Let Belovezhskaya Pushcha be spiritually "white"!

An appeal to the national and international public!

At the end of 2009, Belarus is holding the grand celebration of a remarkable historical date, 600 years of the first nature protection laws in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Bialowieza Primeval Forest), an ancient forest and natural protected area named for White Tower. In other words, October 3 will mark 600 years of Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s protection, as the Poles put it correctly. But certainly not 600 years of the forest’s strict wilderness protection status, as they have worded and popularized it in Belarus, because the very concept of a wild nature reserve appeared much more recently. It came into being thanks to the work of the great Russian thinkers and founders of wild nature reserve management, Vasily Dokuchayev, Dmitry Anuchin, Grigory Kozhevnikov, Pyotr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky, Valery Taliyev and others, as late as the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

In the distant year of 1409, the Polish king Wladyslaw II Jagiello whose possessions included Pushcha issued an edict that forbade anyone but himself and his cousin, the Lithuanian king Vytautas, from hunting big game in the forest. Others were allowed to hunt small game and fowl only. Tree felling and entrance to Pushcha were also restricted. The event served as the beginning of Pushcha’s acquiring its conservation area status, which was abolished and then renewed again, and altered several times. Belovezhskaya Pushcha is now a national park (since 1991), a biosphere reserve (since 1993) and a World Heritage Site (since 1992). But even today, it is too early to say there is a true wilderness conservation regime in Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

Nevertheless, thanks to that event of 600 years ago, Belovezhskaya Pushcha was given a special protected status and special treatment by rulers who mostly used it for recreation or hunting. Certain restrictions and prohibitions for the public, which have been in effect for 600 years with short breaks, have played a positive part: Belovezhskaya Pushcha has survived. Thanks to that, we can admire it and keep it for our descendants, whereas other similar forests have been cut down and destroyed…

However, it would be an error to believe that throughout these 600 years, Belovezhskaya Pushcha has been preserved as an area of pristine, virgin wilderness, and a unique old-growth, relict, primeval forest in terms of both contemporary and classic conception of wild nature reserve management. Not at all! On the contrary, Pushcha has been exploited in some form or another all these 600 years with varying degrees of intensity. It existed as a true state nature reserve with a true wild nature conservation regime only 13 (out of 600!) years – from 1944 to 1957. Then it was reorganized into a state protected game hunting ground (from 1957 to 1991).

As a result, we did not inherit the wild, primeval Belovezhskaya Pushcha that Mikolaj Hussowczyk celebrated in his poem Carmen de statura, feritate ac venatione bisontis (A Song about the Appearance, Savagery and Hunting of the Bison) five centuries ago (in 1523). Pushcha today is different. Although preserved as a woodland, a remnant of the primeval forest, it is today to a significant degree deprived of its original appearance, degraded and overexploited. Belovezhskaya Pushcha as the wild, relict, primeval forest is rapidly losing its uniqueness and slowly dying. It is changing, transforming and turning before our very eyes into something different and less valuable, a regular forest. Elite and commercial hunting, felling operations, land amelioration, and a large density of populations of ungulates consuming the young generation of the Pushcha trees, artificial forest plantations, land development and agricultural activity have all continued for the 600 years! And all of these have been working against the great Bialowieza Forest!

Therefore, today, we cannot say that we have preserved Belovezhskaya Pushcha unless we put it into certain context. By that we must understand that humans have been exploiting it in a special, less ruinous way, and killing it very slowly when compared to other primeval forests. We have not so much preserved Belovezhskaya Pushcha as we have not had the time to kill it just yet! And we keep on killing it with our peculiar "nature protection" technology, paying lip service to conservation and using grand celebrations as a cover!

What is the real situation like? Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the ancient, relict, primeval forest and a unique wildlife ecosystem with extremely rich biodiversity, Europe’s "rainforest," is slowly dying and becoming a regular forest. This is happening through the fault of the people whom history has entrusted with preserving and managing the forest, and because of general public apathy.

Just recently in 2001, the public has managed to block, at the cost of an immense scandal, an attempt by the national park management, who by the way are still holding their posts, to introduce clean sanitary cuttings in the protected area under the pretext of fighting bark-beetles. There were plans to cut the trees down as in a regular forestry and then plant new trees in rows. The valuable timber would have been taken to a large timber mill belonging to the national park. The management thus planned to take large quantities of valuable timber from Belovezhskaya Pushcha, and turned it into a regular timber-producing forest. They have failed do that, but they have been able to do other things.

All in all, Belovezhskaya Pushcha has been pushed to the edge of an abyss that spells the end (death) of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest and there is no more step to fall further down.

How could it be that at the beginning of the twenty-first century in the middle of the civilized Europe we are witnessing a disaster of such scale, a vandalism of a nature shrine and the World Heritage Site which has pushed it to the brink of ruin? The answer is simple. Belovezhskaya Pushcha is being managed by uncultured, immoral, spiritually dark individuals, who, on top of that, are professionally incompetent. Throughout its 600 year-long history, the rulers of Belovezhskaya Pushcha have, as a rule, and primarily, been concerned with the satisfaction of their selfish desires and whims, while the protection of Belovezhskaya Pushcha has served that satisfaction, that is, was a secondary goal. Belovezhskaya Pushcha has been preserved out of humanism, respect of its sanctity, reverence for wildlife, or, for that matter, the observance of the rules and principles of wild nature reserve management, laws or ecological science. Purely material, mercenary goals have been the priority. Nature use has got on top of protection and conservation. Consumerism has been and remains over spirituality. The climax of that conflict has arrived now that Belovezhskaya Pushcha has found itself in the hands of skilful but spiritually deprived wheeler-dealers from the presidential property management department…

What do we need to do? We need to say a firm Yes to the wilderness conservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and take integral, wide-scale and comprehensive measures to that effect. Qualitative, radical change is necessary almost to everything relating to the management of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Half-hearted steps or measures, or minor redecoration of the situation do not suffice any longer, or else we shall simply lose the remains of the unique that is still left of Bialowieza Forest today.

To be impartial, one must contentedly and even thankfully acknowledge that the Belarusian government has made some steps in that direction. In particular, in 2004, in order to restore the country’s nature protection image, undermined by the Belovezhskaya Pushcha national park’s management, the size of the Wilderness Protection Zone was doubled from 15.7 to 30 thousand hectares, with the separate scattered parts combined into one unbroken area. The unprecedented decision was made under public pressure and with the direct participation of UNESCO experts. In 2008-2009, yet again pressured by the public, the government designed and published a national park's management plan. The aim was to have a European Diploma renewed to it by the Council of Europe. Finally, in 2007, President Lukashenko directed to hold a celebration marking 600 years of the strict nature protection regime in Pushcha. UNESCO included the date into its calendar of memorable dates. The Belarusian government has made a list of preparatory events and allocated the equivalent of some $30 million to the project. There were plans to triple the Wilderness Protection Zone of the national park, so as to cover the entire historic part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

The official celebration of Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s 600 years is scheduled for October 3. The grandiose celebration program has been planned and partially, executed. An extensive renovation effort has been made in the village of Kamenyuki, the national park’s administrative center dilapidated over the last decade, as well as the tourist center, roads and populated areas within Pushcha. Thanks to the attention of the country’s leadership and enormous financial injections, the national park has indeed transfigured, becoming Belarus’ model tourist attraction.

However, the change remains regretfully superficial, for nothing has been changed in the moral and spirit atmosphere in the national park. The same immoral and spiritually dark individuals, the princelings who only recently were destroying the forest at a frantic pace, are still ruling the day. The local population are still being oppressed and persecuted. The local culture venue was abandoned eight years ago, and later, blown up and removed to a refuse dump. Reshuffles in the national park's staff are never ending. The place is permeated with the spirit of total fear and favoritism. Intolerance to a different opinion has turned into norm. Human rights and rule of law are out of the question, as things are not so much done according to the law as according to the personal idea of what is right, and thanks to the patronage of the leadership. The nature protection institution that the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park has a confidentiality regime that is at times no less strict than a military facility. Obtaining a regular environmental report under the Aarhus Convention, to which Belarus is a party, has proven impossible. According to the park management, Belovezhskaya Pushcha is not a government institution obliged to provide that type of information to the public (?!). Public control is being blocked in every manner imaginable. The Green, and independent environmentalists and journalists are the least wanted visitors to the place. A camera is viewed by the management as the scariest weapon. Apprehension, expulsion, prohibition, intimidation and persecution have become customary practice for the park’s management who have flat out refused to talk to their opponents.

Ecological education as the main objective of any national park here has effectively been made into "ecological" entertainment. The standard of the tours conducted by the local guides is so poor in most cases as to appall experts on environment. Instead of promoting Belovezhskaya Pushcha as an area of wilderness with unique relict natural communities, the park management has given the spotlight to a cheap show titled, "The Belarusian Father Frost", although all things should be quite the contrary. That is because the only purpose of the tourism and environmental education in the park is to make money while investing into ecological education as little as possible. New knowledge about the environment which tourists are supposed to take with them when leaving Pushcha is hardly a concern.

What has been happening in Belovezhskaya Pushcha for long years has only one name, the Dark Ages. This is a disgrace that stains the reputation of the country, its government and personally its president! Is that how Belarus is promoting international tourism in the park? No pretty facades or grand celebrations can conceal the immorality that has become the norm for the Belovezhskaya Pushcha management.

What do we do about it? Figuratively speaking, the country’s leadership has shifted one foot to make a step by drastically renovating the national park’s infrastructure. That is remarkable! As the festivities come to a close, the government will need to move the other foot by appointing people with high moral and spirit standards to manage Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Meanwhile, the attitude to preservation of the relict forest must undergo a drastic shift, from quasi-protection to true reservation, urgently required by the situation and the times. Belovezhskaya Pushcha must become a true wild nature reserve! To achieve this, the government must keep the promise it gave two years ago but has not delivered on yet, to extend the Wilderness Protection Zone to the entire historic part of the forest!

Its current immoral administrators, the hardened devastators of Belarusian nature reserves who have disgraced the nation’s nature protection image, must go into the dust bin of history for their inability to correctly and sensibly manage wild nature or treat humans in a humane manner. The hangman cannot become a righteous man, and those who are not meant to fly will not be given wings. Belovezhskaya Pushcha will have no future unless change becomes reality…

I AM APPEALING TO ALL PROGRESSIVE AND CONCERNED PEOPLE IN BELARUS AND AROUND THE WORLD. In 2003, we already managed to stop the illegal secret felling of elite living tree stand in Belovezhskaya Pushcha with our collective efforts. It is time to come together again! Six hundred years of Belovezhskaya Pushcha is a unique chance to turn the forest’s history around – from destruction to preservation. We must not lose it! We must get a very simple thought across to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko: Belovezhskaya Pushcha must become spiritually "white!" And we must help him summon the courage and statesman’s wisdom to make the historically important decisions to save it.

It is only with our collective efforts that Belovezhskaya Pushcha can become spiritually "white!"

Heorhi Kazulka
PhD in Biology
Belovezhskaya Pushcha
September 09, 2009 (09.09.09)

P.S. P.S. To rule out any doubt about the immorality and incompetence of the current managers of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, we will publish photographic evidences on a weekly basis starting today, for a few month or longer. The photographs with comments will be posted in the "Photo-fact" section of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha – 21st Century Web site. The fact that the section has been hardly updated for the last three or four years is no indication that things are fine in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Not in the least! In the present situation, Belarusian laws and the constitution only have partial effect on the territory of the national park, its management enjoys the patronage of the President, and no photographic evidence – the thousands of older pictures or the new ones exposing the activities that harm the ancient forest – is not taken into account. Therefore, we decided to suspend the project for several years, keep old and gather new evidences. In order to be impartial, we will publish photographs of all the positive things that have been done in the national park lately along with the evidence.
It is my hope that these materials will help in dispelling any illusions someone may still harbor in respect of the current Belovezhskaya Pushcha management, and with broad public support and participation, the Belarusian leadership will make the second logical step by changing the color of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s spirit from black to white!

Welcome to the Photo-fact section of Belovezhskaya Pushcha – 21st Century.