National Treasure in Peril
Ecologists challenge government explanation for disappearance of one of the
continent's oldest forests.
By Irina Levshina in Minsk (BRS No. 02, 31-Jan-03)
A delegation of journalists who visited the Belovezhsky national park in
Belarus on January 29 were confronted with sharply conflicting accounts of
why one of the oldest forests in Europe is suddenly disappearing.
Since 1998 the forest, which straddles Poland and Belarus, has been subject
to a mass felling of trees on the latter's side of the border. The Minsk
government claims the centuries-old trees have been struck by hurricanes and
mass infestations of beetles. Ecologists and scholars assert that healthy
trees are being felled to earn hard currency.
Dubbed the "lungs of Europe" for its huge size and variety of trees, the
Belovezhsky virgin forest is home to over 300 species of animal, including
the bison - its mascot. Seventy-five hectares of the forest lie in Belarus,
the remaining 55 in Poland.
Until recently, the Minsk government had been regarded as a responsible
guardian of this unique natural reserve. In 1992, the forest was placed on
UNESCO's international cultural and natural heritage list and received a
special certificate from the Council of Europe.
In 1998, a sawmill complex was erected in the town of Kamenyuki, which lies
within the forest. Brought in from Germany by the presidential
administration, the facility was supposedly intended to chop down sick or
damaged trees. The general director of the park, Evgeny Smoktunovich,
protested vigorously at the arrival of the mill.
In 2001, he was dismissed and his deputy, Georgy Kozulko, was also promptly
fired. In May, President Lukashenko appointed a new general director. Lauded
in official circles as a skilled economic administrator, Nikolai Bambiza was
already a bogeyman for ecologists, having presided over the felling of
ancient oaks in the Pripyat national park during his tenure as director
Once Bambiza took charge, the mill began actively functioning, but like many
activities directed by the presidential administration, work at the forest
is conducted in total secrecy. No one knows where the Belovezhsky timber
goes, or how much the state charges for it.
Kozulko has told journalists that in the period from spring 2002 alone,
hundreds "of old, completely healthy and genetically valuable trees" were
felled. "Even permanent areas which have been used for several decades for
scientific monitoring were cleared. These areas are of enormous value for
science and were certified by UNESCO."
He added that he has numerous documents proving violations of existing
legislation on the environment.
Last year, an ecological pressure group, Terra-Konventsia, was formed with
the aim of forcing the government to fulfil its international environmental
obligations. Spearheaded by Valery Dranchuk, the editor of the independent
ecological newspaper, Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the movement has attracted
scholars and public figures as well as ecologists and environmentalists.
At a conference last summer, the group appealed to the international
community to intervene. "The quest for hard currency is turning an
internationally recognised jewel of our natural heritage into fodder for the
timber industry," they said in a statement.
The January 29 visit to the forest was organised by the presidential
administration to allow critics to visit the forest. Suspicions were raised
immediately when both former directors of the national park and
Terra-Konventsia director Valery Dranchuk were denied accreditation.
The journalists were shown huge areas where trees had allegedly been blown
down by the wind. Others had been felled because they were infested by
beetles, claimed administration representatives.
Deputy head of the presidential administration Galina Volchuga even accused
former directors of the forest of adding to the problem by not felling trees
in time. "The decision to fell them took six years of discussions between
specialists and government representatives. This is why we face these tragic
consequences," she said.
However, Bambiza's insistence that "there is no illegal felling in the
Belovezhsky forest", was undermined somewhat when journalists were
approached directly by a timber worker who gave his name as Valery
Puchinsky. "Everything written in the newspapers about the felling of the
forest is true. I'm ashamed for the park," he said.
This unscripted intervention made a strong impression on the visitors,
despite claims by administration officials that Puchinsky is "sick".
Excluded from the official party, Valery Dranchuk spent the day in
Kamenyuki. "The forest has been taken over by an industrial lobby. Local
residents have described many times over how it is being chopped down and
taken away," he told journalists.
Unable to stop the felling, local people have resisted by refusing to join
in. The forest is an integral part of their lives and the majority have
chosen unemployment rather than work in the sawmill. Most of the workers
there are outsiders or "temps" as the locals call them.
Hamstrung domestically, ecologists and the former heads of the reserve now
intend to draw the Council of Europe's attention to the felling. EU
officials have yet to issue any statement on the matter.
Irina Levshina is a reporter for BelaPAN news agency in Minsk.
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