Outcomes and general conclusions: a stocktaking on the 600th anniversary of nature protection in Belovezhskaya Pushcha and a future forecast

On October 3, 2009, Belarus held a grandiose celebration of a remarkable historic date, 600 years of nature protection in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. What positive things happened in the Pushcha in preparation for that noteworthy event? What negative things remained and would continue into the future? What were the key challenges that confronted the nation’s leadership and the national park’s management on the eve of the celebration and, left unresolved, would become part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s modest history? What future awaits the forest and what must we do to ensure that it has a future?

The text below contains summarizations and conclusions made by analyzing the many facts presented on "Photofact" pages.

It took nine long months to go through all the steps, and provide the proof and photographic evidence, while ensuring high quality of the work – the detailed description and analytics – although the original idea and plan was to complete it within two months to finish on the anniversary day.

1. Anniversary slogan misrepresented

The official wording of the anniversary slogan as proclaimed by the top echelons of government and promoted in all Belarusian media domestically and abroad for two years is "600 years of Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s wildlife reserve status." The sign on a wall of the new restaurant made for the celebration, which still greets visitors, reads, "Belovezhskaya Pushcha. 600 Years of establishing the wilderness protection status."

In actuality, 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 reserve" (wildlife reserve) came into being thanks to the work of the great Russian thinkers and founders of wildlife reserve management science, among them Vladimir Dokuchayev, Dmitry Anuchin, Grigory Kozhevnikov, Andrei Semyonov Tyan-Shansky, and Valery Taliyev. 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, it is too early to say that Belovezhskaya Pushcha enjoys a true reserve status even today, as it still does not have a true wildlife preservation system.

To stay true to facts, the year 2009 marked 600 years of the first wildlife protection acts covering Belovezhskaya Pushcha, or, in other words, as correctly recorded by the Poles, 600 years of protecting the forest, but certainly not 600 years of a wilderness reserve status as worded by the Belarusians.

Why this substitution? It appears to have been a premeditated yet unconscious misrepresentation. Ensuing discussions showed that an overwhelming majority of non-biologists have a very vague idea of the difference between wildlife protection (nature protection) and wilderness reserve management. Even biologists and environmental professionals often confuse the two, let alone public officials, who do not even have the slightest idea of what a wilderness reserve (wildlife reserve) is. Someone came up with the fancy slogan, others followed suit, then the state propaganda machinery slid into the top gear, and so it went – all bombast and no soul.

What is the importance of calling a spade a spade? You cannot enter heaven through deceit, or the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the popular sayings go. As described in detail before, saying that we have preserved Belovezhskaya Pushcha is possible under certain reservations only. By "preservation" we must understand that man has used the forest in a certain less destructive manner, killing at a smaller pace when compared to other similar ancient forests. Not so much have we preserved Belovezhskaya Pushcha as we have not managed to kill it yet. And yet we keep killing it with our peculiar "wilderness protection" technology as we talk of reserve management and hold grandiose celebrations!

In fact, Belovezhskaya Pushcha the ancient old-growth forest and uniquely diverse habitat, Europe’s wild tropic forest, has been slowly dying, turning into a regular forest. It is the fault of that history has entrusted with conserving and managing Pushcha and the public, who have displayed a disinterested attitude.

How do we stop Pushcha’s dying? There is no other way but raising public awareness, engaging citizens in the management of the national park, and exposing the true situation. In that context, the official wording of the anniversary is both damaging and dangerous, as it creates a semblance of well-being and proper management, thus diverting public attention from the forest’s acute and urgent problems, and silencing public initiative. Meanwhile, the situation keeps developing in its own, unfavorable way. The typical outcome is well known from history. For instance, a lack of understanding and ignoring of social development laws led to a complete collapse of the Soviet Union, while communism proved to be nothing but an illusion. The Soviet government indulged in wishful thinking and failed to consider the facts. The same thing is happening to what is said to be wilderness preservation in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. If the nation’s leadership and the public fail to learn what history teaches, the finale will be a sad one yet again.

2. Huge investment, renovation and infrastructure development

The government wrote an activity plan to prepare for the festivities and allocated a generous $30 million to finance the activities. This enabled substantial renovation and improvement of some villages and modernization of the national park’s infrastructure.

Evidence of a large scope of work includes renovated houses, backyards, stores, an outpatient hospital, a school, a mail office, a parking lot, a water supply system, roads, main street fencing, an electrical lighting system, new housing for professional employees, a new art venue, a new bridge, and a new church.

A new administrative and environmental center with a wildlife museum, a water intake and purification facility, and underpasses for frogs were constructed, hotels number 1 and 3, 2 and 4, a restaurant, open-air enclosures for wild animals, a parking lot, main entrance, and roads were renovated, and the grounds of the administrative and tourist center were cleaned up and redeveloped. The forestlands and other facilities in the national park were extensively renovated and improved. As a result, the center of the park and some of its communities were substantially transformed, renewed and grew prettier. Briefly, a great deal of work was done, producing clear positive changes..

3. Damage to wildlife from preparations

Wildlife protection, especially wilderness preservation, and business are largely incompatible. Man has not learnt to prevent damage to the environment from his business operations. The Belovezhskaya Pushcha anniversary festivities proved no exception: in some cases, wildlife fell prey to the "600th anniversary."

The renovation in the village of Kamenyuki was largely a careful and considerate process that complied with environmental standards. The park management’s idea to cut down the linden alley to make room for an expanded road was turned down early in the process. Most of trees were preserved. Yet many trees and shrubs could have been spared with modern environmentally friendly cutting methods: nearly every asp, all but a few acacias, a large poplar and the entire shrub along the main road were axed down. Grass mowers were at work in Kamenyuki all through that summer, killing the biodiverse natural communities and replacing them with faceless turf grass. A lot depended on purely subjective assessments by involved individuals, their environmental education, humanism, sense of beauty and prejudices. Belarusian managers, administrators and professionals still have a long way to go to master modern methods of environmentally sustainable land use in rural and urban communities like those used in Europe.

The situation in the national park proved much worse. Its infrastructure and facilities are located right in the middle of the forest. Therefore, it has long enjoyed a special landscaping treatment. The main rule was to care for biodiversity and preserve wildlife where possible – even in mass tourism areas. This was a Belovezhskaya Pushcha tradition, maintained by previous management teams. Upon assuming office in 2001, the current management made a sharp turn in policy on wildlife in recreation zones. Its main philosophy has been to substantially rebuild and rearrange the recreation areas in tourist and administrative centers to replace these with "cultured," urban-type landscapes. Wildlife has been facing destruction, officially termed "improvement," wherever possible, and the biodiversity has been shrinking. Rare and endangered plant species are among those that have suffered.

The wildlife in the administrative and tourist center suffered particularly badly during the preparations for the 600th anniversary festivities. The wild forest was "improved" even to a greater extent, causing added damage to wild plants. The wildlife of the roadside alder forest and near the tourist path close to the center was destroyed, along with an area of recovering wildlife in the Pravaya Lesnaya River floodplain. Acts like these, when committed in a national park, are the worst examples of treating protected wildlife, and violating modern rules and standards of environmental management in specially protected zones as used in developed countries. The price the wildlife is paying due to the lack of managerial professionalism and the short-lived amusements of selfish humans is just too high.

4. Preservation of the lesser, and continued destruction of the larger, part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s primeval forest

The government doubled the size of the strictly protected area in Belovezhskaya Pushcha under public and UNESCO pressure in 2004 to the current 30,000 hectares, or 34 percent of the old-growth 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 remaining larger part of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha primeval forest is subject to intense economic activity, slowly killing the forest. The current management’s main philosophy since 2001 has been intense use of the protected forest and intervention in the natural processes with the purpose of "regulating" these. It viewed the Wilderness Protection Zone’s wildlife as "not the prettiest part of Pushcha and a true crime." The management tried, and partially succeeded in, introducing primitive forest use technology employed by regular forestlands, and violating wildlife protection laws, attempting to introduce sanitary clear-cutting, illegal clear-cutting of living trees, living old pines and spruces, cutting down of scientific permanent plots used for forest monitoring (also see here), and mass artificial plantations.

It took a public expose and an international controversy to stop the illegal logging and slow down other illegal and anti-environmental activity. Sadly, they have not ceased completely. In particular, Belovezhskaya Pushcha still is still subject to intense, unsustainable cutting, causing irreparable damage to the old-growth forest. The technology does not stand up to scrutiny. Some areas sustain all kinds of damage conceivable. According to modern standards of sustainable forest use, such use would be unacceptable for forestlands, let alone protected wildlife zones. Belovezhskaya Pushcha, which should be a model for other forests to follow, is among the worst examples of forest management in Belarus, worse than many forestlands of forest enterprises. A huge open-air cage for game animals, worth around a million dollars in public funds, was recently and illegally built in the old-growth relic forest protected zone. The management is creating new ponds, ameliorating further land, rebuilding lakes and irrigation canals. An attempt to "transform" the wild Pravaya Lesnaya River is underway. Forest contamination with household waste remains a concern.

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. The recent expose of illegal commercial bay hunting involving foreigners is just one example of the clandestine activity in the Wilderness Protection Zone.

As we can see, the overall picture of forest management 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.

4. Growth in mass tourism and faux environmental education

In recent years, the national park has encouraged tourism, with considerable success. The number of visitors has been on the rise, peaking at a record 235,000 in 2009. The park has built and upgraded its tourist infrastructure and improved the quality of services. It has built new, modern wildlife museum and renovated enclosures for wild animals, paving new paths for tourists. It produced a variety of books and booklets for the anniversary. This is to name a few.

At the same, we cannot but note three negative trends that persist, damaging the image of the national park’s activity in the eyes of well-educated tourists familiar with reserve management practices, primarily foreigners, and dampening the positive effect of the efforts.

The first trend is tourist attractions built illegally or by compromising the preservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha: Father Frost’s Estate and the recreation zone (by green colour on the map) that surrounds the Estate and the Lyadskoye Lake. The second is tourist paths associated with destruction of wildlife (falsely referred to as "cultivation" and "improvement") or passing through dozens of miles of felled forest and "stump landscapes". The third is the standard of environmental education of the tour guides, largely insufficient and poor when compared to that of Polish guides, many of whom are true professionals. The content of some of the tours is decidedly substandard in terms of modern environmental science or reserve management and appalls professional environmental scientists. As a result, the purpose of the guiding services is to amuse visitors rather than educated them about the environment. In contrast to the way it should be, the core concept of promoting Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a home of primeval wildlife, with its relict biological communities and unique plant and animal species, and the challenges of preserving the forest, have lost the spotlight to the cheap show named "Belarusian Father Frost." The local tourism and environmental education are intended for making money with minimum effort. Few of the national park’s employees are concerned with what new environmental knowledge tourists will take home.

Thus, environmental education in Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a principal function of any national park has effectively become a kind of "environmental amusement", contrary to the urgent tasks of preserving wildlife and present-day environmental challenges. The current education process in the national park is in need of fundamental reform and substantial skill improvement.

5. Abnormal social relationships, human rights abuses and disregard for standards of conduct

The social and human rights situation and the relationship between the national park management and local inhabitants have significantly deteriorated since 2001. The management has pursued a mass dismissals policy, sacking hundreds of proficient and well-educated locals who have devoted decades of their lives to Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The newcomer managers have bet on other temporaries like themselves, using them for replacing the dismissed local employees and turning the national parks into a revolving door. The local population continues to face harassment and persecution. The local art venue was abandoned eight years ago and later demolished, and its remains, removed to a dump.

Total fear and insecurity pervade the national park’s organization. Intolerance has long become the norm. Human rights and rule of law are out of the question, the management making their decisions in an arbitrary manner due to patronage from top government officials. The level of security on this wildlife protection site compares with that of some military facilities. Obtaining simple environmental data under the Aarhus Convention, to which Belarus is a party, is impossible. The management responds that the national park is not a government agency required to provide such information to citizens (?!). Public and expert checks encounter every sort of obstruction possible. The most undesired visitors to the park are independent environmentalists and journalists. The management views camera in their hands as a terrible weapon. Arrests, expulsions, prohibitions, intimidation and persecution have become commonplace practice for the park’s managers who flat-out refuse to talk to their opponents.

Recent developments have only proved that the above is true. Political essayist and Belovezhskaya Pushcha activist Valery Dranchuk, who arrived to participate in an open-air painting session and took the liberty to ride his bicycle along some tourist paths holding a camera, was expelled from the national park a month and a half before the anniversary festivities. Environmental scientist Heorhi Kazulka, who came to attend a conference two weeks prior to the celebration, was ordered out of the meeting room by the national park director and taken outside of the forest. Kazulka, Vladimir Gayevsky and some others, neither wrongdoers nor immoral characters, were arrested by secret services before the festivities kicked off on October 3, 2009, to prevent their attendance. That move served to confine activists or "overzealous" individuals for the period of the festivities, which saw the attendance of by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Thus, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha national park in the center of the twenty-first-century Europe has found itself in the hands of an essentially quasi-police regime. The arbitrariness, barbarism, vulgarity and heartlessness of the national park management are covered up and hence encouraged by the nation’s top government officials. This type of social and human relationship is a miniature spiritually deprived and immoral model, and a disgrace, of the entire Belarusian state system, as Belovezhskaya Pushcha is an internationally known brand and business card of the nation. The need to change that abnormal situation, putting into onto the track characteristic of the developed Europe, is long overdue.

6. Departure from the Belovezhskaya Pushcha tradition and destruction of its heritage

For a decade now, the national park has been subject to large-scale transformation, with almost everything modified or rebuilt. However, until recently there was no long-term development program supported with research data (administrative orders do not qualify). The management made decisions behind closed doors, without a broad public discussion. When implementing economic programs, the new "professionals" either failed to consider environmental and historic implications or were unaware of their existence altogether.

That transformation activity is essentially reminiscent of the Bolshevik times with their slogan, "of the past let us make a clean slate." It has already led to a number of long-term negative outcomes for Belovezhskaya Pushcha. One of these is ignoring or discarding the local tradition, critical to the region’s spiritual and cultural development.

The Pushcha traditions are an unwritten code of wildlife protection, environmental planning and business rules and customs created by past generations. The traditions were primarily created and maintained thanks to the People with a capital "p" who were employees or managers here at various times. The rules have been followed with a varying degree of strictness, which helped preserve the forest undamaged when compared with other territories. The Pushcha traditions expressed themselves in the local architecture and culture, the approach to work and treatment of wildlife, and conduct when visiting the forest. Each newly arriving manager, as a rule, absorbed the traditions and generally followed, maintained and developed them.

The year 2001 saw a drastic change in course, as a group of strangers, unfamiliar with reserve management or ethics, assumed control of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The staff of the national park faced mass dismissals, with the bearers and keepers of the tradition the first to be sacked. The dismissals preceded an "environmental pogrom," changes to the landscape and environment structure of the tourist center and wildlife conservation practices, "improvement" of parts of the forest and tourist paths, installation of a new fence, an all-out rebuilding (second in a decade!) of the main entrance to the administrative and tourist center, and a renovation of the hotels, which eliminated any wooden, carved or ornamental designs, and many other things.

Thus, the current management of the national park, strangers to both Belovezhskaya Pushcha and its land, effectively has been waging war on the local reserve management and environmental traditions since 2001, with the purpose of eradicating these and replacing with something alien to this land.

Why would one need local traditions? Remember: the growth of a tree lies in its branches – not in its roots which nourish the branches. Cut off the roots and watch the tree become withered and die. Long-standing local traditions, especially where they secure conservation of wildlife rather than serve to destroy it, are the spiritual roots of the people who inhabit the land. Ruining of traditions and displacing them with new, alien values, as a rule, makes people disoriented, destroys the local culture and weakens links, initially between individuals, and then between the people and their land. What follows is a cultural decline with negative effects for both the people and the land. That is exactly how all aggressors and invaders throughout human history have acted – by suppressing the local culture and propagating alien traditions, and that is what has happened to Belovezhskaya Pushcha for the last decade.

7. A long-standing failure to regain the European Diploma and issues with execution of the park management plan

The Council of Europe Diploma, a prestigious award bestowed on the national park in 1997 for its contribution to protection of wildlife, was suspended in 2007 for failure to comply with recommendations of the Diploma and a lack of a park management plan. For the last several years, the park’s management has tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Diploma back, while making repeated statements that it had it "behind their belts," and that Belarus had "complied with all the necessary requirements." However, all attempts have failed so far, as the principal requirements of the Diploma have not been complied with in full. A plan exists on paper, but there are issues with its execution. There are, too, well-grounded doubts as to whether the Diploma would be used in accordance with its intended principles and purposes, i.e. proper management and conservation of the primeval forest. All of this yet again served as grounds for the Council of Europe to side with concerned members of the Belarusian public and refrain from reinstating the national park, with an intention to audit it again within years.

The long-standing saga of the management’s "struggle" for the European Diploma can serve as further evidence of failure to observe civilized standards and rules. Meanwhile, since the Diploma is a sign of international recognition and part of both the nation’s and its leaders’ international image, the problem calls for urgent resolution and a drastic revision of the situation.

8. Belovezhskaya Pushcha not a true wilderness reserve despite promises

In October 2007, officials announced plans to expand the small strictly protected zone substantially, to cover the entire historic part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The national park management repeatedly confirmed the information later and again several months prior to the anniversary festivities. The measure would place the entire primeval forest under strict protection and stop the economic activity that was destroying it. There were plans to approach UNESCO with a proposal to expand the part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha included on the World Heritage List. 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 wilderness reserve. The anniversary could have been the starting point for wilderness protection in Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

The changes would have been timed with the 600th anniversary. It is now almost two years since the anniversary, and what do we see? Nothing! They have not delivered on those promises or made any effective steps toward doing so. One gets an impression the thing has been forgotten altogether.

Why did this happen? A source with the Ministry of Forest Management says the Presidential property management department, which controls all national parks and biosphere reserves in the country, made inclusion of the neighboring Pruzhany forestry 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 illegal hunting and logging keep killing the Bialowieza Primeval Forest, damaging both the local wilderness and the image of Belarus as a nation committed to protection of wildlife.

9. A colossal agricultural/industrial/logging/tourist operation masked as a national park

Belovezhskaya Pushcha today has the designation of a national park but not the essence of one. An unbiased look reveals neither a national park in the classic sense of the word nor a wildlife preservation institution, but some sort of production/logging/tourist operation, engaged in wildlife conservation, preservation of biodiversity and environmental education as side businesses. Neither the Russian nor the Belarusian language has a word to name this establishment.

More than half of the park’s territory is a business zone teaming with logging, agricultural, hunting, purchasing, and other activities. The rest of the zones are not far behind in terms of business activity, with the exception of the small strictly protected zone. The national park incorporates a collective farm, a sawmill, a bunch of industrial goods stores and some workshops, just to name a few. The management has monopolized almost every business activity on the territory, suppressing most private enterprise and civil initiative. The classic functions of a national park, such as wildlife protection, biodiversity conservation, research and education, thus have a subordinate role, even though they ought to dominate.

Lead managers are selected from service personnel who are often come-and-go employees with no nature conservation, research or educational background whatsoever. This is not the kind of workforce to manage a wildlife protection institution or its branches in a professional manner. This is exactly why most of the classic conservation activities in the national park can stand no scrutiny from the viewpoint of modern wildlife reserve management or environmental science. This is why the primeval forest is dying ever more rapidly.

No other country in the world has a fake wildlife conservation institution masked as a national park. 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.

The national park needs drastic reform! All things unnecessary, unnatural and obstructing its main functions must be swept aside. The national park must assume the classic form to handle its main responsibilities only. The rest of its operations must spin off, as it happened once in its modern history. In the fall of 2000, Vladimir Goncharenko, the new head of the Presidential property management department (or Presidential Department of Affairs), announced to the park’s staff that the industrial operations would be detached from the park’s main organization. Alas, he was fired within months, and over the past decade, the business operations in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha grew to an immense size.

Who benefits from that bloated business organization today? It is certainly not the Belovezhskaya Pushcha wildlife, the local population, the Belarusian nation or the international community. It only benefits a small number of senior government officials and associated businesses. 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 national park.

10. Progress in understanding the essence and significance of Belovezhskaya Pushcha by the government

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: "Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a shrine must be just a name – we must make better than it is," "Belarus must preserve the grandeur of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, its original charm," "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," "This is more than just one of the Seven Wonders. This place has preserved a majestic primeval world, highly unique in terms of biodiversity and the number of the rarest flora and fauna species," "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." Never before have the dense and primeval nature of Belovezhskaya Pushcha been referred to by top government officials as charm in the sense of fantastic and unspeakable beauty. Lukashenko’s speech preceded similar remarks from other officials.

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. When we add other accompanying words, progress becomes evident! Considering the fact that the speech likely had been prepared by other officials and their aides, this suggests a wider understanding of the aforementioned by senior members of the government and the President’s entourage.

National Park Director Nikolai Bambiza’s choice of words had metamorphosed by that time, too. Whereas earlier he referred to Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s primeval wilderness and wildlife as "not the prettiest part of Pushcha" and "a true crime," later in his own abstract of his doctoral candidate’s thesis in economics following the 600th anniversary celebration, he uses the words "wild nature" and "relic forest" several times in the context of their preservation. Unfortunately, it took this public servant almost ten years to grasp that simple truth – the decade that saw Belovezhskaya Pushcha lose a substantial part of its charming primeval and wild character, and Belarus, pay with its wildlife conservation image in the world, something it still cannot get back. However, what the director wrote is not yet evidence of an insight. This all might be nothing but skillful shape shifting to adapt to new circumstances. Actions speak louder than words. As can be seen from the above, this public servant’s actions in terms of saving the forest’s pristine character have so far belied his fancy words.

Conclusion


The above text and other materials on the website suggest the following main conclusions, which provide answers to the questions raised in the title of this page.

  1. The Belarusian government pays great attention to protection and conservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and to a number of problems confronting the national park.


  2. For a decade now, the park has been exerting extensive efforts in various areas, with the government allocating appreciable funds for infrastructure development and various other programs. The park has achieved progress in several areas, with significant progress in some of these, especially evident by the time of the anniversary festivities.


  3. The national park is still using obsolete wildlife and forest management systems and technologies inadequate to present-day conservation objectives and below specially protected zone management standards and criteria as used in developed countries, violating the rules of wilderness protection management and environmental science, and inflicting colossal damage on Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s relic forest and biodiversity. Not infrequently does the management make unlawful decisions. Instead of being a model for progressive, environmentally friendly wildlife management, the park often displays the worst example of treating protected wildlife – worse even than many forestlands of forest enterprises.


  4. Many of the employees and managers have very poor environmental qualifications inadequate by modern world standards. Many of them have a vague idea of wilderness protection management and environmental science. This makes it impossible to perform the main tasks of the national park in a quality manner. It is largely due to a Pushcha-as-a-revolving-door-for-come-and-goers personnel policy that the management has been pursuing for a decade, and a lack of a proper environmental education and further training system.


  5. The academic community in Belovezhskaya Pushcha has fallen into such degradation over the last decade that it would be reasonable to say it is waning. With a few exceptions, the research department has been cleansed of true scientists, professionals and promising youngsters, rather resembling a small bunch of causal companions. Employment terms for researchers have deteriorated beyond the satisfactory. When compared to the Polish part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, with its excellent research centers, the state of the park’s research department is decidedly poor. Unless there is a change in the current personnel policy and the way research activity is treated, the department has no future. As things stand, its employees are unable to deal with their complex and important problems, so any significant performance is out of the question. The research department in fact has seen its key role reduced to serving as a cloak for the immense business operations in the national park.


  6. Over the last decade, the national park has made significant progress in encouraging tourism, and developing a tourist infrastructure and services, deservingly becoming one of the country’s largest centers of tourism. However, one must admit that efforts to ensure that tourism is environmentally friendly – one of the park’s key objectives, have been inadequate by world standards, with several indicators suggesting regress. In particular, the ecotourism employees have a poor overall standard of proficiency, inadequate to requirements of today and environmental education standards. There is no system of tour guide training. The educational personnel selection procedure favors temporaries. Education and awareness raising as the core philosophies of ecotourism have been displaced by amusement of visitors. As a result, the environmental education process in the national park is inadequate to the urgent tasks of preserving its wildlife, wilderness and biodiversity and the environmental challenges of today.


  7. 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.


  8. The management have been departing from the local tradition and destroying the local heritage. Strangers to both Belovezhskaya Pushcha and its land, the current national park officials, have been waging what appears to be a war on the local wild nature management and environmental traditions, to eradicate and replace these with something alien to this land. The destruction and replacement of the traditions will eventually lead to spiritual decay with long-term adverse effects for this land and the local community.


  9. The national park has failed to become a territory of humanism toward wildlife and wild nature as understood today. Concepts of humanitarian environmentalism have not materialized in the park’s main activity, primarily forestry and hunting. On the contrary, several factors can be seen as evidence that the current management is stranger to humanist philosophies, environmental ethics or the sacredness of wilderness and wildlife.


  10. The national park’s wildlife conservation image has significantly deteriorated in recent years due to repeated exposures of the management’s activities aimed at destroying the primeval forest and due to the suspension of the prestigious European Diploma. The national park has found itself amid several major international controversies. For a decade, an international campaign in defense of Belovezhskaya Pushcha has shown the world the barbarism and arbitrariness of the managers and the poor competence of the employees.


  11. By the time of the 600th anniversary, Belarus had neither expanded the Wilderness Protection Zone over the entire historical area of the relic forest, not led the way in obtaining the World Heritage Site Status for the entire forest. The strictly protected zone is currently just thirty percent of the old-growth relic forest’s entire area, which is less than required to ensure its safety and contributes to further loss of the primeval forest.


  12. A national park and wildlife protection institution on the surface, today’s Belovezhskaya Pushcha is essentially a huge agricultural/industrial/logging/tourist operation, engaged in wildlife protection, biodiversity conservation, research and education as side businesses. It is the only one of its kind in the entire world. There is no way such a versatile, gigantic and monopolistic organization can be managed from one center or operate efficiently, therefore it needs reform. This is the primary source of the principal current contradictions, woes and vices described above and the continuing loss of the primeval forest.


  13. Rather than come up with competent and effective solutions to urgent environmental and social challenges confronting Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the government has unleashed a powerful propaganda machine, which has succeeded in misrepresenting its history, distorting and concealing the true disastrous situation in the national park, and creating a public illusion of colossal progress in preserving the unique relic forest. Its purpose is to suppress public participation and initiative in defense of the forest. All of the previously mentioned substantially contribute to the continued loss of the unique primeval forest of Belovezhskaya Pushcha.


  14. Top government officials have recently displayed signs of progress in understanding that Belovezhskaya Pushcha is a large and unique natural phenomenon and it is critical to preserve it. However, in practical terms, this is still insufficient for turning things around and stopping the loss of the Great Forest. The government and civil servants lack the wisdom and political will to do so.


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, albeit small, 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 construction of a new bypass around the forest as announced by the President at the event would give a new impetus to tourist business in Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s wilderness and may be 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. If we are to prevent this from happening and remedy the current adverse situation in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, we would need to effect urgent and drastic change in almost every area. First of all, it is to enlarge the Wilderness Protection Zone over the almost entire area of the primeval relic forest. Nothing else can produce reasonable expectations that Belovezhskaya Pushcha will become a true nature reserve!

Recommendations


Drastic steps by top government officials and the following subsequent urgent measures 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 and World Heritage Site area as designated by UNESCO over as much of the primeval forest’s historic part as possible. Make Belovezhskaya Pushcha a true wildlife conservation reserve!


  2. Drastically reform the very organization of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. Spin off almost all of its business operations, including logging, farming and retail, and subordinate these to relevant government agencies or directly to the Presidential property management department. Retain only those units directly supporting its core functions such as 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. This is the only normal structure that can be expected to perform its tasks in an efficient manner. That is only we can expect from the National Park the well- and effectively performed aims.


  3. Drastically change the approach to preservation and management of Belovezhskaya Pushcha through cessation of all unsustainable use of the wildlife. This primarily concerns unsustainable felling. Sustainable forest technologies specially designed for Belovezhskaya Pushcha should be applied in the forest management process. Base that process on an environmentally responsible forest management system compliant with standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), with even more stringent and sustainable rules adapted for specially protected wildlife areas.


  4. Cease any activity violating Belarus’ nature protection or other laws, or international conventions signed by the country. Encourage observance of laws on the national park’s territory.


  5. Make the management plan designed for managing the national park as approved by experts under the European Diploma into a compulsory guideline. The document provides a correct and detailed enough description of the region’s problems and ways to resolve these.


  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 stop the mass dismissals. Stop mass hiring of nonprofessionals 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.


  8. Substantially raise the ecological education standard of employees’, primarily managers’, environmental competence.


  9. 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. If the senior organization (the Presidential Department of Affairs) is incapable of performing the task, detach the research department from the national park’s organization and subordinate it to relevant Academy of Sciences institutes or centers to help shape its work process.


  10. Continue to encourage ecotourism with an emphasis on a higher standard of environmental education for tourists through engaging professionals as opposed to current nonprofessionals as it is often the current practice.


  11. Drastically change policies of the national park's administration toward local residents, the community, green activists and independent environmentalists. Replace the current policy of hostility and open confrontation with an ethical approach, proper conduct and a desire to work together for mutual benefit.


  12. Work to restore the national park’s positive international image through displaying successful wildlife protection and biodiversity conservation policies, efforts to address environmental challenges, a true willingness to cooperate with the community and concerned members of the public, and an earnest ethical approach to relationships.


  13. Respect and observe Belovezhskaya Pushcha traditions, stop ruining and displacing these, and cease to destroy the local heritage. Return to the local traditions of sustainable wildlife management in all of their forms and manifestations, restoring the ruined architectural, cultural and other heritage where possible.


  14. Lift the shroud of secrecy from the management’s activities and open the park’s area to public control. Make transparency, openness and democracy obligatory when discussing the economic and social issue of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and the national park. Make compliance with the Aarhus Convention, to which Belarus is party, mandatory.


  15. Set up a public monitoring and consulting council at the national park vested with the power to influence the policies and management of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and the park. Expand the power of the national park’s Scientific and Technical Council to give it the right to initiate instructions. Make the council’s work transparent and open to public monitoring.


  16. Revise the image of Belovezhskaya Pushcha as projected by the government, currently aimed at advertising achievements but hushing up the region’s many serious environmental and social issues to build an illusion of universal wellbeing and prosperity.


  17. Replace the Belovezhskaya Pushcha management model. Select and hire managers of a completely different type: proficient, responsible, honest, spiritual and morally sound, capable of living up to their honorable positions. Cease to hire nonprofessional and spiritually deprived individuals to manage the national park.

If the patron organization, i.e. the Presidential Department of Affairs, does not have the competence to handle the type of reforming tasks, it is necessary to raise the issue of reforming the entire system of specially protected natural areas in the country, in particular, setting up a separate agency. The agency, e.g. a State Committee on Specially Protected Natural Areas and Wildlife Management, would employ environmental professionals and report directly to the Council of Ministers, controlling all national parks, wildlife reserves and nature protection sanctuaries, including Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

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P.S. Further information and analytics on the subject are available in "The system of wilderness protection of Belarus needs to be radically reformed" and "Let Belovezhskaya Pushcha be spiritually "white"!"


Photographic afterword


Look at the shots below. You can see the main contradiction and the cause of Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s present-day tragedy – "The Incompatible Combined."

Made late on October 2, 2009, i.e. on the eve of the anniversary, the first photograph shows two totally incompatible images: festive flags along the side of the road at the entrance to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha center on the right and a log truck transporting timber from the forest on the left. On the right, you can see a celebration of the 600th anniversary of the establishing "the nature reserved status", a system designed for preserving wildlife and saving it from humans’ economic activity, while the image on the left suggests there is, in fact, no wildlife preservation. That is the paradox of "the Incompatible Combined."

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(Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s chief contradiction: symbols of the wildlife and wilderness reserve’s 600th anniversary (right) and a symbol of the absence of wildlife wilderness protection (left);
October 3, 2009)
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Managers and civil servants, members of the presidential and ministry staff, scientists and employees of wildlife protection institutions, employees of other industries and just citizens:
Is it not time to put our minds in basic order, open our hearts and kneel before the great forest of Belovezhskaya Pushcha?
I can assure you the ruining and the contradictions will cease right there and then. You will get a clear picture of what we must urgently do to make Belovezhskaya Pushcha a true wild nature reserve.
Let it be!

Heorhi Kazulka
PhD of Biology
Belovezhskaya Pushcha
May 5, 2010 (05.05.10)