Russia’s gamekeeper has turned poacher

Russia has a vast number of nature reserves and national parks. But the government body supposed to be protecting them is in fact destroying many of them by allowing development and mining. на русском языке 

Mikhail Kreindlin
20 June 2014

In Russia, as in other countries, there are various kinds of specially protected areas or SPAs (osobo okhranyaemye prirodnye territorii), which can have national or regional status. A Nature Reserve (zapovednik) protects all kind of living organisms in their original habitat and any form of human activity, e.g. hunting or tourism, is forbidden. Special Areas of Conservation (zakazniki) or SACs are set up to protect and look after animal, bird or fish populations, which might include e.g. feeding them in adverse weather conditions.

In Russia, as in other countries, there are various kinds of specially protected areas or SPAs (osobo okhranyaemye prirodnye territorii), which can have national or regional status. A Nature Reserve (zapovednik) protects all kind of living organisms in their original habitat and any form of human activity, e.g. hunting or tourism, is forbidden. Special Areas of Conservation (zakazniki) or SACs are set up to protect and look after animal, bird or fish populations, which might include e.g. feeding them in adverse weather conditions. National Parks allow limited opportunities for economic activity such as tourism. 

In Russia most of the serious problems encountered by national or regional nature reserves are however caused by the very government body that is supposed to be protecting them. It would appear that the Ministry for Natural Resources and Ecology (MNR) has other priorities than its name might suggest: its officials are more interested in exploiting the resources than protecting them. 

Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology officials are more interested in exploiting resources than protecting them.

Many urgent issues are recognised as important, but nothing gets done: no new national parks or nature reserves are being established and existing ones are at the mercy of illegal developers. 

Too few new SPAs

The ‘Federal SPA Development Plan 2011- 2020’, stipulated that three new nature reserves, seven national parks and three SACs should be established between 2011 and 2013; another ten SPAs were to have been enlarged. 

Bowhead Whales swimming off the coast of the Shantar Islands. CC Vladislav Raevskii

Unfortunately very little of this ambitious plan has been carried through. Of the various categories only five new national parks have been created: Beringia in Chukotka, Land of the Leopard (Russian Far East), Onezhskoye pomorye (Archangel region), Chikoi (Trans-Baikal) and Shantar Islands (Khabarovsk territory). The Valley of the Dzeren and Pozarym (Khakassia republic) federal SACs were both created before the Development Plan was agreed; and the North Ossetian Nature Reserve has been extended. Not one new nature reserve has been created. 

For some of the planned nature reserves, such as the Ladoga Skerries for instance, this delay could result in irrevocable losses: trees are already being cut down and development is proceeding apace. If this area is not very soon designated as a Specially Protected Area (which should have happened some time ago), the natural features which are to be protected by the designation could be completely destroyed. 

Experts surplus to requirements

On top of this, experienced scientists find it difficult to work in this system, so they are being replaced by incompetent colleagues. In the Ust-Lensky Nature Reserve (Yakutia), for instance, director Dr Aleksander Gudkov has been replaced by a businessman who was once caught red-handed collecting mammoth tusks, his only contact with a nature reserve until he became the director of one. 

The former director, who had been in post since 2003 and was a well-known biologist, had almost certainly tried to prevent the unbridled collecting of mammoth tusks inside the protected area of his nature reserve. Not so the new director.

Talented nature reserve staff are not prepared to do deals and cannot be bought.

Talented members of staff working in the nature reserves are passionate about the natural environment they are looking after. They are not prepared to do deals and cannot be bought. Dr Nina Litinova, director of the Astrakhan Nature Reserve, is a case in point. She holds the award of Honoured Ecologist of the Russian Federation and was one of the most experienced, professional and principled directors, but faced with a multitude of problems (including the authorities trying to replace her with a farmer), she was forced to resign.

Too much commercial development

The development of the SPA network and the selection of staff to work in them may not have been a great success, but nature conservancy officials are adept at handing out plots of nature reserve land for development and fostering the commercial exploitation of those lands whose scientific significance is such that it should be protected, not destroyed. MNR is trying to change the legislation relating to SPAs in such a way as to be able to break the reserves up into small parcels for the construction of dachas or the extraction of natural resources.

The River Kozhim in Yugyd-va.

The River Kozhim in Yugyd-va. CC Cimba

Back in 2010, for example, MNR changed the northern boundary of the 'Yugyd-va' National Park (Komi, in the Urals), which removed its protected status and allowed gold deposits to be mined within the park at Chudnoye. It was only in 2013 that the Russian Supreme Court accepted a submission from Greenpeace Russia and declared the changes unlawful. But the Ministry then came up with another definition, which once more put the Chudnoye area outside the park boundaries. 

On top of all this, the Ministry is now planning to declare 48,000 hectares of park outside the boundaries of the UNESCO World Heritage Site 'Virgin Forests of Komi.' It is also preparing to change the boundaries of the 'Western Caucasus' nature reserve in Sochi (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) so as to exclude the Lagonaki Plateau, where the construction of a huge ski resort is planned. This conflicts with the advice of the scientists working in the nature reserve, UNESCO experts and the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), all of whom have come out very firmly against the development plans.

The Kurilsky nature reserve. A blue cwm lies among ragged yellow rocks

The Kurilsky nature reserve. One of many areas where the Russian government has bent the rules. CC Igor Shpilenok

In July 2012 the Ministry changed the statutes of the Special Area of Conservation within the Kurilsky Nature Reserve in the Russian Far East so as to permit fishing for sea-urchins and Japanese scallops. 

The Ministry has agreed a development project for an amusement park and tourism centre to be called 'The Pearl of the Zhiguli [mountains]', to be constructed inside the conservation area of the 'Samara Bend' (a bend in the River Volga) national park – a development strictly forbidden under Russian law.

It is not only the federal authorities that are cavalier in their treatment of SPAs, however. Regional governments behave the same way towards the areas under their ostensible protection, however unique.

In Volgograd oblast, the authorities are planning to exclude 17,000 unique wetland areas from the 'Volga-Akhtyubinsk Water Meadows', included in the UNESCO Worldwide Network of Biosphere Reserves.

'Updating' the law

Presumably to make it easier to destroy the SPA network, the MNR seems to have set itself the goal for 2013 of creating a legal framework for getting the bulldozers on to the nature reserves. Within six months the Duma was presented with two draft laws which would effectively destroy the whole system of nature reserves. 

The Ministry is setting up the legal framework for getting bulldozers on to the nature reserves.

The first of these would have permitted the re-drawing of boundaries where the 'environmental value of the reserve has lessened.' A fire could be organised, destroying part of a reserve; this area could then be 'removed' on the pretext that there was no longer anything to conserve. Quite simple, really. But Greenpeace collected 55,000 signatures from ordinary people protesting against this draft law and its progress through parliament was brought to a halt.

The Ministry didn't give up, however, and its second attempt was more successful. The potential damage which this second draft law could wreak was more obvious, so officials tried to get it through three hearings in the Duma before the environmentalist community had time to react: riding roughshod over the normal procedures, the amendments took just one week to pass through parliament, making it possible to downgrade any of 102 nature reserves into national parks. Amendments had already been made to the rules governing these parks so as to enable the big projects needed for the 2014 Winter Olympics to be built, and it is now much easier to build tourist facilities within the parks. This will not necessarily mean a resort - in these very beautiful places there are often dachas belonging to high-ranking officials.

But the officials failed to get their draft law passed without any fuss as they had hoped. Greenpeace managed to collect 30,000 protest signatures in a very short period of time, and when the law was passed many people responded to the organisation’s call to write to the President asking him to stop this madness. Fortunately they were successful and now the Ministry has until July to draw up a list of nature reserves that are already de facto national parks, and to present its proposals for a change of status for discussion.

Logging devastates the forest at the Utrish Nature Reserve.

Logging at the Utrish Nature Reserve. Photo via Save-Utrish.ru

The Ministry still attempted to include in this list some of the most valuable nature reserves, such as Kerzhensky (near Nizhny Novgorod) and Utrish, but mass protests forced it to abandon these plans.

Now the Duma is trying to do away with the need for expert professional advice in respect of draft laws relating to SPAs, the continental shelf, territorial waters and economic zones, and waste disposal facilities. This effectively means that Russia will no longer have any means of evaluating the environmental impact of any proposed economic activity and citizens will no longer be able to influence decisions which could do very considerable damage to flora and fauna. 

The Duma wants to abolish expert professional advice relating to SPAs, the continental shelf… and waste disposal facilities.

Perhaps this decision has something to do with the fact that the Ministry is sick and tired of the difficulties it has encountered in its attempts to build new dachas or start mining minerals in idyllic landscapes. But it may be something else.

There are currently large-scale plans in Russia to start exploiting offshore oil and gas fields on its continental shelf (including in the Arctic), and similarly large-scale infrastructure development plans in SPAs. It cannot be ruled out that the organisations and people with a vested interest in these projects are behind those who have been introducing disastrous and destructive draft laws in the Duma. One has only to look at the list of the deputies putting proposals forward: almost all of them have either worked for big oil companies, or have shares in them.

All this represents a new problem for a civil society which is trying to preserve the network of nature reserves for scientific research – and for life. 

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