Staunton, January 16 – Russia’s nature reserves system that was set up just before the February 1917 revolution and once among the best in the world is suffering from neglect and the encroachment of unrestrained economic development, according to Greenpeace on the occasion of the 95th anniversary of the country’s first national park.
Russia’s first national reserve was established on January 11, 1917, during the first world war just to the north of Lake Baikal. “Unfortunately,” the ecological watchdog group notes, that park did not survive to see this anniversary because of a 2011 decision of Yury Trutnev, Russia’s natural resources minister (www.greenpeace.org/russia/ru/news/10-01-2012-the-end-of-oopt/).
In September of last year, the organization says, Trutnev united the reserve into a single structure with the Transbaikal National Park, but this move does not save the preserve bur rather destroys it because the ministry permits “almost any economic activity” on the territory of the national parks, opening the way to “the rapid end of the Russian reserve system.”
Over the last few years, Greenpeace says, the Russian authorities “have not developed” the nature preserve system but destroyed it” by “changing borders” of the reserves, “the seizure of territory, illegal use, changes in general legal norms, the driving out of qualified specialists” from the field “and so on.”
One of the “hottest of the hot spots” on the nature reserve map of Russia is the Caucasus, the organization says, where Moscow appears to have developed new “methods for a struggle against reserve territories and also against those who defend them,” all in the name of economic development.
Four of the planned five new ski resorts in the region, in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has displayed a particular interest, are on the territories in whole or in part of federal nature preserves. Moreover, the Caucasus has its own “road to nowhere,” one to a non-existent meteorological station.
The reason for that road, Greenpeace says, has nothing to do with weather monitoring. Instead, it is “connected with the construction of the latest government residence, ‘Lunnaya polyana,’” and will have serious ecological consequences despite claims by Moscow and regional officials.
President Dmitry Medvedev has made this destruction of nature reserves easier with the signing of a new law on November 30, 2011, which allows the construction of “any touristic and sport facilities on the biosphere segments of the biosphere nature reserves and also allows for land it them to be rented out. More than 40 biosphere zones are at risk as a result.
Sometimes in order to avoid legal restrictions, Greenpeace says, Moscow officials simply change the borders of the reserves even though such steps often destroy the most important parts of them and thus violate the spirit if not the exact letter of the law. Among the worst cases of this concerns Gazprom construction in the Altay region, a step actively opposed by UNESCO.
“Unfortunately,” Greenpeace adds, “in all the recent scandals” connected with Russia’s nature preserves, “the law enforcement organs have been inclined to support ‘the strong of this world’ instead of standing up on the side of the law.” That in itself, the organization says, sends a message that even more violations will be tolerated in the future.
And what is especially disturbing is that the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources is now purging from its ranks those specialists who want to defend Russia’s natural heritage. Last year, a group of worker from the Baikal National Park sent a joint letter to President Medvedev calling on him to protect them in their efforts to enforce the law against the bureaucracy.
But instead of taking up their case, Medvedev’s office turned their appeal over to the very people against whom the signatories had appealed, and in the months since, “repressions against those who signed” the appeal to the president have begun in that national park. Indeed, “practically all” who signed “have either been removed or forced to retract their opinion.”
Last year, “despite the claims of federal bureaucrats,” Greenpeace points out, “not a single nature reserve or national park was created,” and many of the existing parks were “destroyed by fires, logging or the seizure of land.” And, the nature defense group says, in many parts of Russia, regional officials are not lagging behind in such destructive actions.