Conclusions drawn after the mission of the UNESCO experts to Belovezhskaya Pushcha
Some readers may say the title of this chapter contains a strange statement. After all, Belovezhskaya Pushcha was inscribed on the World Heritage List over ten years ago! It is a true fact that Belovezhskaya Pushcha has officially been included on the List of World Heritage Sites in 1992. The situation in reality, however, is not so rosy-coloured, as it might seem.
If we look into records of the UNESCO we will find the following: "the CONSERVATION VALUE of Belovezhskaya Pushcha: a stretch of ancient, virgin, palaearctic forest which in comparison to other lowland European forests has endured little human disturbance. The site presents a habitat for several internationally threatened species (MAB-Belarus, 1993)."
One can find a serious contradiction here. Nowadays the World Heritage Site Belovezhskaya Pushcha consists of two parts: one in the Bialowieza National Park in Poland (4,747 hectares) and the other, the core of the Wilderness Protection Zone, in the National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" in Belarus (5,500 hectares). In total the World Heritage Site in both countries covers 10,316 hectares while the whole area of Belovezhskaya Pushcha comprises approximately 150,000 hectares. In Belarus 73,700 hectares are the remnants of those ancient relic forests which are specified on the World Heritage List. So it appears that only 7 % of the unique relic forest is under the UNESCO auspices while the rest of a much larger territory of 93 % is not included on the List of World Heritage Sites and the state of its preservation depends on the state of political mind and will in Belarus and Poland.
Today it is necessary to speak openly and directly: the Belarusian part of the World Heritage Site is currently too small to represent the whole diversity of landscapes, biological variety and the forest types and forest associations of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Primeval Forest. It is time one paid attention to the record in the UNESCO statutory documents. They notify that the natural and conservational value of Belovezhskaya Pushcha is of exceptional importance. The forest is a stretch of ancient, virgin, palaearctic wood, which endured little human disturbance in comparison to other lowland European forests. This means that not just 5,500 hectares, but the entire Belovezhskaya Pushcha Primeval Forest should have the World Heritage status. The whole forest has the character of the given definition. At least the area of Belovezhskaya Pushcha should largely be designated as a Wilderness Protection Zone. Today the area of the virgin forest as defined in this paragraph covers over 70,000 hectares.
The overall area of the relic forest cannot be strictly reserved. This is obvious and clear reasoning since a lot of people live and work in its area, and they need wood for various needs about their households. Besides, the people are used to picking mushrooms and berries. Providing that about 20,000 hectares around villages should be excluded from reservation, still 50,000 hectares make up the minimum area which can be strictly reserved. This area should logically have the status of a World Heritage Site. Even if not all patches of it will immediately attain the status, even if some patches need time to get over the recent human impact and heal their woonds, this should be the future of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. As for the remaining 110,000 hectares of land, they will be more than enough to satisfy the economic and other needs of the national park and local population. Of course, if the management of Belovezhskaya Pushcha is sound. If not, there will be no tomorrow for Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
Today one can find that the management of the national park is absurd from the ecological point of view. The unique reserved wilderness is perishing. We are rapidly losing the fairy-tale wild wood. Instead of it we get lunar landscapes of cuttings and accurate artificial forest plantations. While Belovezhskaya Pushcha is said to be "protected", the wood is degenerating before our eyes. It is a catastrophic situation, prompted by the callousness of our hearts and minds. Sustainability of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha forest has drastically decreased. It will not be able to endure many more ungrounded experiments aimed at its preservation. Another ten years of intensive economic management and only a small patch of the World Heritage Site will be left. As for other not less valuable wood areas of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, they will be lost for centuries, if not for ever.
Former workers of the national park and representatives of nongovernmental eco-organizations delivered the mentioned above proposals to essentially enlarge the Wilderness Protection Zone and the World Heritage Site to UNESCO experts who visited Belovezhskaya Pushcha on March 17 - 19. The proposals were supported both by the UNESCO experts and heads of institutes at the Belarusian Academy of Science. Moreover, a lot of people consider that the enlargement of the Wilderness Protection Zone / World Heritage Site is the only way to rescue the natural value of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Primeval Forest in the present conditions.
This is what one party thinks. As for the other one, director of the national park Nickolai Bambiza and his team made it clear at the meeting that they do not except even the idea of enlarging the Wilderness Protection Zone and granting it the status of a World Heritage Site. They spoke of intentions to go on with the economic activity aimed at obtaining more commercial gains. Nickolai Bambiza announced that large-scale felling will be continued and that the administration of the park is ready to cut one million (!) cubic metres of forest affected by the bark beetle. In jest or in earnest, he added that "lunar" landscapes emerging in Belovezhskaya Pushcha after felling are acceptable for his vision of its well-being and he will show the landscapes to foreign tourists whose arrival he anticipates so much. Well, thanks for the open and frank announcement. This is not surprising.
Today all scientists who deal with the problems of Belovezhskaya Pushcha can be divided into two groups. The first group consists of scientists who stand for protection of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. These are either young scientists or recognized experts who made/make an important contribution to the development of the environmental science and wildlife protection in Belarus. They all consider the economic activity in the National Park should be reasonable and advocate a paramount role of the science and ecological education. They support the modern idea of wilderness protection and the concept of wildlife management. They contribute to the environmental science and use its latest achievements and discoveries. The overwhelming majority of Belarusian ecologists make up the first group. It is these people who are at the forefront of nature protection in Belarus.
The second group of scientists is small in number and has no such achievements in the science and wildlife management as the first group does. The majority of this group is people of pre- or retirement age, who work in Belovezhskaya Pushcha and organizations related to it, as well as few scientists with education in forestry engineering or agronomy. As a rule, they are neither generally recognized nor considered an authority by their colleagues. A number of them are not in any way related to the environmental science, but say they are "practicing scientists". A big number of them have neither had significant works on wildlife management or ecology published in prestigious scientific periodicals, nor suggested important practical and scientifically-grounded recommendations.
These "scientists" do not support the modern idea of wilderness protection and the concept of wildlife management. They failed to get proper theoretical knowledge of the environmental science in due time and cannot understand now that the ideas of the science and wilderness protection have changed. Figuratively speaking, they missed the train of the science which sped by and is now miles away from their blurred vision of how wildlife should be taken care of.
It is these "scientists" who were called for to work in the national park by people who evidently "took over" Belovezhskaya Pushcha not for the reasons to save it. The new administration of the national park, the "owners of life" in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, wanted to employ low moral qualities of such "scientists". It is these "scientists" who help transform the natural riches of the national park into money for the purposes which are commonly unclear. As a reward for that, some are promoted to a managerial position, others receive high wages or are allowed to fulfill their ambitions and claims. If the "scientists" use the favorable occasion to satisfy their gluttonous nature with easy money, there is no tomorrow for them. Perhaps though, they know they are doomed and the felling unties their immoral hands and blurs their conscience.
The current situation in Belovezhskaya Pushcha is a struggle of the obsolete conscience with the new one. Progressive ideas always meet with resistance and it is not surprising. Surprising is another thing. The "obsolete" minority of people ruled out the "progressive" majority creating a stiff command-administrative system in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. In the upshot, those who call for necessary changes to the process of conservation are virtually out of law and the modern environmental science and ideas of wilderness protection are sunk into oblivion. The minority, in its turn, does not want Belovezhskaya Pushcha to be strictly conserved.
As soon as the UNESCO experts left Belovezhskaya Pushcha, propagandists trumpeted all over Belarus and Russia the news: ". the experts stressed that conservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha meets all requirements." Although the experts inspected only a small part of the reserved wood, someone wanted to show people that the situation in Belovezhskaya Pushcha is perfect...
Following the 28th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, in July 2004 the UNESCO experts prepared an official report on the results of their mission into Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The report was circulated for all concerned parties which were involved in the inspection. One should say that the conclusions drawn by the experts exceeded all our expectations!
The experts ascertained that 5,000 hectares of the Wilderness Protection Zone or 7 % of Belovezhskaya Pushcha are not used for economic purposes and are indeed protected in accordance with the UNESCO's criteria. The experts also shared the concern of the public that the World Heritage Site is too small in area and exposed to threats from the outside. Despite the fact that the mission was limited to the World Heritage Site, in their report the experts paid significant attention to the other, not less valuable area of the relic wood in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. It is there where the methods of nature management contradict the ecological science and threaten to destroy invaluable reserved nature areas. It is there where ecologists have been expressing their concerns about for many years.
The UNESCO experts accepted arguments of the public that the whole relic wood of Belovezhskaya Pushcha should be preserved and the Wilderness Protection Zone and the World Heritage Site enlarged. They also stressed the danger of large-scale felling outside the zone and the Heritage Site recommending more ecologically friendly ways of forestry management there so that the area is inscribed on the World Heritage List in the future.
Thus the UNESCO experts confirmed the facts a lot of Belarusian ecologists and nature conservationists have been talking about for quite a while. The facts which the administration of the National Park has been trying to deny. This confirmation is one more victory in our struggle for the sake of Belovezhskaya Pushcha's conservation!
We won that victory due to the right strategy and tactics, as well as continuous and effective communication with concerned people. We won that victory due to our well-argued, constructive and relevant proposals supported by indisputable facts of the damage the present administration of the National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" has done. All this and not intended populism produced a positive result. That victory is in a way a sign for those who earlier became despondent or lost hope for success of a just cause. Now all concerned and entrepreneurial people should unite in their efforts to protect Belovezhskaya Pushcha - the sanctity of the Belarusian people.
But what about the administration of the National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha"? However hard it is to believe, the administration is now not only supports the idea of the enlargement of the Wilderness Protection Zone, but has enlarged it! On August 25 the board of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Protection discussed how the administration adheres to the nature protection legislation. One of the first items in their issued report informs about enlarging the Wilderness Protection Zone from 15,700 to 30,000 hectares while uniting its separate patches into one forest tract. It also recommends that the World Heritage Committee be informed about the new borders of the Wilderness Protection Zone in order to grant the enlarged area the status of a World Heritage Site. This is good news, even though the Wilderness Protection Zone will be only 30,000 hectares in area and the new patches of wood are mainly located inside a barbed wired neutral strip, running along the border line of Belarus and Poland, where felling is minimal. This is a double victory for all people: scientists, the public, and even the administration. Well done! If we keep up our good work, we can convince the administration of enlarging the Wilderness Protection Zone to 50,000 hectares!
But what caused the administration to make a change in the policy of continuous exploitation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha? What made the head of the national park and his people change their minds? Is this for long and is this a change at all? It's very likely to be a double game.
Only forcible arguments can prompt changes in the policy about Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The arguments have appeared. First of all, this is the UNESCO's unequivocal position. For the last few years the administration of the National Park has been waging an ideological war aimed at creating visibility of well-being in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The war seems to be proving unsuccessful, as the blunders and cruelty towards people and nature are too obvious. The decision of the UNESCO mission was the last hope for the administration. The international experts, however, did not let themselves be hoodwinked and contradicting them would mean finally taking off the mask and coming out into the open. The change of tactics and policy for the administration of the national park was necessary and urgent.
Secondly, new head of the President's Property Management Department Gennady Lavrenkov, who was positively written about in the non-governmental press, also exerted his influence on the situation. Despite the attempts some propagandists make to brainwash people, Gennady Lavrenkov took over a host of difficult problems to solve in all areas of his responsibility and, to his credit, he found courage and will to act for the good of Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
Thirdly, one should keep in mind the major "achievement" head of the National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" Nickolai Bambiza has made for the last three years. The unprofessional, rough, and venturesome policy he pursued together with former head of the Property Management Department Galina Zhuravkova (being currently prosecuted) has led not only to discrediting the national park on the international scene, but, on the whole, to discrediting wildlife management in Belarus. Before Galina Zhuravkova and Nickolai Bambiza were appointed to their posts, the UNESCO had been inviting representatives of the National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" to important international conferences to share their experience of conservation work. But after the appointment of the two, Belovezhskaya Pushcha became famous for scandals and exposures, as well as for letters and faxes of protest which were being sent to the Belarusian President from around the world. Therefore the enlargement of the Wilderness Protection Zone is the first serious step to show the world positive changes in conservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and improve the image of the President's Property Management Department and Belarus.
Finally, although the last changes in the policy of the President's Property Management Department and the administration of the National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" have been positive in nature, there is no confidence they will prevail. Even in a sheep's disguise a "wolf" will retain its predatory instincts. And what about the head of Belovezhskaya Pushcha who must be totally depraved to have felled the unique floodplain oak forests in the valley of the Pripyat River and the relic woods of Belovezhskaya Pushcha? Can the man so suddenly become a sincere supporter of nature? Can the man who profoundly uses foul language at a business meeting so suddenly become ethical?
There have been so many scandals in Belovezhskaya Pushcha over the last few years! So many people's lives have been crippled! The same big changes, as aimed at the Wilderness Protection Zone, must be brought in to all areas related to the management of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Although commissions and inspectors try to close their eyes on it, the locals cannot live with a "log in the eye". They see and know everything. Alas, but the department and the administration can hardly overcome what they have practiced before. Those born to creep cannot fly.
Villains are for the bad things while heroes are for the good ones. The time will show how sincere the intentions of the administration of Belovezhskaya Pushcha are. For now one should only support them and go on with conservation work in this treasure of Belarusian nature.