An attempt at creating a large new water reservoir in the Lesnaya River floodplain and large-scale alteration of the floodplain landscape, 2007-2009

click to enlarge in the new window
The photo shows a signboard which can be seen
at the entrance to the National Park, 2009

"Information that economic activities in the
Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park lead to the
damage of nature conservation and environmental
norms, does not correspond to the real situation.
All photographs allocated in the internet which
were considered to show negative moments in
reality show just positive changes
".
Alexander Romanovskiy, deputy manager of the
Administration of Affairs of the President.
Press-conference in Minsk, September 9, 2009.

"There are no problems in the National Park today".
Nikolai Bambiza, director general of the
National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha".
Press-conference in Minsk, September 23, 2009.

Violations: The project violates Articles 26 and 27 of Belarus' Specially Protected Wilderness Territories and Sites Act, Article 63 of the Forest Code of the Republic of Belarus, the water stream conditions in the area, the environmental balance within the protected forest, and damaging the biological diversity.

Events, facts, documents and evidence: Reports that the management of the National Park were secretly planning to build water recreation facilities altering the flood-plain landscape of the Pravaya Lesnaya River, which runs through Belovezhskaya Pushcha, surfaced in 2007.

In particular, there were plans to dig a ten-hectare water reservoir in the floodplain of the Pravaya Lesnaya River near the village of Kamenyuki, the administrative center of the national park. The reservoir which would serve as the site for beaches, fishing, and boat and catamaran rental would be connected to the river via a canal. A water park would be built on the Plyanta Ponds nearby to attract even more tourists. The declared purpose of the project was to provide a highly efficient package of tourist services and satisfy tourists' various needs. The quasi-scientific justification for the project was prepared by "leading researchers" and "professionals" from the national park's forestry and research departments. The proposal was preceded by another scenario where the river would be dammed to raise the water level and flood the floodplain, creating a water reservoir with an area of 600 hectares. According to this second scenario, the winding riverbed would be straightened to make things easier for tourists riding speedboats.

It's obvious that implementation of the first, and especially the second, scenario would entail substantial change to the landscape and water stream conditions, which would ruin the natural ecosystems and destroy the wildlife. Creation of a water reservoir in the floodplain and straightening of the riverbed would run counter to Belarus' environment protection laws by adversely affecting the protected natural complexes in Belovezhskaya Pushcha.


A Threat to the Wildlife of the Pravaya Lesnaya River


(Here is a Google Maps satellite image of the Pravaya Lesnaya River in its natural state)

The construction of new water reservoirs in the Pravaya Lesnaya floodplain would result in the destruction of many beautiful wilderness areas, such as those shown in the pictures below.

Pravaya Lesnaya River
Pravaya Lesnaya River - click to enlarge in the new window Pravaya Lesnaya River - click to enlarge in the new window Pravaya Lesnaya River - click to enlarge in the new window

Visit our Photo Gallery for more images of the wildlife around the Pravaya Lesnaya River.

Pravaya Lesnaya River Valley
Pravaya Lesnaya River Valley - click to enlarge in the new window Pravaya Lesnaya River Valley - click to enlarge in the new window Pravaya Lesnaya River Valley - click to enlarge in the new window

Visit our Photo Gallery for more images of the wildlife in the Pravaya Lesnaya River valley.


Surveyors visited the floodplain in the spring of 2007 to make area measurements, put up surveying rods and take soil samples.

The stakes shown in the pictures below mark the boundaries of the projected water reservoir and canal in the Pravaya Lesnaya River valley, and the soil sampling points.

The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window
The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window
(Surveying rods, May 20, 2007)
The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window The project to build a new water reservoir - click to enlarge in the new window
(Soil sampling points, May 20, 2007)

The shroud of secrecy enveloping the project suggested that this was either yet another risky and ill-conceived venture designed by the national park's administration, or yet another project to violate the law, and environmental and reserve management science (as it happened earlier for many times), while inflicting damage on the natural ecosystems of Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

In particular, the construction of the 600 hectare water reservoir in the Pravaya Lesnaya River floodplain would result in:

  1. flooding of most of the floodplain area,
  2. destruction of the natural landscapes and related wildlife,
  3. rising of the ground water level and waterlogging of the protected wilderness and commercial areas,
  4. swamping of the forest, especially open land,
  5. death of some of the floodplain forest from waterlogging,
  6. a change in the type of vegetation,
  7. damage to biological diversity, primarily rare and endangered plant species,
  8. destroying the habitat of many animal species,
  9. transformation of the local fish fauna,
  10. deterioration of water quality (green scum in summertime, rot, etc.), impairment of the river's natural cleansing ability, speeding-up of overgrowing, intensification of silt and swamp formation - all due to slowing down of the water stream,
  11. streamflow depletion due to increased evaporation,
  12. a change in the downstream water regime,
  13. substantial loss of grazing land currently used by the local population to graze their livestock, a change in the area's historic and cultural image

(*The list is based on an overview of studies conducted on existing water reservoirs in the Commonwealth of Independent States.)

Should a ten-hectare reservoir be excavated, damage to the environment would be less extensive. However, the construction of such a reservoir would lead to utter and irreparable destruction of a considerable wilderness area in the Pravaya Lesnaya River floodplain, altering the stream conditions both in the river and the adjacent Belovezhskaya Pushcha natural complex. All the more so because the water in the reservoir located amid a swampland would bloom in summertime, something that can be seen in other similar reservoirs in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, including the recently excavated Plyanta ponds. Therefore, the construction of a ten-hectare water reservoir in the Pravaya Lesnaya River floodplain would be unacceptable.

Our information. There are several small ponds near the Plyanta former-settlement close to the tourist center of the national park, one of them renovated and two new ones excavated in 2006-2007. This is the place where the national park's water recreation projects should be developed, not in the Pravaya Lesnaya floodplain. All the more so because water parks are gaining popularity and more of them will be built in other parts of Belarus, soon to become commonplace. What we must preserve in Belovezhskaya Pushcha is the kind of wilderness unique to that ancient forest. We must not multiply water amusement parks at the cost of the unique wild forest. It is this type of approach that serves the interests of preserving Belovezhskaya Pushcha as part of the World Heritage for the future generations of earthlings.

In this connection, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha protection advocates made a public appeal to the head of the presidential property management department in which they:

  1. pointed out that further projects in Belovezhskaya Pushcha that would alter its wildlife and substantially, or do substantial or irreparable damage to its natural ecosystems, would be unacceptable;
  2. requested exhaustive information about the planned project, as well as a description and calculation of the environmental modifications that Belovezhskaya Pushcha would undergo as a result of the project - all these pursuant to the Aarhus Convention;
  3. suggested that the project undergo an environmental impact audit by independent experts, members of nongovernmental organizations, spearhead groups and concerned parties;
  4. suggested that the project undergo a public hearing with the participation of concerned members of the public;
  5. warned that any of those who may violate the law when implementing the project, and any of those involved in the implementation of the project and found to have disregarded or neglected such violations would be subject to punishment under criminal law; reminded that damage done to the forest, and the cost of repairing the damage and restoring the natural appearance of the forest would be the liability of such persons;
  6. warned of a possible protest by international environmental organizations, environmentalists and activists, should international and national laws, and the lawful demands of the public be ignored; warned that the ignoring party would be blamed for possible damage to Belarus' environmental image;
  7. emphasized that the new generation of environmentalists will have to correct the mistakes of the past and current generations of administrators and managers; suggested that any further ill-conceived and ill-planned development of commercial or any other activity altering or destroying the wildlife of Belovezhskaya Pushcha should be discontinued.

(The full text of the appeal to the the head of the presidential property management department is available here, in Russian).

A humorous reply came from the national park on August 30, 2007. It read, "In response to your inquiry to Aleksandr Nikolayevich Kulichkov, Chief Property Manager for the President of the Republic of Belarus, we clarify herewith that what is taking place in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha national park is comprehensive activity in preparation for a celebration of the 600th anniversary of the forest. Information about the secrets and mysteries of Belovezhskaya Pushcha can be drawn from the book by S. Grebenchuk and A. Polonsky, titled "The Mysteries of Belovezhskaya Pushcha." N.N. Bambiza, General Director of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park State Environmental Institution." Details are available here, in Russian.

Thus the inquiry for environmental information regarding the construction of the water reservoirs in the Pravaya Lesnaya River floodplain was, in fact, disregarded by the national park's management.

The following report appeared in the story entitled "All is according to the plan", published in the Respublika government mouthpiece on June 10, 2008, Issue 105, "… There are plans to transform the Lesnaya River which rises from the protected forest. The length of the riverbed running through Kamenyuki would be cleaned and deepened. To achieve this, the drying-up sections of the wash would be revived. All of these would help return the Lesnaya to its state of about three hundred years ago, which would no doubt have a favorable effect on the well-being and appearance of Belovezhskaya Pushcha itself.
Design work in this and other areas is almost complete. In about a week, builders and other craftsmen will begin work in the national park."

Our information. The statement that "All of these would help return the Lesnaya to its state of about three hundred years ago" is either a flat-out lie or evidence of utter lack of professionalism on the part of the national park's management in what regards complex environmental tasks. In the 1950's and 1970's, the area in and around Belovezhskaya Pushcha was subjected to a large-scale amelioration process. As a result, marshes were dried, the groundwater level was decreased, springs died, and brooks and rivers dried up. A return to the original hydrological situation is not possible in principle, while a return to a hydrological situation which would be close to a certain degree to the original one would only be possible through large-scale watering of the vast territory. Therefore, rather that torturing the river, "changing its appearance," especially within a limited section, or maiming it through construction of new water reservoirs, they should restore the marches and springs in the forest itself which had existed for thousands of years, nourishing Belovezhskaya Pushcha with water, and which were ruined through amelioration. The environmental approach in this particular case is quite simple: eliminating the cause by restoring the primary sources of water, rather than trying to rectify the effect, i.e. the shallowness of the river.

The appeal above was followed by a number of inquiries for environmental information pursuant to the Aarhus Convention. Yet again the national park ignored these, pointing out that the park is not a state institution to provide the public with environmental information (!?). Response from the presidential property management department confirmed that "... The National Unitary Design and Survey Enterprise "Polasiegiprovodkhoz" now develops the relevant project on demand of the State Nature Protection Establishment "The National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" … .

Over the past period it was reported that the idea to dam the river, flood 600 hectares of land and create a water reservoir had been rejected in Minsk as scientifically unfounded and running counter to the "Specially Protected Wilderness Territories and Sites Act".

Luckily for Belovezhskaya Pushcha's wildlife, the controversial project to create a ten-hectare water reservoir in the Pravaya Lesnaya River floodplain has not begun to materialize so far, either. It may have been the global recession, the appeals by environmentalists and activists, the management's fear of finding themselves amid a major controversy on the eve of the 600th anniversary of the forest's protection, or some other factor or a combination of these, that played a positive role. It is as yet unknown whether the management have abandoned their risky plans or continue to nurture them…