Stop the destruction of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and turn it into a true wilderness and wildlife reserve!

An open letter to Alexander Lukashenko, President of the Republic of Belarus

On October 3, 2009, i.e. eighteen months ago, Belarus held a grandiose celebration of a remarkable historic date, 600 years of nature protection in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, officially presenting and promoting the date as 600 years of the establishing the wilderness reserve status. The gilded metal sign installed for the celebration on the wall of a luxurious new restaurant, which is the first to greet visitors to the park today, reads, "Belovezhskaya Pushcha. 600 Years of the Establishing the Wilderness Protection."

The trick is that it is too early to say that Belovezhskaya Pushcha enjoys a true wilderness reserve status or true wilderness and wildlife preservation even today, as these simply do not exist! There was no such thing as "a wilderness reserve" six hundred years ago. It was much later in history, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the whole concept of a "wilderness and wildlife reserve" came into being thanks to the work of the great Russian thinkers and founders of wilderness and wildlife reserve management science, among them Vladimir Dokuchayev, Grigory Kozhevnikov and others. In the distant year of 1409, Polish King Jogaila, then the owner of the forest, issued an edict forbidding anyone but himself and his cousin, Vytautas the Grand Duke of Lithuania, from hunting large beasts in the forest. It allowed others to hunt only small game and birds. The edict imposed restrictions on logging in the forest and entering the forest. That event was the beginning of Belovezhskaya Pushcha acquiring its protected status, which since has been abolished, renewed and modified several times. At the moment Belovezhskaya Pushcha is a national park (beginning in 1991), a biosphere reserve (beginning in 1993), and part of World Heritage (beginning in 1992). However, the designations say little of the substance. Things may look respectable on the surface, but if one digs down a little…

This is something I want to say at the top of my voice, so that even the "deaf" and "blind," as most Belarusian public officials, can hear me. The 600-years-of-a-wilderness-reserve slogan could be considered a harmless joke coming from people who have little relation to wildlife reserve management, but who are in charge of it at the moment. But what do we do about the colossal damage being inflicted on the relic forest and its unique biodiversity, and covered by that slogan?

The propaganda machine is running at full capacity, convincing the average person that Belovezhskaya Pushcha is doing fine, and they have everything under control. The wilderness and wildlife reserve has just turned 600, the plants and animals are thriving, tourists are happy and a dedicated, multi-season Father Frost speaks from the center of a reportedly strictly protected forest. It is all so blissful and idyllic!

Let us step behind the curtain - behind that artfully constructed facade, to see what the propagandist have been so carefully concealing from public view. The image revealed to us will be an appalling one: Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a unique primeval forest is dying slowly but surely

The fact that the national park’s management has been destroying the relic forest and terrorizing the local population has been the subject of many a story. The management lost the prestigious European Diploma over its involvement in exposes and controversies, leading to undermining of the Belarus’ environmental image. The disgraceful list of those "achievements" could go on… In what regards social policy, the management displays a highly adverse and unethical approach to social relationships. The national park has a quasi-police regime typical of the aggressive political regimes of Africa, not the well-developed Europe.

It took the President ten years to finally make the right decision, removing the reckless, nonprofessional and strange director, in fact a notorious kingpin from a subordinate clan and an immune caste. "Immune" in this case means that Belarusian laws and the Constitution do not fully apply. The dismissed director was not indicted for his environmental crimes or lawlessness. He changed his seat for that of a banker, where he can now cultivate the new "financial soil."

Under a normal democratic system, a year would be enough to tell if the tree bears good or bad fruit, and make the right decision. Some will say it is all those bad officials who conceal facts from the President and disobey him. However, it is not so much about the officials as the monopolistic government pyramid where lies are an integral element, and the President, a hostage. The structure of the pyramid is such that truth struggles for decades to get through (as with Belovezhskaya Pushcha), and those who tell it face repression and are denied the right to practice their profession and get a decent living and a future in this country.

I do not deny that the leadership and government of Belarus give a lot of attention to protection and conservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, economic growth in the area and a number of urgent issues and objectives confronting the national park. Yes, this is true! However, unfortunately they fail to consider all the adverse consequences of these activities. These, as history shows, most often outweigh the positive ones in terms of significance and long-term effects.

For instance, the 600th anniversary of nature protection saw the government spend an equivalent of $30 million and put into effect an extensive redevelopment, construction and infrastructure upgrading program. In general, positive change is evident, but the effort was not without its downside. At the same time, the wild nature and wildlife of Belovezhskaya Pushcha primeval forest sustained immense damage! The problem was that those in charge of environmental management during the preparations for the celebration had a very vague or no idea of wild nature reserve management or contemporary environmental science. The consequences of their environmental management proved terrible, often serving as the worst example of treating protected wildlife. This sort of approach is unacceptable toward protected areas in a country aspiring to be called a developed country.

Efforts aimed at encouraging tourism and building tourist infrastructure have produced substantial progress. The number of visitors, primarily to Father Frost’s Estate, has been on the rise, peaking at a record 235,000 in 2009. At the same, environmental education as the national park’s core mission and a component of ecotourism, is still below contemporary world standards, impaired by a lack of professionalism, replaced with cheap "eco-entertainment" and failing to serve efforts to address the urgent challenges of preserving the wildlife. This damages the national park’s image in the eyes of well-educated tourists and dampens the positive effect of the efforts.

However, all of this pales in comparison with the powerful destructive force that has been destroying Belovezhskaya Pushcha the world heritage for a decade now at an unheard-of pace and on an unheard-of scale. Living in the center of the twenty-first-century Europe, we are witnessing a true tragedy: the death of the last major remnant of the primeval lowland forest. The undertaker is the Belarusian government, which has built a management system largely composed of nonprofessional, irresponsible and often reckless, come-and-go individuals. All of this is happening before the entire civilized world, with the Belarusian nation remaining largely indifferent.

Te main problem is that the strictly protected part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha is significantly smaller than the one exposed to industrial use. The government doubled the size of the Wilderness Protection Zone in Belovezhskaya Pushcha under public and UNESCO pressure in 2004 to just 30,000 hectares, or 34 percent of the relic forest area and 18 percent of the national park’s total territory of approximately 164,000 hectares. The wildlife in that zone is more or less undamaged. The wild nature in that zone is kept in a more or less undamaged state. The remaining larger part of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha primeval forest is subject to intense economic activity, slowly killing the forest, such as large-scale logging, artificial plantation, hunting and amelioration. However, this is not all. Even the holiest of the holies, the Wilderness Protection Zone where any economic activity is illegal, is facing secret exploitation. Commercial hunting and bay hunting involving foreigners, gathering of berries and mushrooms and other commercial activity have become commonplace here.

Many erroneously believe that the recently dismissed director was the only driving force behind Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s destruction. However, there is a whole multi-level system, and the director is only a cog in that system, albeit an important cog. It will soon be two months since he was fired, but the machine of destruction is still running at full steam!

As evidence of this, I recently received a report from a forester who is a champion of Belovezhskaya Pushcha at heart. And a terrible report it is. Just think of how powerfully the flywheel of destruction has been spun. This is the climax! Here is the situation.

According to the propagandists, there is no unscheduled commercial logging in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, and whatever tree felling is taking place has environmental purposes. They are using some quasi-scientific papers to justify the cutting. However, it has nothing to do with environmentalism. Just think about it: they are felling trees to preserve the primeval forest. How can this be? In reality, there is a plan that specifies compulsory economic targets that have to be met by the national park - primarily, lumber production and export. Failure to meet the targets results in disciplinary and financial penalties.

Here is what happens in reality. The northern part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha is rich in young coniferous wood, whereas almost all high-quality wood has been harvested. The south is home to the most precious, old-growth stand - the so-called "gold reserve." Felling in the Belyanskoye Forest District is prohibited: this is a strict reserve. The Korolyovo-Mostovskoye Forest District has been cut far and wide over a decade. The Pashukovskoye Forest District has sustained the least damage. Most logging and timber operations lately have been concentrated in this district, the most precious and distinctive one. As many as six forest districts: Belyanskoye, Dmitrovichskoye, Novosyolkovskoye , Rechitskoye, Porozovskoye and Pashukovskoye itself, have been working in this area to meet their lumber production targets.

The plans are ambitious indeed, with each of the districts obliged to produce 1,000 cubic meters of timber per month. That makes 6,000 cubic meters per months for all the six forest districts or 72,000 cubic meters per year. Just imagine this. A decade ago, they cut down 60,000 cubic meters in the entire Belovezhskaya Pushcha, and now the figure is significantly higher for just one district! What is left there for cutting? There is no windfall timber available, no wood damaged by the bark beetle, and dead standing trees were felled a long time ago. Finding 500 cubic meters of dead trees in a month used to be a problem, and now they need 6,000. What other options are they left with to meet their targets but to cut prime living trees - something prohibited by law? Evidence of illegal felling would not be hard to obtain. Illegal felling makes no consideration for the condition of each tree or the sustainable amount of wood that can be harvested from the felling site - the main opportunity for abuse. Then there is the district survey regulation as the primary determinative document. It looks as if the regulation, too, is ignored?

What will be left of the primeval forest in the district? Sanitary felling has been going on here for decades. And what will become of Belovezhskaya Pushcha after (Heaven forbid!) another five years of that kind of management? According to foresters, it is hard to find an old pine-tree in some compartments. Van you picture 100 hectares of old forest without a giant tree? This is already our reality!

Here is some evidence of the scale and year-round nature of the felling: openings and roads in the Pashukovskoye Forest District have been so much damaged by heavy-duty timber trucks that travelers are reduced to using the central road. As early as a decade ago, access for heavy trucks to forest openings during the rainy seasons was prohibited.

The district also has a huge hunting enclosure worth more than a million dollars. Almost 3,500 hectares, primarily occupied by top-grade old-growth trees, was illegally seized to accommodate the enclosure. In other words, businessmen have effectively taken a large part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha to destroy it later. The enclosure was built two years ago for keeping and hunting a large number of deer and wild boars. Foresters say the first signs of a degrading relic forest are already evident.

They have started to use forestry techniques to cut down even young and middle-age pine woods - something unseen before. These woods should have replaced those that were once felled by German, British, Polish or Soviet businessmen, but the shortage of trees has been pushing the timber traders to tap the future reserves of Belovezhskaya Pushcha by cutting down rows of living pine-trees deep into the wood to make way for trucks, shaping a commercial tree plantation, rather than a forest reserve.

Oak groves have been more or less intact so far, but for the only reason that market demand for oak has been low. There is little reason to doubt that the screech of chainsaws will make 300 year-old oaks tremble, should such demand appear.

Felling 7.5 hectares of an old forest with pine trees aged 150 to 200 years for construction of a new tree nursery is the latest case of vandalism against Belovezhskaya Pushcha. At the same time there are has hundreds of hectares of areas damaged by storm, cleared and artificially planted. It is not hard to guess that someone well earned using luxury wood under the guise of a good idea and in the absence of adequate independent monitoring.

These are the outcomes of a decade of management by reckless individuals vested with power. Little wonder. The national park has long operated without a chief forestry officer or any professional employees. No right-thinking individual remains here for long. The foresters have been selected for a forestry-type, not nature-conservation-type mentality. Feelings for the forest, if any, have been quashed by administrative pressure. Everyone is afraid of being fired for a careless word.

As we can see, the overall picture of forest management and the situation of the old-growth forest in the national park looks disastrous, not merely painful. It is time to cry SOS, summon an international committee (if unable to address the problems and grasp the meaning of sustainable forest management) and hold the culprits fully liable for their acts.

How could all this outright vandalism and desecration of the Great Forest happen in the 21st century in the center of Europe? The national park and senior institutions have built an efficient system of complicity in, and cover-up of, unsustainable and unlawful activities. The national park’s management has been purposefully purging all of its departments and services of scrupulous, competent, proficient, refined, honest and concerned employees who had an opinion about the ongoing outrage. Their positions have been filled by come-and-goers and obedient servants with no regard for consciousness, honor or spirituality in life. At the same time, Belovezhskaya Pushcha was closed to public environmental control, and any attempts by independent environmentalists or activists at breaching the ban were suppressed, even when doing so was against the law.

Thus, Belovezhskaya Pushcha is facing both an environmental and humanitarian disaster.

What can be done? There is one simple way out: expand the Wilderness Protected Zone over the entire historical part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha to stop any commercial operations at last and create a mechanism to preserve the entire primeval forest, turning Belovezhskaya Pushcha into a true wilderness and wildlife reserve. Designate the entire Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Environmental scientists have said this for a long time and more than once. The idea was officially suggested for the first time in October 2007. The change reportedly would have been timed with the 600th anniversary (October 2009). This would be a true turn of the tide in the history of the national park – from a century-long tradition of slowly killing the primeval forest to a true wildlife reserve. The 2009 anniversary could have been the starting point for wilderness protection in Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

It is now almost one and half year since the anniversary, and what do we see? Nothing! Belovezhskaya Pushcha has not been made a true wilderness and wildlife reserve! They have not delivered on those promises or made any effective steps toward doing so. Public inquiries under the Aarhus Convention have been left unanswered. One gets an impression the thing has been forgotten altogether, or the subject is barred from public discussion.

Why did this happen? A source with the Ministry of Forestry says the Presidential Department of Affairs, which controls all national parks and biosphere reserves in the country, made inclusion of the neighboring Pruzhany Forest District into the national park a prerequisite for the planned expansion of the latter’s wilderness protection zone. The purpose was to make up for the income that would be lost due to cessation of the business operations in the forest, killing as many as three birds with one stone in the process. First, the profits from commercial hunting, logging and other use of the forest would remain unchanged or even increase. Second, encouraging tourism in the newly added conservation area would bring in substantial added profits. And finally, the step would drastically improve the national park’s conservation image both at home and internationally. What a brilliant plan! Alas! The same source said the cabinet, ministries and departmental stakeholders gave no backing to the idea and the initiative ground to a halt.

Let us look at what might have happened behind the scenes. Who would gain and who would lose from the proposed change? On a national scale, no one would lose. The various government agencies involved would redistribute the territory and re-pocket the public property. Any lost profits from hunting and logging would be negligible, compensated in part with growing numbers of primarily foreign visitors. The image boost for Belarus, on the other hand, would be huge. Overall, the wildlife, the government and the Belarusian people all win.

From a strictly departmental point of view, the proposed change would hurt the interests of a small group directly associated with the Presidential property management department. It would block a steady flow of cash from the commercial hunting and logging concealed from the public eye. Tourism, a transparent business, neither has the room for scheming, nor generates as much profit. Besides, opening up the zone for tourists would make the exclusive secret entertainment and recreation activities there much more difficult.

What is the bottom line? The interests of the entire nation have been sacrificed for the interests of a small group of officials and associated businesses, while the Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s primeval forest continues to be dying, damaging both the local wilderness and the image of Belarus as a nation committed to protection of wildlife.

Designated as national park and nature protection institution, Belovezhskaya Pushcha today is effectively a gigantic agricultural, tourist, hunting and logging complex with a monopoly on almost every business activity in the area. No other country in the world has anything similar that I would know of. There is no way such a versatile, gigantic and monopolistic organization can be managed from one center or operate efficiently, as its very existence is against the natural laws of social development. The "national park" in its current form is doomed to suffer from the flaws described above. The very existence of that greedy monster is the primary source of all principal contradictions, woes and vices of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha region.

It is certainly not the Belovezhskaya Pushcha wildlife, the local population, the Belarusian nation or the international community that benefit from that bloated business organization. It only benefits a small number of senior government officials and associated businessmen. It is to their personal interests that the unique primeval forest is being sacrificed for and it in only they who are interested in preserving the current abnormal model and structure of the so-called "national park."

All in all, the 600th anniversary of nature protection in Belovezhskaya Pushcha failed to serve as the pivotal event marking the end of the loss of the unique primeval forest, with its rich biodiversity, and the beginning of its assured safety and wellbeing. On the contrary, the adverse environmental effects of the festivities were a further contribution to the destruction of the old-growth relic forest. The government is yet to take the necessary and sufficient steps that would stop the fall of the Great Forest and give a new start to the story of its revival and rise.

The large-scale construction project centered on a bypass around the forest, expected to give a new impetus to tourist business in Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s wilderness, and is seen as extremely environmentally dangerous and one more real threat to the forest’s primeval wildlife. There is little reason for doubting that if the current adverse environmental and social situation persists, and the flawed policies and management practices continue, the old-growth relic forest, yet inaccessible due to natural reasons, will receive a powerful blow it will not be able to sustain. So far, things have been following that scenario.

Second, what will large new crowds of visitors be shown and told tourists around the bypass: tales of a quasi-reserve, the Father Frost show in the middle of the protected area and the environmental decline of a unique land? It is the twenty-first century, and people are well educated and do not buy the cheap propaganda that easily—all the more so because there are alternate, accurate sources available.

Conclusion

The top government officials of Belarus have recently displayed some progress in understanding the essence of Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a large and unique natural phenomenon, and the importance and need to preserve it. On the eve of the 600th anniversary and on the celebration day, we witnessed remarkable, unheard-before speeches about Belovezhskaya Pushcha from President Alexander Lukashenko, who was followed by other officials. We did not hear this before. In particular, Lukashenko was heard saying the following: "We must preserve the dark denseness of the central part of the forest, so that people could touch the primeval things that once were here," "This is our shrine," "As for the economic activity, it must do good, not harm. We must ensure that the forest lives up to the high titles bestowed upon it."

When the President is referring to Belovezhskaya Pushcha as sacred, President is still using the word in its patriotic, rather than spiritual, sense. Nevertheless, this was a clear step toward spirituality and understanding of Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a unique natural phenomenon.

The last two years have shown that this is insufficient to drastically change the situation in the national park and stop the loss of the Great Forest. Public officials and government institutions still lack the statesmanship and political will, and spirituality.

Drastic steps by top government officials, followed by the urgent measures listed below would need to be taken to remedy the current, generally disastrous, situation of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha wildlife, wilderness and old-growth relic forest.

  1. Expand the Wilderness Protection Zone over as much of the primeval forest’s historic part as possible. Make Belovezhskaya Pushcha a true wildlife reserve!
  2. Designate the area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  3. Drastically reform the very organization of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. Spin off almost all of its business operations, which are not duties of the national park as a nature protection institution. Retain only those units directly supporting its core functions such as wilderness and wildlife protection, biodiversity conservation, forestry and hunting management, research, tourism and education, and auxiliary farming necessary for providing feed for wild animals in winter, with their associated supporting units. Other businesses should get other owners.
  4. Make the management plan designed for managing the national park as approved by experts into a compulsory guideline. The document provides a correct and detailed enough description of the region’s problems and ways to resolve these.
  5. Drastically change the approach to preservation and management of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Cease all unsustainable use of the wildlife. Highly sustainable and environmentally strict forestry techniques specially designed for Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a wilderness and wildlife reserve should be applied in the forest management process.
  6. Make modern ideas of humanism and environmental ethics, and the sacredness of wildlife and wilderness the national park’s dominant philosophies.
  7. Drastically change the personnel policy in the national park and put into place a process of selecting competent, proficient personnel who are capable of performing the national park’s tasks on a long-term basis. Substantially improve the standard of the employees’, primarily, managers’ and tour guides’, environmental competence.
  8. Take steps to rehabilitate the local academic community and replace the decaying research department with a modern scientific center capable of dealing with issues and objectives the national park.
  9. Drastically change policies toward local residents, the community, green activists and independent environmentalists. Replace the management’s current policy of hostility and open confrontation with an ethical approach, proper conduct and a desire to work together for mutual benefit. Make transparency, openness and democracy the rule when discussing the environmental, economic and social issues of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and the national park.

Dear Alexander Grigoryevich:

I hope that the aforementioned facts and analytical data will convince you of the need to urgently approve the proposed decisions, and you will have enough statesmanship and political will to make Belovezhskaya Pushcha a true wilderness and wildlife reserve. This is certainly if you value the nation’s and Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s prestige over the departmental interests of certain members of your entourage. You would go down in history as the leader who stopped the loss of the Great Forest, opening its new history as a true wilderness and wildlife reserve.

If this happens, yet the Presidential Affairs Management Department fails to handle the tasks of reforming the national park, then it will be expedient to raise the issue of reforming the entire system of specially protected natural areas in Belarus, in particular, by setting up a separate agency, e.g. a State Committee on Specially Protected Wildlife Areas and Wilderness Reserve Management. The agency would employ environmental professionals and report directly to the Council of Ministers, controlling all national parks, biosphere reserves and wildlife sanctuaries, including Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

Heorhy Kazulka
Doctoral Candidate of Biology
Belovezhskaya Pushcha
March 11, 2011

P.S. Details, supporting facts and analytical data can be found at "Outcomes and general conclusions: a stocktaking on the 600th anniversary of nature protection in Belovezhskaya Pushcha and a future forecast".