March 22, 2004
To the Ambassador of Belarus in France
To the Belarusian UNESCO Office
To Mr V.L. Senko
Dear Permanent Representative of the Republic of Belarus at UNESCO
Dear Vladimir Leonovich
We address information that you could depict Belarus, the country you represent, more objectively.
On 18th and 19th March of this year, we visited the National Park and Biosphere Reserve "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" on the invitation of Mr Schastny, the Chairman of the UNESCO National Commission, in the framework of the UNESCO / IUCN mission.
We were invited to a meeting with the officials of the Commission and with representatives of the Belarusian public (I also send you the official invitation from Mr Schastny in confirmation of this).
The list of people and public organizations invited by Mr. Schastny, made without consultation, should have been considerably wider, more representative and more appropriate. The independent initiative "TERRA-Convention" submitted an application for participation three months before the meeting, made reasonable proposals to Mr Schastny and requested a discussion with officials. Later Mr. Schastny changed his attitude, terminating a phone conversation with the phrase "I have nothing more to say to you".
During the 2-day visit to the National Park we were miss-treated, our rights were violated and our movements restricted. Our access to the National Park was limited to one hour - from 12.30 to 13.30pm on 18th March. Other time we were not allowed to approach the zoo enclosures to see bison, and could not even drink tea or coffee, or visit the Nature Museum. Three local guards and two policemen constantly guarded the main entrance to the park, a so-called "check point". They would not say whose orders they were executing, and they would not allow us to pass through for our meeting with the coordinator. The leader explained that this was to ensure our safety, but it seems that they thought that the invited participants of the meeting threatened them.
On 19th March, we went to meet the IUCN official Mr Flander, who had agreed to give us an interview the day before. He suggested a time for meeting (before breakfast at 08.30am). However the authorities were aware of our meeting and we were again stopped by the guards who referred to an order that said that we were not allowed to meet the representatives, and our protests were rejected. When we tried to hail Mr Flander who was passing by and had seen us, the guards called a police car to the gate, surrounded one of us using force, and threatened to drive him away. I, Valery Dranchuk, showed my traveling certificate and reminded them of my rights as a journalist and editor of the newspaper "Belovezhskaya Pushcha".
As participants of the meetings officially invited by Mr Schastny, we also had accommodation problems, attributed to the organizers. In particular, we were not given accommodation, even though we offered to pay for it, referring to the lack of hotel rooms that we knew to be false. Although we are not claiming for our travel expenses, we believe that the organizers should provide these, as it is difficult to travel to Belovezhskaya Pushcha by public transport.
We believe that the so-called "meeting of public organizations with the officials" was carefully planned by the authorities under the President of Belarus solely for their selfish purposes, to disguise the illegality that is taking place in the National Park and is having a negative impact on its World Heritage status. We are insulted by those efforts of the authorities that did not promote, but rather hindered discussion with representatives of a wide spectrum of expertise, and excluded the public. An owner of the National Park, the Property Management Department of the President and the UNESCO National Commission rejected the proposal for a press conference even before the commencement of the UNESCO mission although they were given the appropriate request by the "TERRA-Convention". After all we were not offered by dialogue but met a trap. The actions of the Belarusian authorities with the consent and participation of the UNESCO National Commission including Mr Schastny were aimed at deceit and disinformation, with little regard for the brave attempt of many people to preserve Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a World Heritage Site.
We appeal to the international community:
1. To hold an independent inquiry into the conservation and future development of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the largest European forest, as a World Heritage Site.
2. To consider the possibility of including Belovezhskaya Pushcha on the list of World Heritage Sites that are in danger after such an independent inquiry.
3. To support the initiative of the Belarusian public ecological organizations to set up an independent supervisory committee for the conservation and protection of Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
The Independent Ecological Initiative TERRA-Convention
The Belarusian Social-Ecological Union - Chernobyl