EU construction work 'is threat to rare animals' species

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European-funded construction work is destroying the natural habitats the EU has pledged to protect, according to a report which said that some of the planet's most vulnerable species were at risk.

The document from WWF said that EU-funded projects were threatening the survival of the world's most endangered cat species, the Iberian lynx, and other vulnerable creatures such as the brown bear in Greece.

Though the 25-nation union has promised to halt biodiversity loss by 2010, road and rail building, dam construction and irrigation schemes partly or totally financed by the European Commission are causing widespread destruction.

The charges were rejected by the Commission, which says it has safeguards against damage to the environment.

But the WWF document highlights Spain where, it says, EU funds are used for 20 dams and 16 roads, including the new highway Toledo-Ciudad Real-Puertollano-Cordoba, which will harm the lynx habitat protected under the Natura 2000 network.

EU funds have been used to over-exploit bluefin tuna fisheries in the Mediterranean, and to promote damaging agricultural subsidies which have resulted in the mismanagement of cork oak forests in Portugal.

In Greece, while the European Commission's environment directorate is supporting a project to protect brown bears, its regional development arm is funding the planned Egnatia Highway, which directly threatens these animals.

Meanwhile, in north-eastern Poland, a Helsinki-Warsaw road, the Via Baltica, is slicing through migration corridors for lynx and wolves.

Within the EU's territory, 42 per cent of mammals are endangered, together with 15 per cent of birds and 45 per cent of butterflies and reptiles.

The document argues: "It is highly unlikely that construction of European transport infrastructure will slow down over the 2007-2013 period. Local, national and regional politicians often see promises to improve transport networks as a way to gain support in areas with flagging economic prospects. However, such developments must not be permitted if they infringe the requirements of EU directives or significantly threaten biodiversity values."

WWF says that the rules laid down for EU spending projects in the 2007-13 funding period will be crucial in deciding whether biodiversity loss can be halted.

It urges the EU to withdraw funds that conflict with biodiversity goals and EU environmental legislation, and calls for priority measures to protect biodiversity.

Stefanie Lang, regional policy officer at WWF's European Policy Office, said: "Europe has to take responsibility for its own species, but at present the European Union is using its funds to both support biodiversity and undermine it. This is an unacceptable situation caused by wrong decisions at national or regional level and poor co-ordination between member states and the European Commission."

Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for the European Commission, said: "All projects of any size need an environmental impact assessment. If there is a negative impact then the project can be stopped in the planning stage unless there is an over-riding social and economic interest."