An address by the Belarusian public to the Council of Europe with regard to the renewal of the European Diploma of Protected Areas to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park

An official letter to Mrs. Francoise Bauer
Directorate of Culture and Cultural and Natural Heritage, Council of Europe
CC to CE experts

Dear Mrs. Bauer,
dear experts of the Council of Europe,

The professionals and experts of the CE Directorate of Cultural and Natural Heritage are soon to make a decision on renewing the European Diploma to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, a decision that will have great significance in terms of the park's future.

The Belarusian environmentalist and democratic community and the residents of Belovezhskaya Pushcha itself are deeply concerned about the future of the Great Forest in view of the possibilities and implications that may result from this event, which can be safely called crucial to Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s future. It is the terms and duration of the renewal, the obligations, requirements and recommendations to be offered to the national park’s administration, and the control procedures to be outlined that will determine the Belarusian and international communities’ ability to verify and influence observance of environmental rules and democratic norms under the Diploma. This, in turn, will determine whether that prestigious award will be used to benefit Belovezhskaya Pushcha or to hurt it.

We realize just how sensitive and complex the dilemma of the European Diploma is. None of us questions the everlasting environmental and cultural significance of Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s unique old-growth forest. Neither does anyone doubt the necessity or significance of the Diploma to Belovezhskaya Pushcha, both a prestigious award and a mechanism for controlling and encouraging environmental and other activities on the territory for which it is awarded. We are completely for Belovezhskaya Pushcha receiving that award.

At the same time, we are witnessing the fact that the prestigious Diploma is still not being used in the national park entirely for the purpose of compliance with international and national environmental regulations, protection of Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s unique nature complex, a balanced nature management process, and harmonious coexistence of man and nature. We note that the Diploma is still not considered there as a vehicle for promoting democratic and humanitarian principles or pursuing a partnership with the public, which eventually should result in sustainable development of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha region for the benefit of all the interested parties including the wildlife of the primeval forest. On the contrary, the Diploma is often being put to completely different uses, such as covering narrow departmental interest or activities that are inconsistent with the aforementioned foundations.

The principal condition for renewal of the Diploma as put forward by the Council of Europe is that a Belovezhskaya Pushcha management plan is devised, adopted and implemented. The management plan was finally submitted by Belarus in 2008. We totally welcome that, although we do point to violations of democratic procedures that occurred in the course of its discussion, to a non-transparent decision-making process, and to the impossibility of open public control.

The analysis performed by members of the public shows a huge number of environmental problems in Belovezhskaya Pushcha which are leading toward the ruin of that unique area of wilderness at increasing speed. These problems need to be solved now or very soon. Thus, the management plan should have been the catalyst for solving these problems and a critical stage that guaranteed a brand-new condition leading to an improvement in Belovezhskaya Pushcha's environmental situation.

A year has passed. What has been accomplished under the management plan? The annual report according to the management plan is still absent. Positive things no doubt have been done in the national park. However, we find it difficult to describe the general situation. That is because the national park's administration is still reluctant to communicate with the public in a normal, civilized way. There is generally no public dialogue in place. The territory of the national park is an area where public control is locked out, an area to which no independent experts, journalists or green activists are admitted. Furthermore, in response to the public inquiries for environmental information filed in 2009, the national park's administration wrote, “The Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park is not a state structure obliged to provide citizens with information regarding the matters of protection and management of specially protected areas” (May 19, 2009 and October 26, 2009).

At the same time, there is something different we are observing about the national park's current activities, namely, the fact that the huge secret commercial operations remain inconsistent not just with the management plan but with the rules and recommendations of the Diploma and the environmental laws. This climaxed, among other things, in a bison hunt (!) staged for foreign hunters in a strictly protected area (the Wilderness Protection Zone) (!) of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The illegal hunt involved massive participation from the national park staff and was widely condemned in February this year (read http://bp21.org.by/en/art/a100210.html or original in Russian http://vb.by/print.php?article=8553). Any protection or conservation of wildlife thus appears questionable.

The above explains the construction of a hunting enclosure which involves conversion of a vast 3000 hectare old-growth forest area to be intensively used for commercial operations, something expressly prohibited by law (read and see http://bp21.org.by/en/ff/600foto28.html). Wide-scale logging and other commercial operations that inflict irreparable damage upon the unique wild forest still continue (read and see http://bp21.org.by/en/ff/). What sort of plan implementation is that? There is still no confirmation that the national park's administration have abandoned their unlawful plans to “transform” the Pravaya Lesnaya River flowing across Belovezhskaya Pushcha (read and see http://bp21.org.by/en/ff/600foto23.html), although the plan makes no mention of the “transformation.” The examples can be kept on…

The 600th anniversary since the establishing the reserved status in Belovezhskaya Pushcha was celebrated in October 2009 on enormous scale, accompanied by a grand media campaign (read http://bp21.org.by/en/news/1009.html). Without discussing the validity of the wording itself, we shall note that the nation's leadership voiced an intention to significantly expand Belovezhskaya Pushcha's conservation area strictly to protect almost the entire historical part of the old-growth forest. The step was planned for the 600th anniversary as a sort of present to all those struggling for the preservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The celebration is over. As we can see, the promise has not been fulfilled. And there is no information any more as to whether it indeed will be fulfilled. What is known is that construction of a modern bypass road around Belovezhskaya Pushcha to help intensively develop tourism and hunting in the relatively wild and well-preserved areas (read http://bp21.org.by/en/news/0210.html#6 or original in Russian http://virtual.brest.by/news4008.php). The road is absent in the management plan while its construction needs Euro 33.25 billion. It is clear that with the present policy and management style preserved in the national park, the public has every reason to believe that this will be another purely commercial project, and nothing but harm to Belovezhskaya Pushcha and degrading of new wilderness territories should be expected.

Thus we can see no wish of the national park's administration seriously considering the management plan as guidance, with an intention to follow and implement it. On the contrary, we are observing actions that are inconsistent with the management plan, inflicting major damage on Belovezhskaya Pushcha's protected wildlife and deteriorating the condition and safety of the old-growth forest. If continued, that policy and management style would discredit both Belarus' environmental image and the European Diploma itself.

We have every reason to believe that the national park's administration may use the Diploma and the management plan toward different ends, namely, to cover totally different activities inconsistent with the objectives and provisions of the Diploma. The management plan itself would serve as another “nicely wrapped all-purpose paper” that could be produced whenever the need arose.

Guided by the principle of “do no harm,” we the undersigned would like to offer the Council of Europe a compromise that would help avoid a mistake, prevent further damage to Belovezhskaya Pushcha, and provide another chance to establish civilized social relations in the national park.

We are proposing to take another year's break before making the final decision on possible renewal of the Diploma. The break would be followed by a verification of proper compliance with the management plan in 2011. The verification process should involve CE and UNESCO experts. If the assessment were positive, the national park's management would have the Diploma renewed.

In the currently critical situation we consider this offer as the most accurate. We do not support the idea of renewal of the Diploma for the above specified reasons. However, if the CE experts suggest its renewal as obligatory and the only possible decision for today, we do ask to find a compromise, for example, to renew the Diploma conditionally on a temporary basis, i.e. for a period of two or three years, but not for fife or ten years in any way. This period would be followed by a similar compliance verification and assessment process by experts of the CE and UNESCO. The Diploma could be renewed for its full duration after a positive opinion from the experts.

It is our strong hope that you, dear Mrs. Bauer and the esteemed experts will listen to our proposals and make the decision on this matter that you deem the most appropriate. We are confident that, in view of all the complexity and ambiguity of the current Diploma and management plan situation, only a compromise would offer us the Belarusian public the best possible opportunities and chances to carry on our positive work on conservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

Thank you for cooperation and attention.

Respectfully,

March 01, 2010, Belarus