Black-alder forests can help restore Belarus’ peatlands and benefit the economy

March 19, 2021

A seedling of a black alder tree from a pilot plantation on the disturbed Dokudovskoe peatland in the Hrodna region. Photo: UNDP Belarus, 2014

Around 260,000 ha of Belarus’ peatlands were drained for agriculture and forestry. In most cases, planting forests on degraded peatlands had not brought the desired economic result and had been financially unsustainable. These areas have rapidly lost their productive potential and, while remaining disturbed, emit 5-15 tonnes of CO2-eq/ha/year into the atmosphere every year. Apart from this, these peatlands are very vulnerable to fires.

Paradoxically, but tree planting is among possible solutions to return these areas back to live. Only there have to be very special trees.

In 2014-2015, with the support of UNDP, a pilot plantation of more than 1,000 black alder seedlings was established on 202.9 ha of the Dokudovskое peat bog dried for agriculture in the Lida district. Black alder tree is best suited for wet soils and brings numerous ecological and economic benefits for the restoration and sustainable use of disturbed peatlands.

Peatlands are natural habitats for black alder. Large-scale drainage of Belarus’ mires in the second half of XX century led to loss of many natural black-alder forests. The disruption of the water table had a negative impact on the trees’ health and affected timber quality.

Together with the Lida Forestry, UNDP is helping to explore the cost and benefits of planting black alder trees on the disturbed peatlands to mitigate climate change, combat land degradation, and bring peatlands into the green economy orbit. A monitoring is also conducted on the impact of black alder forest on peatland’s ecosystem regeneration.

The positive ecological effect of establishing black alder plantations on disturbed peatlands lies in the ability of this forest crop to increase soil nutrition by saturating it with nitrogen, which is vital for the growth of other plants. Black-alder forests also provide habitat for a number of rare and endangered bird and plant species. For example, planting black alder on disturbed peat bogs helps to improve the habitats of such birds as lesser and greater spotted eagle, white-backed woodpecker, owl. Additionally, specialists note that the number and intensity of fires in black alder forests is considerably lower than in other ecosystems.

Apart from significant ecosystem benefits, black alder plantations also have considerable economic potential.

Growing black alder is cheaper than planting conifers. Black alder timber is of a very high quality, which makes it suitable for a wide range of applications. Due its high resistance to moisture and durability under water, black alder is an ideal natural material for constructing hydraulic structures such as underwater supports, bridge piles, wells, barrels and water pipes. Raw materials from black alder bark, leaves and cones are widely used in the pharmaceutical and textile industries.

UNDP together with partners from the Belarusian Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Forestry continue monitoring the pilot black alder plantation in the Lida district. The results of the monitoring prove the effectiveness of this natural solution for rehabilitation of disturbed peatlands and habitats of valuable species, as well as for further sustainable use of damaged peatlands in the context of a green economy.

The survival rate of black alder plantations on the area of 100 ha, created in 2014, was 87.9%. On an area of 102.9 ha of seedlings planted in 2015, the survival rate was 89.9%. Photo: Lesnaya Gazeta.

Over the years, the quality of the soil in the plantation has improved. This can be confirmed by the increase in plant diversity on the site. In other words, the black alder forest is truly helping the damaged peatland to come back to life.

Once the monitoring is complete and the data analyzed, this rehabilitation method will be recommended to the national partners and land users for wider application for restoration of the disturbed peatlands and generation of economic benefits in other parts of Belarus. Hopes are high that the initiative at the Docudovskoye peatland will spur many similar regional projects.