopted by the European Parliament
which also called for construction to stop.
The EU presented the case against the road building in the European
Court of Justice arguing that construction of the Via Baltica Expressway
through the Rospuda Valley violated European laws. In March 2009, after
two years in court, the new Polish government agreed to comply with EU
regulations which prevent development in Natura 2000 sites, and
announced that it would not build the Via Baltica Expressway through the
“Thanks to their efforts, there is now a significant legal precedent
to protect unique habitats across Europe”, added Angelo Caserta,
Regional Director of the BirdLife European Division.
Górska’s challenge to the Polish government has led to the first ever
successful intervention by the EU to obtain an order from the European
Court to stop a Member State from breaching environmental regulations
and damaging a Natura 2000 site. This court ruling now has the potential
to strengthen the legal framework for EU environmental regulations
across Europe, specifically the protection of Natura 2000 sites.
Following their success in saving the Rospuda Valley, Górska and her
colleagues in OTOP continued to campaign to halt construction of the Via
Baltica Expressway through other protected sites including the Knyszyn
Primeval Forest, the Biebrza Marshes, and the Augustow Primeval Forest.
Developers initially ignored strategic assessments recommending viable,
less damaging alternatives but, on 20 October 2009, the Polish
government finally agreed to re-route the whole controversial section of
the Via Baltica Expressway, saving these valuable EU- protected sites