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Polish Campaigner Honoured

…with global award

A Polish woman, fighting to stop a controversial road building project through one of Europe’s last great remaining wildernesses, has been awarded the world’s most prestigious prize for grassroots activists.

To save the Rospuda Valley, in eastern Poland, from destruction, Malgorzata Górska – working for OTOP (the BirdLife International partner in Poland) spearheaded the campaign against the construction of part of the Helsinki-Warsaw expressway which would have ravaged an area of global importance for wildlife. Malgorzata worked with colleagues in the RSPB, BirdLife International and other organizations, such as the Polish Green Network and WWF.

Dr Tim Stowe, International Director of the RSPB, said: “Malgorzata is an extremely worthy winner of this prize. Her determination to protect the area’s vast tracts of primeval forests, ancient peat bogs and valuable wetlands should serve as an inspiration to fellow conservationists across the world. Her resolve should ensure that the Rospuda Valley will continue to be a valuable site for such charismatic species as wolf, lynx, wild boar, white-tailed and lesser spotted eagles and other threatened species of bird, such as common cranes and capercaillie.” Malgorzata Górska, from Trzcianne, is one of six winners of the prestigious international Goldman Environmental Prize - a $900,000 prize shared equally between environmental heroes from six continental regions; Malgorzata is the European prize winner. Frequently referred to as the Nobel Prize for the environment, the Goldman Environmental Prize is often awarded to men and women who take great personal risks to safeguard the environment.

The Rospuda Valley is one of the last undisturbed flora and fauna reservoirs in Europe, recently acknowledged for its beauty and environmental importance. Designation as an EU Natura 2000 site should have offered permanent protection to the Rospuda Valley but it was threatened by a major road building project linking Helsinki and Warsaw. In spite of 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 states.To save the Rospuda Valley from destruction, Górska spearheaded the campaign against the construction of the Via Baltica Expressway. Górska led a coalition of activists and organisations 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, two years after the case was referred to the European court, the new Polish government finally agreed to comply with EU regulations which prevent damaging development in Natura 2000 sites where there are less-damaging alternatives. It announced that it would not build the Via Baltica Expressway through the Rospuda Valley.

“Górska led the first successful environmental campaign where the EU has sued a member country to protect Natura 2000 sites. 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.” David Hammerstein, Member, European Parliament and Member, Petitions Committee.Górska’s inspirational campaigning work has established a significant legal precedent for the protection of wilderness habitats across Europe: her 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 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 from destruction.

Throughout the campaign, Górska and her colleagues have been intimidated by local authorities and radical right-wing groups. They have been labeled as Russian spies and have been accused by local groups of being responsible for the deaths of people run off the road near Rospuda.

Malgorzata received her Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco. Yesterday, she travelled to Washington, DC for a ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

4th July 2014