Maritsa East Mines are monster-sized lignite pits in south-east Bulgaria. They cover an area of 240 sq km stretching between the towns on Radnevo and Galabovo.
The mines feed four big thermal power plants and employ about 7,000 workers plus generate many more indirect jobs.
Because of the advance of the Maritsa East Mines, so far five villages have disappeared from the heart of Thrace: Targovishte, Ovcharci, Golyama Detelina, Malka Detelina and Gledachevo. People from Gledachevo still remember with sadness leaving their native village behind. “The hardest part was when we had to move the cemetery; it was as if we were burying our relatives for a second time. The dead left Gledachevo 20 years after the living”, commented a local resident.
The villages of Beli Bryag and Troyanovo are the next in the line.
Maritsa East Mines hold a land claim on the two villages since 2005. Although the front of the mining operations is advancing, there is no specific information available to people about the deadline by which the residents of these two villages should leave their homes. This leaves people in great insecurity and fear.
On top of that the price offered by Maritsa Iztok Mines for those properties is extremely low as the highest level for the land claimed is fourth category. Old records – that we have checked – show that certain lands that used to be first category were quietly re-categorized as lower grade in order to allow the company to offer less compensation payments.
Maritza Iztok Mines claim that the land was evaluated by “independent” appraisers hired by the company, however, according to local residents other licensed appraisers that they consulted said the land should be valued higher.
Most people from Beli Bryag and Troyanovo prefer to be compensated with houses and yards similar to their current ones rather than be forced to agree to sell them at very low prices, which would not allow them to buy similar property elsewhere. Nevermind that communities usually prefer to be relocated together to maintain the old bonds they have. The whole process makes local communities seriously doubt the fairness of the procedure.
The progressive expansion of the mines already negatively affects the houses: the walls are cracking and the wells are drying up, further lowering the value of the properties during the evaluation process. About 20 percent of the hundreds of houses in Beli Bryag were already bought by the company, while in Troyanovo the number of bought houses is about 60 percent, half of which have already been demolished.
For almost two decades the development and upkeep of these villages has been stopped – the inevitability of the mine expansion paralyses any improvement work. Construction is forbidden, infrastructure is not maintained.
In the beginning of this year, Julian Ilchev, the mayor of Radnevo, decreed that no more funerals should take place in Beli Bryag. Since then three deceased local inhabitants were buried in the cemetery in Radnevo, further away from their families than would be convenient.
What follows is the full expropriation of Beli Bryag in 2023 and of Troyanovo around 2030. This is a long time for people to leave in collapsing homes and total insecurity about their future.
In order to move on, people are waiting for a fair price for their houses and lands. But the only possible buyer of the houses in this context is Maritza Iztok Mines, which means the company is setting the rules. The compensations do not cover the loss of livelihood in a way that allows landowners to restart their lives while keeping their current living standards or even improving them – as international relocation standards require.
People are being offered peanuts for properties which have been producing food for a few generations. Our campaigners from Za Zemiata have seen repeatedly big houses with yards of 4 000 to 5 000 sq meters of gardens bought by the companies for 9,000 euros – a sum not sufficient to buy even a car garage in one of the nearby cities. Recently compensations were slightly increased, but they barely reach a third of what is estimated that people need to afford a similar property in the area.
Za Zemiata is now closely working on the case of Beli Breg with the EBRD team of CEE Bankwatch Network. The involvement of EBRD in the funding of projects in Maritsa East Mines might mean that the company will be forced to adhere to fairer standards – we’re yet to see this happening.
To put it bluntly, these owners are paying the price for what is – wrongly – described as Bulgarian energy security. But it is wrong and cynical to treat people this way in a country where the energy sector annually sinks hundreds of millions of euros in shady deals and dead-end projects like the billion euro nuclear project of NPP Belene. Fair compensations would amount to a few million euro which could be easily distributed through the energy bills of consumers over the next decade. Otherwise the poorest will have to pay the highest price and the government of Bulgaria will allow the forceful closure of two lively villages for the sake of a dying industry like the coal one.
With Europe moving closer to a coal phaseout, Bulgaria still pretends that the horizon for its domestic coal industry is another 60 years – an absurd and misleading promise to thousands of workers and millions of energy consumers in a country whose energy future is compromised right now.
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Photos by Alexander Ivanov for Za Zemiata