Although not a single square meter of marshes has been drained in Belarus over the past 15 years, marshland reclamation and bog recovery remain talked-about and sensitive issues. The United Nations Development Fund and the Global Environmental Facility have allocated $1 million to recover what everyone knows as the “lungs of Europe”. What’s the problem with the lungs? And why do headshakers claim that Polesye and its extensive marshes will turn into another Sahara in several dozen years?
The issue seems clear. Land reclamation, or amelioration (from the Latin word meaning “to improve”) is absolutely necessary, especially if you live on a narrow sandspit in the middle of a giant bog with clouds of pitiless bloodsuckers around you.
Tourists often wonder why all cemeteries are normally located right in the center of villages in the Polesye area. The answer is simple: poleshuks (local dwellers) could not find any other spot of solid land to bury their beloved ones. Poleshuks were called so because they were looking for (the Belarusian word “shukat”) fields (the word “polye”) to have at least a couple of square meters of fertile soil. Ironically, the western neighbors that are now so much concerned about our Belarusian bogs got rid of their own lungs years ago. “In Belarus, 3.4 million hectares of lands were reclaimed, about 16% of the total territory. Is it really too much? In England 64% of lands have been reclaimed, and in the Netherlands the figure stands at a very impressive 89%. These statistics date back to the mid-XX century, when Belarus was making its first steps in land reclamation. At present we have 1.345 million hectares of “live” marshes, twice as much as in Europe!” notes Doctor of Agriculture, Anatoly Meyerovsky, the laureate of the State Prize in Science and Technologies. If the whole world chooses to drain the bogs and have arable lands, why should Belarus have it some other way?
Let’s not forget that a large-scale land reclamation campaign was the only source of investments in Belarus in the last three decades of the USSR. Some doubts were aired then: who needed this gigantomania? But land reclamation meant not only drainage pipes and locks, but also investments in farms and social infrastructure. However…
“Bad management turned the beautiful idea into a disaster,” Academician Viktor Parfenov calls his opinion a cry from the depths. “Belarusian botanists, water resources engineers, soil scientists, climatologist, woodgrowers designed a concept to alleviate the consequences of land reclamation and prepared a forecast of possible ecological processes 40 years ago. They even developed a detailed action plan to deal with the effects of soil improvement. We used to warn that it was a big mistake to drain huge areas at once — 10,000 to 15,000 hectares! We needed land protective belts. One must not sow clean-tilled crops on this soil. But no one followed our recommendations, and we keep pushing our lands into the “desert” zone. We are dizzy with success, where is this thriftiness that is so characteristic of Belarusians? My heart bleeds when I drive Polesye roads and see sand dunes, and feel sand-bearing winds.”
An unpleasant figure has been published not long ago: around 400,000 hectares of reclaimed lands have already been lost. Land improvers are still alive and feel perfectly all right, but the thing they have all been struggling for is lost forever. Was this game worth the candles? According to the director of the Institute of land reclamation and meadow management, associate member of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, Anatoly Likhatsevich, the above figure is distorted, as it includes 200,000 hectares of exhausted peat-bogs, the area that had been considered a stock of fuel, fertilizers, therapeutic mud and wax. But there are 192,000 hectares of arable lands that have been labeled “degraded”. Although scientists assure that in terms of fertility these lands are more preferable than millions of hectares of sandy soils that Belarus possesses, this is a very sad conclusion: we took it from nature and bargained it away. And now we reap the fruit of this mistake, or on the contrary, there is no fruit to reap. The reason is the banal mismanagement of lands: we were sowing wheat and beet on the lands designed for perennial grasses (and quadrupled the degrading process). We saved on fertilizers and arrangements that were recommended by scientists.
“The worst thing is that it is impossible to reverse this process, same as to get clay from bricks,” Viktor Parfenov sighs. “This was not the right scientific approach, this was not what a good thrifty manager would do, it is like shoving banknotes into an oven instead of firewood.”
A local senior manager once told Viktor Parfenov: “You think too globally, my dear academician, whereas we got to provide enough bread to the country.” Seems a good reason to violate or neglect the rules. “Why do people pay no attention to rules? Why do they sow the wrong things? The profitability of crop cultivation and cattle breeding is incomparable,” Anatoly Likhatsevich explains. “There is no scheme to provide enough preferences to farmers and encourage them to meet scientific recommendations. There is hardly any reasonable connection between ecology and economic feasibility.”
For many years now Academician Parfenov has been advocating the introduction of administrative liability for mismanagement. “We must not lose our chance to rehabilitate the lands of the Polesye district! We must act right now like there is no tomorrow,” the scientist urges. Unfortunately, scientists often feel like passengers that have missed their train and no more trains are expected. Besides, there is no legislation that would turn the country away from this urge to meet immediate targets and forget about the future. We have no regulations on land improvement, unlike Russia and Ukraine. Members of parliament keep promising to deal with the issues, but less and less time is left to save the arable lands, according to regular studies.
Anyways, specialists assure us there will never be a second Sahara here in Belarus. The Institute of land reclamation and meadow management is certain Belarus, a country with 600 to 700 millimeter precipitation every year, with the pasture to ploughland ratio at 3/5 and forests accounting for 40% of its total area, will hardly ever have a desert of its own. The country has a natural insurance against sands. But there is no insurance against human-caused land problems, such as waste, derelict and barren lands. You need an example, you don’t have to leave the institute: the building is located on the site where the Komarovskoe Marsh had flourished before 1912. Is there any sand around the institute? No way, everything around is lush green.
by Viktor Radivinovsky
Concerns and hopes
Polesye is not only a natural dimension but also a realm of human life