Be a guardian of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, rather another of its killers!

An open letter to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park Director Aleksandr Bury

The name of Belovezhskaya Pushcha speaks for itself! No comments or explanations are necessary, except, perhaps, that it is the Great Primeval Forest, a Sacred place on the planet Earth.

This letter of mine is not a regular narration or appeal. This letter of mine is more about the sacred and the spiritual. I am writing this with a spiritual attitude in the first place. Here is what made me write it.

Today is a special historic date, the anniversary of a tragedy, so to speak. Exactly ten years ago Belovezhskaya Pushcha saw the beginning of a period that will go down in history under the name of "bambism" — a derivative of both "bomb" and the name of the director who arranged and conducted the destruction and eradication process. It was on May 5, 2001 that Belovezhskaya Pushcha saw the appointment of those who would subsequently organize a series of acts of vandalism against the wildlife and the protected forest, unseen ever before in its post-war history, eradicate the local tradition of care for the protected wildlife, and sacked most of the national park’s personnel. A reckless and amateurish attitude of the previous management team, as well as connivance, insufficient control and leniency by senior administrators, added to cause innumerable misfortunes to the wildlife and biological diversity of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, suffering and grief to many local families, discredit to the national park in the eyes of the world, and enormous damage to the nation’s environmental image. The infamous suspension of the park’s European Diploma in 2007 alone, and the fact that it has not been renewed to date, speak for themselves.

These are just some examples of local wilderness reserve, environment and forest management:

The list can go on. The Belovezhskaya Pushcha region’s social, humanitarian and occupational problems, including the "Taliban"—a nickname that the locals gave to the many comers-and-goers who replaced the original personnel of the national park, are a different story. Details of this and many more are available in the executive summary entitled, "Outcomes and general conclusions: a stocktaking on the 600th anniversary of nature protection in Belovezhskaya Pushcha and a future forecast" available on the Belovezhskaya Pushcha 21st century website and in the Photo-fact section.

The bottom line? The overall situation of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha primeval forest’s conservation and management in terms its specially protected status appears disastrous, not just saddening. 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. Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a unique primeval forest is dying slowly but surely… It is time we cried for help at the top of our lungs and summoned an international committee, experts and professionals, as we ourselves do not have the will or the intellect to deal with the issues.

The main problem is that the strictly protected part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha is significantly smaller than the one exposed to commercial use. The government doubled the size of the Wilderness Protection Zone in Belovezhskaya Pushcha under pressure from the public and UNESCO in 2004, albeit 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 preserved more or less intact. However, the remaining larger part of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha primeval forest is still subjected to intense economic activity that is slowly killing the forest, such as large-scale logging, artificial plantation, hunting and amelioration. However, that is not all. Even the holiest of the holies, the Wilderness Protection Zone where any economic activity is illegal, is facing illegal secret exploitation. Commercial hunting and bay hunting involving foreigners, gathering of berries and mushrooms and other commercial activity have become commonplace there.

How could all this outright vandalism and desecration of the Great Forest happen in the center of the twenty-first-century Europe? The national park and senior institutions have built an efficient system of complicity in, and cover-up of, unsustainable and unlawful activities. This is why 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 and assumed personal responsibility. 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 faces both an environmental and humanitarian disaster.

The large-scale construction project centered on a bypass around the Forest, is expected to give a new impetus to tourist business in Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s wildlife, 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 largely adverse current 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. On the other hand, what will large new crowds of visitors be shown and told around the bypass: tales of a quasi-reserve, the Father Frost circus 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.

There is only one—and very simple—way out: expand the Wilderness Protection 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 wildlife reserve. Designate the entire Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

That is the key! But other protection, management, research, ecotourism, environmental education, personnel, social and humanitarian policy measures are needed. Specific conclusions and recommendations are, too, available in the in the executive summary entitled, "Outcomes and general conclusions: a stocktaking on the 600th anniversary of nature protection in Belovezhskaya Pushcha and a future forecast" on the Belovezhskaya Pushcha 21st century website.

I spoke about this and more in my March 11, 2011 open letter to President Alexander Lukashenko. The full text is available here.

I received a reply to my letter from the Presidential Department of Affairs the other day. It was signed by Deputy Manager Yury Nazarov. The reply reassured me to a large extent. Besides, never before had I received responses on acute issues from the Department that were as concrete and to the point. It makes me happy that the new management of the Department now shows a different attitude to opponents of a policy of destroying the Belovezhskaya Pushcha primeval forest.

The letter mentioned, among other things, that the year 2011 would see a new functional zoning plan implemented in the national park, with the strictly protected zone being expanded from 30 000 to 70 000 hectares, while forest utilization, hunting and other commercial use would be restricted. It also said that there are plans to nominate Belovezhskaya Pushcha again for UNESCO World Heritage, redrawing the borders and targeting a different set of criteria.

So in fact, the plan is to make the historic part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha a strictly protected area. This is exactly what entire generations of true environmentalists, conservationists and researchers have struggled for fifty years, and especially in the last decade. Many of those people did not live to learn the good news. It is that for which only recently many staff members of the national park, including me, were condemned as "enemies of the nation" and repressed. It is what I have written about, and proposed, in my publications of the last decade, in my book entitled, "Will Belovezhskaya Pushcha be a true World Heritage Site?" (2005) – available here, and my latest letter to the President of Belarus. Our dream is coming true.

This is remarkable and deserves any praise and help. However, I regret to say that one more difficult and acute question remains: who will help do the good deed today? Is it with those who have spent the last decade destroying, or being involved in the destruction of, Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s primeval forest, helping and providing an ideological cover-up, participating closely or not quite so? Those who were simply not born to do this job? Or maybe the other ones, the professional, competent, refined, honest and enthusiastic ones capable of assuming personal responsibility and finishing what they begin in a competent manner, but have been driven out of the national park for those very qualities? What is the way to make sure the good intentions do not pave the road to hell again?

This is the main subject that locals are discussing. It is no secret that the current team of managers was carefully hand-picked over a decade to serve the tasks and management style of one man who will go down in the history of Belovezhskaya Pushcha as its eco-killer and an immoral, spiritually depraved individual. Therefore I believe it would be unfair to place the blame for all the environmental wrongdoing, reckless management and mass dismissals on one person. Others must bear their share of blame and responsibility. This is why I recently posted to my blog, "How to save the planet Earth, the Civilization and Myself," an article entitled, "A Need for Repentance by All, or Why I Am Not Castigating the Dismissed Director of Belovezhskaya Pushcha" (here and here).

This is the main reason why I decided to write this letter to you. For a long ten years, we the inhabitants of Belovezhskaya Pushcha waited for liberation from the tyranny and arbitrariness of the local "princeling" who was not fully subject to laws or the Constitution, and we waited for change to come to the national park. And here comes a real hope, which, however, begins to vanish as the locals watch.

A month has passed, with hardly any change. It is the retinue that makes the king. And the retinue remains the same. It is understood that we will see attempts at whitewashing, shifting the blame, and dissociating from the acts of the last decade. Alas, this is the nature of a spiritually weak, cowardly and selfish person. It is nothing new. I member how in 2001 the then-head of the Presidential Department of Affairs—later arrested and convicted on charges of grand larceny–dismissed Yevgeny Smoktunovich, a competent professional and decent person, from the position of the national park’s director, after he had served in it just for six months. He had been betting on the previous entourage, too. As a result, the unsuspecting director was holding a meeting in his office, as some of his deputies—notified via secret channels—were unrolling carpet strips for the new boss. Quite an illuminating story, is it not? It is worth remembering Sergei Gabets (1996), too, who, upon his appointment, declared, "Wildlife conservation is key in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, and the research department takes the lead," but did nothing to make this happen, because he delegated the job to the same entourage, the inept liars. He remained in his position for just one year. One word said, a poor manager cannot survive in a good team, but good manager cannot survive in a poor one.

What is going to happen this time around is a question the residents of Belovezhskaya Pushcha are asking. Will the new director pick up the role of his predecessor the eco-killer of Belovezhskaya Pushcha or will he abandon it to become its Guardian? I believe you will agree, Mr. Bury, that this is an extraordinarily important question, not just to the future of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, its inhabitants and yourself, but the nation’s image in general. Your predecessor failed to grasp the realities of this information age. He arrived in Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a high-ranking official who was aiming high in his career. He thought himself to be the Czar, the God and the policeman who was above the law and allowed to do anything he pleased. But he was exposed soon, thanks to an international public campaign in defense of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and a broad coverage of his largely adverse, reckless and unlawful activities. The whole nation learned what sort of manager he really was. However, due to several subjective causes, it took a long time to bring the matter to its logical conclusion by dismissing this bureaucrat who was a member of a powerful clan and bound by a mutual protection agreement.

How will the new director fare? I believe that you, Mr. Bury, will hardly enjoy as much support and protection. The previous director was to a great extent helped by the fact that both the public and the government were poorly informed about the situation in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Today, the issue is in the public eye and citizens are closely watching developments there.

Importantly, things might have worked out better, had the authorities behaved in a cooperative, not hostile, manner toward public activists and professional journalists.

A group of EU experts are expected to come to Belovezhskaya Pushcha soon on a fact-finding mission before the Council of Europe considers renewing its Diploma for the national park. We the independent environmentalists and pro-Belovezhskaya Pushcha activists, maintain direct contact with the experts and leaders of its Committee on Biological and Landscape Diversity and already have preliminary approval for participating in the visit. So far, the experts have sided with us in what regards Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s issues, management and future.

Will the trend continue, or will the two opposing sides shake hands and begin to work together in a peaceful and fruitful manner, to the benefit of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, its inhabitants and Belarus in general? Much depends on you, Mr. Bury, the policy you will pursue and the team with which you will carry on the job.

As for us, I and my colleagues are ready to exert our utmost efforts, put to use all our business and human qualities, and utilize all our international connections to help renew the Diploma and to accomplish other tasks that Belovezhskaya Pushcha and the national park face. We are all the more willing to do so, because we have one more important goal, on which we have started working, and which can be worded as follows, Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a Center for Spiritual Revival. In order for that goal to materialize, Belovezhskaya Pushcha must become "spiritually white". Please read more about this here.

What future awaits Belovezhskaya Pushcha? How will the new director go down in history? It depends on you, Mr. Bury, to a great extent how these questions will be answered.
Be a Guardian of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, rather than another of its killers! History gives you the chance.

Best regards,
Heorhi Kazulka,
Belovezhskaya Pushcha resident
Philosophy Doctor of Biology
Independent environmentalist, expert on reserve management and FSC Forest Certification
Editor of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha 21st Century website
Ex-deputy Director Research of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park

May 5, 2011 (05.05.2011)