Belarus: A new approach to managing resources

 A man stands on an interlocking dam at the Bartenikha peatland canal
An interlocking dam at the Bartenikha peatland canal. Photo: Alexander Kozulin

Dry soil, scarce vegetation, deafening silence interrupted only by the howling wind – Belarus’ Bartenikha fen mire was devastated by decades of poorly managed peat extraction.

Recently, however, native plants and wildlife have begun to return to the area. Efforts by UNDP and partners to help rehydrate the Bartenikha fen mire and 14 other mires in Belarus have increased local capacities for land management and resulted in the restoration of over 28,000 hectares of peatlands.

Highlights

  • 28,000 hectares of exploited peat lands converted to wetlands.
  • Up to 96 percent of vegetation, and up to 48 percent of wildlife restored in reclaimed areas.
  • Carbon emissions slashed by 300,000 tons per year.

Peat mires are an essential natural resource in Belarus. They absorb large quantities of carbon emissions, and residents rely on them for hunting, fishing, and collecting herbs and berries.   

Beginning in the 1950s, however, hydro-engineering companies began extracting peat – a cheap and abundant source of fuel - from the mires. To facilitate extraction, they carried out large-scale projects to drain water from the mires.

As a result, fires began to rage over the dried-up lands, causing them to emit carbon dioxide rather than absorb it. Aerosols and toxic gases spewed into the air, and the Government was forced to spend millions of dollars combating the fires.

A simple but powerful solution

In 1999, UNDP joined forces with the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species, the national NGO APB-Birdlife Belarus and the National Academy of Sciences to develop new national capacities for evaluating and managing wetlands resources. As a first step, an experiment was conducted in three peat mires to determine optimal water levels for biodiversity and economic activity.

Then in 2006, UNDP, the Global Environment Facility and APB-Birdlife Belarus launched an initiative—with 65 percent of the financing coming from the Government—to create a national policy framework for sustainable peatlands management. They convened officials from the ministries of forestry and the environment, as well as environmental groups and members of the peat extraction industry to discuss land use priorities and develop a cost-effective plan for rewetting 15 distressed peat mires in the regions of Minsk, Brest, Vitebsk, Grodno and Gomel.

UNDP also helped local hydro-engineering companies shift their operations from digging draining channels to constructing sluices and dams for the rewetting.

Today, all 15 mires have been revived, and birdlife and vegetation have returned to the areas. For people living near the mires, this means a return to the hunting, fishing and gathering activities that boost their incomes. It also opens doors for ecotourism, and has saved at least $1 million annually in firefighting costs.

Market pressures to extract peat for fuel and fertilizer are still high, but the Government is working to protect about 20 bogs still in their natural state. It aims to introduce land management plans for all administrative districts across the country by 2015.

Read the full story in our publication "Empowering Lives, Building Resilience"