Belarus - Management plans for key biodiversity areas

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Geese
Geese
Management Plans for Key Biodiveristy Areas

In the Polesie region of Belarus, years of mismanagement of the sensitive wetland areas have considerably increased the threats to their precious habitats. Despite this, Belarus has managed to keep Europe's largest fens (wetland-like areas) relatively intact, two of which are Ramsar sites and important bird areas (IBAs). Although people don't currently live within the bounds of these protected areas, there are many communities located around these sites that are dependent upon the protected areas for survival. Because of mismanagement of protected areas and a lack of enforcement, coupled with accelerated development and environmental factors such as climate change, the fens are in danger of becoming an extinct ecosystem.

To address these serious environmental challenges, UNDP along with APD-BirdLife, the largest environmental NGO in Belarus, initiated a project to establish administrative units to better manage these protected areas. UNDP and APB-Birdlife Belarus secured the support of the Ministry of Environment of Belarus, an important step in ensuring that the protection of the sensitive areas would have long-term sustainability. The establishment of these administrative units would mean that appropriate enforcement and management of these areas would be realized. The units were tasked with implementing integrated management plans which dealt with the environmental concerns of the protected areas in a holistic manner.

The management plans called for revising operational guidelines for the drainage facilities around the fen mires, which would ensure a proper balance between conservation and economic activities. The revision was carried out in a participatory manner with the relevant ministries in Belarus. The construction of dams and sluices in drainage canals and ditches (to stop excessive outflow of water) was carried out by local enterprises which helped create national and local ownership of the project. The integrated management plans also included awareness-raising campaigns directed at the public to promote the environmental values of the wetland areas and sustainable land-use practices in and around the sites. Monitoring was established as a tool to enhance responsiveness during the implementation process.

As a result of the project, nearly 50,000 hectares have been covered under this new management scheme. The project has had far-reaching effects beyond the physical protection and enforcement of the wetlands. The project has improved the living conditions of the local populations who had been subjected to frequent droughts and flooding. The positive changes have brought about new enthusiasm for environmental protection among the local population, which has demonstrated a willingness to contribute to the project. Changes in mindset have become apparent. For example, the original engineering firms that had been contracted some 20 years ago to drain the wetlands worked on this project. But this time they did so with the growing understanding of the negative environmental impacts when economic concerns take precedence over environmental ones.

The tangible successes resulting from this project paved the way for support for a larger initiative, this time from the Global Environmental Facility. The new project, worth about $10 million, is going to build upon the success of the present project and expand it to other regions in the Belarusian Polesie.

Context

Mesotrophic fen mires form a unique ecosystem with a range that is now almost exclusively restricted to Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Once widespread across temperate Europe, mesotrophic fen mires and their wildlife have declined greatly in extent during 20th century. The small area that remains is under continuing threat from drainage, land reclamation, peat extraction, development and vegetation succession as a result of land use and water level changes. Intact mires accumulate organic matter and store large amounts of carbon in the saturated substrate. They are vital habitats for globally-threatened species, such as aquatic warbler, greater spotted eagle, as well as a range of other species of conservation concern.


Even though the three larest fen mires in Belarus - Sporovo, Dikoe and Zvanets - have been designated national zakazniks (a particular type protected area), their long-term sustainability is highliy dependent on the enforcement of the protection regime and maintenance of an optimal water level. However, the two prerequisites were largely compromised because of low capacity of the government to manage zakazniks (there were no administration units to oversee the sites) and low coordination between the relevant stakeholders.

The first initiative (1999-2002) of the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds, Darwin Initiative and UNDP for supporting the Ministry of Environment of Belarus and NGO APB-BirdLife Belarus in elaboration of management plans for the three sites was the first step towards addressing the above issues. But the country required substantive financial resources and managerial capacity to ensure integrated conservation and use of the targeted areas through implementation of the management plans developed. Unwise nature use, poor environmental awareness of people and authorities were producing unsustainable decisions that affected the sites and people living around them. This justified a need for the present project, whereby assistance was rendered to APB-BirdLife Belarus and the Ministry of Environment of Belarus in implementation of the urgent conservation actions for the targeted key biodiversity sites in an integrated and coordinated manner, as prescribed in the management plans developed at the first stage.

Focus Areas

Geographic Scope

Belarus, Polesie region

Stakeholders

The project was initiated by Belarusian NGO APB-BirdLife Belarus in partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, UK) and UNDP Office in Belarus. The initiative was co-financed by UNDP, RSBP, Darwin Initaitive (UK) and Michael Otto Foundation (Germany).

Along with financial contribution, UNDP Office in Belarus provided support services in the technical and financial implementation of the project. RSPB provided technical and advisory support in its relevant areas of expertise (management planning, stakeholder involvement, hydrotechnical construction).

Contacts

Dmitry Goloubovsky, Program Officer,

UNDP Belarus, dmitry.goloubovsky@undp.org


Contents

Background and Significance

Goal and Objectives

The project goal was to secure conservation and sustainable management of Polesie biodiversity through assistance to the Government of Belarus in implementation of integrated management plans for key protected sites and facilitation of better coordination of various stakeholders involved in management and conservation of natural resources.

Particular objectives included:

• Establish and maintain a hydrological regime optimal for biodiversity and people;

• Establish administration units for Zvanets and Sporovo

• Introduce principles of ecologically sustainable forestry into forestry planning at Zvanets

• Raise public awareness of and participation in biodiversity protection

• Establish a monitoring system to support implemented actions

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

WHAT

Weir at Zvanets
Weir at Zvanets

The project focused on implementing priority "1" conservations actions identified in the management plans for the three project sites Sporovo, Dikoe and Zvanets, which had been duly approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus. In order to diminish negative impacts from the drainage networks in and around the project sites, a number of overflow weirs and dams have been constructed to regular water in- and outflow. In implementing construction activities, the project made a conscious decision on using locally-available construction materials to the maximum extent possible. This has led to the development and successful testing of several innovative weir designs, which provided a low-cost durable solution to the problem of water level regulation.

At the same time, operational guidelines for the drainage facilities have been revised in a participatory manner to ensure a balance between conservation and economic requirements. The new guidelines have been duly approved by the relevant authorities.

The monitoring data proved that engineering activities and elaboration of new operational guidelines for the drainage systems have contributed to stabilization of the level regime of the groundwater table around its natural regime that had been observed before draining of the catchment area. Furthermore, actions completed allowed both to avoid abrupt reduction of the water levels and to prevent summer floods significantly.

The project has set up administration units for Sporovo and Zvanets reserves and Dikoe was fully incorporated in the exising Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Part (which has it's own administration). At the time the project was implemented, none of the 500+ zakazniks in Belarus (representing some 70% of the national protected area system) had management offices of their own. The innovation supported by the project has eventually been adopted by the Ministry of Environment for replication to the whole protected area system.

WHO

The project was implemented by the nation-wide NGO APB-BirdLife Belarus, that works for conservation of Belarusian biodiversity and has developed an excellent record of achievements in this area. With over 2000 members and 10 regional branches, APB is the largest environmental NGO in Belarus.

Key project stakeholders and beneficiaries on the national level included the Ministry of Environment of Belarus and its local inspectorates, Ministry of Agriculture and its local drainage enterprises and fish-farms, local land users and authorities. Ultimately, the primary recipients of the project are the biodiversity and the people on the targeted areas.


WHERE

The project was implemented at three national zakazniks (reserves) Sporovo (approx. 19,000 ha), Dikoe (15,000 ha) and Zvanets 15,000 ha), which are located in south-western part of Belarus, called Polesie region. There are no human settlements inside the reserves, though several villages and small towns are located around the sites, with the local communities involved mainly in farming and household management.

WHEN

The project was implemented in 2002-2006. All actions have been completed by now.

HOW

Weir at Zvanets
Weir at Zvanets

The first outcome (establish and maintain a hydrological regime optimal for biodiversity and people) was the most time- and resource-consuming. The project subcontracted two engineering design enterprises that elaborated necessary engineering plans for construction of water-regulation facilities in the target sites. Ironically, the same enterprises were involved in designing the Polesie wetland drainage plans back in mid-20th century. But their mindset has clearly changed quite a lot, particularly during their work within the project. There is a growing understanding of the fact that the sweeping drainage of Polesie wetlands in the last century has not met all its objectives, and that negative environmental impacts could have been minimized if balance was struck between economic and environmental concerns.

The actual construction works were carried out by local enterprises that operate the drainage facilities in the area, with considerable involvement of the local community. In this way, the project has achieved a high degree of national ownership – the people living around the target sites now realize that the neighboring wetlands are not just useless swamps, but areas of international significance. Several members of the local community have directly contributed to project implementation by participating in hydrological monitoring in the target sites.

Since limited resources were devoted to actual on-site surveys and the proposed engineering plans were based on the available data (slightly outdated, at times), several water-regulation facilities had to be modified in order to ensure that the desired hydrological effect was achieved. The modifications were triggered by the water monitoring data that were collected by the members of the local community. In the end, the project ended up building a total of 21 weirs, sluices, dams and sand-and-gravel blocks on drainage canals and ditches in the three reserves using locally available construction materials (sand, stones, wood logs, planks and twigs) and labor. The project has enabled development and successful testing of low-cost reliable weir designs that can be used for similar applications elsewhere.

While the new water-regulation facilities were put in place, the project focused on revising the operational guidelines for the existing drainage facilities that impact the reserves. Through participatory workshops and discussions, the guidelines were amended to strike a balance between conservation and economic requirements and duly approved by the relevant authorities.

Drainage
Drainage

In order to improve institutional capacity for reserves management, the project supported the establishment of administration unites for Sporovo and Zvanets and incorporation of Dikoe into the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. In the end, the two units, set up by the project, formed a basis for a decision of Ministry of Environment to replicate this experience to other reserves in the national protected areas system. Under the Ministry's plan, a total of 37 zakazniks are expected to get management units in 2006-2007. At the same time, the project has initiated nation-wide discussions on the need for amendments to the current protected area legislation, producing specific recommendations which have by now been incorporated into draft laws on protected areas and wildlife protection. At the same time, management of the third site (Dikoe) has been fully taken over by the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park which has been extended to include the wetland.

In order to address a particular threat stemming from unsustainable forestry practices in Zvanets reserve, the project has elaborated general guidelines for biodiversity friendly forestry management which were adopted by the local forestry unit.

The total project budget made US$ 399,898. Project co-funders included Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species (UK), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (UK), Michael Otto Foundation for Environmental Protection (Germany). Along with financing contribution, UNDP has provided support services in technical and financial implementation of the project.

Results and Impact

The project has laid the foundation for securing conservation and sustainable management of Polesie biodiversity through assistance to the Government of Belarus in implementation of integrated management plans for key wetland protected sites and facilitation of better coordination of various stakeholders involved in management and conservation of natural resources.

The project provided on-site investments for hydrotechnical works in three key biodiversity sites in Belarusian Polesie region (nature reserves Dikoie, Sporovo, Zvanets) to minimize human impact on and prevent degradation of these close-to-natural wetland ecosystems. The management plans for the three sites have identified favorable water regime as a key prerequisite for sustaining these ecosystems. Specific actions included construction of weirs and dams on drainage canals across the sites, revision in a participatory manner of operational guidelines for the drainage facilities operating around the sites.

Particular emphasis was given to improving the local management capacity for the project sites through establishment of administration units for the three reserves (Belarusian legislation doesn't require this type of nature protected areas to have management entities), providing the Ministry of Environment with valuable experience for expanding this practice to other protected areas across Belarus.

Lessons for Replication

The following lessons can be drawn from the project:

• Community outreach and awareness raising – regular contacts and communication with the local community (thru meetings at schools, rural councils, church services) have been key to improving the locals' acceptance of volunteering in project activities.

• On-site hydrological surveys and ongoing monitoring – hydrological calculations used by the project were based on the available data and limited project field surveys, which brought about the need to modify several overflow weirs in order to achieve the intended hydrological impact on the sites. At the same time, ongoing hydrological monitoring enabled the project team to spot the diversion from the plans early on and take necessary response actions.

• Integration of protected area management units into the national system early on – the project faced certain difficulties in having the newly established administrations of the two reserves fully incorporated into the national protected area framework. The Ministry of Environment took until project end to make a final decision and initiate necessary re-arrangements.

Main Results

Through construction of water-regulation facilities and revision of operational guidelines for existing engineering systems, the project has managed to stabilize the groundwater water level in the three mires at a close-to-natural regime, preventing excessive fluctuations damaging both to the marsh ecosystem and to the local community (through floods and droughts/fires). Despite all the efforts, however, the project, due to force majeure, could not fully achieve the desired hydrological effect in Sporovo mire – the dam constructed by the project will need to be renovated and fortified. But this work will need to be completed within the follow-up GEF FSP Polesie project that has just started.

The two management units for Sporovo and Zvanets have been set up in full and, most importantly, are now part of the national system of protected areas management. The Ministry of Environment has set out to provide a total of 37 reserves across Belarus with administrations by the end of 2007.

The project has contributed to improved living environment for the local communities – the area had been suffering from nearly annual floods and frequent wildfires brought about by droughts. The positive changes have been highly appreciated by the local people who have showed great enthusiasm about the project and willingness to contribute to its actions. However, the project had to invest considerable confidence-building efforts in numerous meetings with the local community at schools, rural councils, church services.

Outlook (Conclusions and Next Steps)

Through successful demonstration of on-the-ground actions, the present project has paved the way for a larger initiative, this time supported by the Global Environment Facility which aims at strengthening the national system of wetland zakazniks (reserves) in Belarus through realignment of land-, water- and forest use practices in and around the reserves with biodiversity conservation requirements. The GEF full-size Polesie project with a total budget of around $10 million ($2.1 million from the GEF), which has just started, will build on the outcomes of the present project to expand the reserve management approaches to other areas in Belarusian Polesie.

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions

Timeframe & Status

2002-2006, completed

Interviewees and Key Contacts

Dr. Alexander Kozulin

References

See also

Water Knowledge Fair 2006

External Resources

Attachments

 Management Plans prodoc.pdf

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