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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 there.

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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