Setting out for a marsh outing

[b]This year is significant for ecologists worldwide, marking the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention, which aims to preserve and ensure sustainable use of the Earth’s wetlands. Belarus — whose marshes are called ‘Europe’s lungs’ — joined the convention in 1999, as an independent state. An international conference in Minsk — dedicated to the jubilee — is to gather representatives from Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany and elsewhere, focusing on how best to care for one of the major ecological systems on the planet. So great is its importance that it helps define our climate and biological diversity.[/b] [b]Isles of primeval nature[/b] It’s hardly possible to overestimate the significance of the world’s marshes, since they absorb carbon dioxide and generate oxygen, shaping the climate and sustaining our biological balance.
This year is significant for ecologists worldwide, marking the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention, which aims to preserve and ensure sustainable use of the Earth’s wetlands. Belarus — whose marshes are called ‘Europe’s lungs’ — joined the convention in 1999, as an independent state. An international conference in Minsk — dedicated to the jubilee — is to gather representatives from Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany and elsewhere, focusing on how best to care for one of the major ecological systems on the planet. So great is its importance that it helps define our climate and biological diversity.

Isles of primeval nature
It’s hardly possible to overestimate the significance of the world’s marshes, since they absorb carbon dioxide and generate oxygen, shaping the climate and sustaining our biological balance. Belarus’ lowland bogs are really unique across Europe; our Sporovskoe and Zvanets, in Brest Region, have been unchanged for millennia, being home to rare birds and plants. Over 50 percent of the global population of rare aquatic warblers and around 10 percent of the European population of greater spotted eagles reside there. Moreover, 70 percent of the flora and fauna listed in the Red Book exist on marshes.
Numbers of animals, birds and plants are a unique indicator of the condition of our lands. For example, last year, the Eurasian curlew — a bird which lives on open highland marshes lacking vegetation, joined our list of engendered species. Some marshes have become drier, allowing pines to grow and, accordingly, reducing the population of Eurasian curlew. Numbers of blackcocks and wood grouse are also falling.
In the mid-20th century, Belarus boasted 2.9m hectares of natural marshes; by the 1960s, melioration had altered Polesie greatly, with roads and infrastructure built. At that time, nobody thought of the negative ecological consequences. Now, only 860,000 hectares of marshes remain, of which 60 percent suffer from an altered state. The Head of the Scientific-Practical Centre for Bio-Resources’ Foreign Co-operation Department at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, Alexander Kozulin, explains that another 500,000 hectares are now ‘dead’: 90 percent are peatlands and 300,000 hectares are now too dry and sandy even for farming use (also being a fire risk). In 2002, peat fires began in this area, later spreading across Belarus and costing around $1.5m to extinguish.
Ecologists believe that such territories should revert to use as secondary bogs, since they produce no economic profit. In fact, they could bring ecological benefits — both nationally and internationally. Rare plants and animals should return in time, while conditions for fishing and hunting can be created.

Money spent on marshes
The Head of the Department for Biological and Landscape Diversity at the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Ministry, Natalia Minchenko, tells us that Belarus has experience of restoring drained marshes, with support from international organisations. In Europe — where marshes have long since been drained — the process is more costly. Irrespective of their location, bogs can influence the ecology of the whole planet.
In 2006, the Global Environment Facility allocated $1m to revive 28,000 hectares of Belarusian marshes, allowing them to become waterlogged once more. Dokudovo marsh, near Lida in Grodo Region, was among the first; its 3,000 hectares of developed peat lands were a constant concern to local residents on hot days. Every year, the marsh caught fire, covering the city and suburbs with smog. Moreover, sandstorms were common. In 2007, the restoration of the marsh began and, after the draining channels were closed, water flooded in, damping the peat layers. Grass began growing and the site is now loved by fishermen and holidaymakers. Meanwhile, local residents no longer suffer from sandstorms or fires. The project cost $50 per hectare. When we compare it to the money spent on fire extinguishing, its economic feasibility is clear. Moreover, what price can we place on climate stabilisation?
The project — run jointly by the Forestry Ministry and the Global Environment Facility — covered 15 developed peat lands on the territory of 12 forestries, becoming truly unique. In 2006, when specialists were preparing to restore a marsh for the first time, nothing of the kind had previously been attempted in Belarus or abroad — although some efforts had been made to use degenerated peat-bogs for alternative purposes, such as farming or forestry. The land never produced rich harvests though, while young trees were destroyed by fire.
In 2008, a new programme was launched with support from Germany’s Climate Initiative: Climate and Biodiversity (also known as Belarus-1). One of its articles envisaged the continuation of marsh restoration, with Germany allocating over 1m Euros. According to Mr. Kozulin, alongside the restoration of marshes, our country is also studying the sale of its greenhouse gas quotas. Each country is provided with a certain quota for carbon dioxide emission, with huge fines for those who surpass their limit. However, to avoid cutting their industrial production, they may buy quotas from another state — such as Belarus. Our country emits a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide, while our marshes aid absorption of the gas, so we can sell part of our quota. The more marshes we restore, the more quota we’ll have free for sale. Annual profits could reach millions of Euros.

Along Polesie paths
Belarus’ Polesie enjoys global significance, being home to four major reserves: Srednyaya Pripyat, Zvanets, Sporovsky and Prostyr. They are vital ornithological territories and Ramsar sites. At the initiative of the Belarusian Government and the Global Environmental Facility, a joint project worth $2,200,000 is running for its fifth year — supervised by the Global Environmental Facility, the UN Development Programme and the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Ministry. It aims to ensure sustainable functioning of Polesie’s protected wetlands.
This territory is unique. After major melioration in the 1960s and 1970s, many low-lying peatlands were drained, with tilled crops grown for many years. After 15-20 years of such use, fields began demonstrating less fertility; they still belonged to farms but it became economically unprofitable to work them. Proposals were developed to change their usage, as the project’s head, Gennady Artyushevsky, explains. It was recommended that some lands be used as forests and the others as secondary marshes, reducing farms’ losses, while improving the environment. Local authorities approved the proposals and we expect to see results within five years. Interestingly, these pilot experiments have spread all over the country; the State Property Committee is developing similar land use schemes for 25 Belarusian districts.
Polders (former fish spawning areas which attract birdlife) are a special case, being farmed during the 1970s and 1980s but now enjoying poor harvests — due to weak soil fertility and a damaged hydrological regime. They are covered with silt and grass and are overgrown with bushes, preventing them from being farmed, yet their ecological significance has also been lost. These low lying areas beside the Pripyat River are now returning to use for fish breeding, with over 3,000 hectares being covered by two new pilot projects.
“One polder is being used to breed fish and grow green forage,” explains Mr. Artyushevsky. “The second — on the border of Pinsk and Luninets districts — has been left wild for thirty years, despite enjoying 3,000 hectares of low lying land, which can be profitably used. We’ve been reviving its natural hydrological regime, allowing pike, ide and other fish to successfully spawn and attracting wetland birds.”
Naturally, the project has affected the local population and their employment. Four ecological-educational centres have opened at reserves in Bereza, Drogichin, Luninets and Stolin districts. In addition, five nature trails have been organised, while 15 local ecotourist mini-projects have been realised. The latter ensure comfortable accommodation and good quality tourist services. The project is due to be completed by the end of the year.

Registration and control
The biological diversity of our planet is under threat; scientists predict that 15-40 percent of animals and plants may be endangered by the middle of the century. With this in mind, wetland creatures require special attention. At present, the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Ministry, the UNDP to Belarus and the National Academy of Sciences’ Scientific-Practical Centre for Bio-resources are preparing a new project: Sustainable Development of Peatlands in Belarus. According to Mr. Kozulin, it aims to develop a strategy for sustainable use of our wetlands and their complete inventory. All aspects are to be analysed, including the quality of peat, the diversity of local flora and fauna, and the functions of each marsh on a regional and global scale. Representatives from various ministries and agencies are to be involved, including officials from the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Ministry, the Energy Ministry and the Agriculture and Food Ministry. A list of all marshes is to be compiled, later defining specific areas of development for each. Some will be used for peat digging, while others may become reserves, with special measures taken against fire.
The $2.7m project is being financed by international ecological organisations. Another $7m is to be allocated as part of a state programme for restoration of ameliorated lands. This grand project focusing on Belarusian marshes is to be completed by late 2012, with results likely to be evident by 2013. Scientists are convinced that we’ll significantly improve the state of ‘Europe’s lungs’.

By Lilia Khlystun
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