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2894 Belarus - Catalyzing sustainability of the wetland protected area system in Belarusian Polesie through increased management efficiency and realigned land use practices

2894 Belarus - Catalyzing sustainability of the wetland protected area system in Belarusian Polesie through increased management efficiency and realigned land use practicesPhoto: A. Dubrovsky / UNDP

Polesie—a unique biogeographical region characterized by specific geological, morphological and hydrological features that spans southern Belarus, Northern Ukraine and parts of Poland and Russia—serves as an important ecological corridor for many flora and fauna species. During the 20th century, the Soviet-era drainage campaign resulted in the degradation of 40% of Polesie’s wetland areas, causing irreversible losses to its biodiversity. Despite this, the region has retained many of its unique landscapes and habitats. It is famous for housing the watershed between the Baltic and Black Seas, in which two mass bird migration routes meet. Polesie also provides habitat for seven species of birds and 17 species of mammals listed on the IUCN Red List, including the globally endangered Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola), the Greater spotted eagle (Aquila clanga), and the Great Snipe (Gallinago media). The region—parts of which are listed as a Ramsar Site—plays a significant role as a stopover site for globally important migrating bird species, like the Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus) and the Ruff (Philomachus pugnax).

Most of the globally significant biodiversity in the Polesie region of Belarus exists in national reserves where unsustainable economic activities—agriculture, forestry and flood defense—have been permitted under the law. In recent years, this dichotomy presented a critical problem: the “reserve” status appeared to secure the protection of globally important species and habitat, yet the reserves were effectively paper parks—areas with minimal allowed-use restrictions, without administration, without management or business plans, and without proper law enforcement. Therefore, the biodiversity of Polesie faced threats due to the impacts of these unsustainable, unregulated economic activities.

This GEF-funded project aims to enhance Belarus’ capacity to conserve wetland biodiversity harbored in Polesie reserves by enhancing the management effectiveness of the reserves and by mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into the agricultural, forestry and flood protection activities that occur in and around the wetland reserves. The project will demonstrate this approach at four wetland reserves in the Polesie lowland. These demonstrations will lead to the development of policies, tools and methodologies that will be institutionalized within the ongoing planning and policy framework of key government bodies. In doing so, the project will work with national and regional decision-makers, land users and local communities, as well as counterparts in Ukraine. Finally, the project will develop and implement a viable replication strategy. By demonstrating the feasibility of aligning biodiversity considerations and economic activities in Polesie reserves, the government of Belarus—one of the main partners of this project—will be able to strengthen the overall system, 60–75% of which consists of protected areas facing similar threats.

One of the earliest project achievements has been an amendment to national legislation stipulating that reserves with international designation (such as Ramsar Sites) must have management units and management plans. The project has also worked with the government to ensure that the annual budget for protected areas includes financing for their management teams. Additional notable achievements of this project include:

Supporting effective reserve management. Working in four key reserves in Polesie, the project demonstrated a model approach to establishing and running a reserve management unit. This pilot showed, in part, how reserves’ management can collaborate with local villagers to organize ecological and agricultural tourism. By early 2009, as a result of this work, the management model piloted by the project was replicated in seven reserves in Belarus. Thus far, the project has also led to the creation of 126 conservation jobs in which people are directly engaged in managing reserves; the project’s role in this improvement cannot be overstated. Finally, based on its analysis of the international studies on the valuation of ecosystem services of specially protected areas, the project recommended the application of such a study in Belarus, which was approved by the relevant state bodies.

Improving the health of wetland ecology. In 2010, data gathered by the project suggested that most of the reserves in Polesie are in good ecological health. Due to the efforts undertaken by the project, the area of open fens increased by 550 ha to 58,550 ha, and area of open floodplain meadows increased by 250 ha to 11,250 ha. The good progress of the project is evidenced further in the greatly reduced occurrence of human-caused fires in fen mires: only seven ha were burned in 2009, whereas in 2004—before the project began—20,000 ha were burned. Finally, species monitoring data indicate that the populations of Greater spotted eagle, Aquatic warbler, and Great snipe are increasing in number.

Promoting sustainable forestry. Due to project interventions, a number of forest enterprises now apply biodiversity-friendly forestry practices and/or certified forest management. In and near the reserves alone, all forestry companies have become certified according to national standards, and two companies now follow international standards—with an additional two enterprises scheduled to receive certification. Prior to the project’s interventions, no forestry companies in Belarus held such certification.