To Peat or Not to Peat?

An official myth describes Belarus as a country of mires and swamps. Indeed, Belarus has one of the largest wetlands on the continent, often the lungs of Europe.

But peat extraction on an industrial scale in 1960s – 1980s led to the drainage of 51.2 % of its peatlands. Peat has been used mostly as a fuel for boilers for many years. As a result, just one third of Belarusian peatlands remains untouched.

Nevertheless several years ago Deputy Prime minister of Belarus Uladzimir Siamashka declared that the golden era of peat briquette plants was coming and pointed out that government will make a huge investment into peat enterprises. To defend the last Belarusian mire public campaign In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands emerged. 

Activists started the campaign one year ago. Over this short period of time they spread information about the plans of the Belarusian government to start peat extraction in the areas of eight natural mires included in the list of protected territories of national importance and they managed to collect 17,000 signatures to prevent peat mining. 

Last summer the environmentalists had their first success. The rosecutor’s office declared the decision of Pukhavichy regional Executive Committee for the re-organisation of natural reserve Vetrevichsky as a wrongful act and, thereby, prevented the peat extraction in the protected area near Minsk.

Peat as a cheap energy resource

The main lobbyist of the peat extraction expansion became the Ministry of Energy which considers domestic peat an alternative to imported natural gas. According to the state program called Peat, established in 2008, peat extraction must be increased twofold by 2020.  The catch is that most of the peat fields located throughout the country belong to the nation's land fund and its nature protection fund where extraction activities are forbidden, leaving only 7% of total its reserves open for extraction. 

The campaign In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands started after the issuance of The Government Decision from 17 June 2011. The document listed prospective areas for peat extraction and introduced changes to the allocation scheme of protected areas of national importance. The document allows for peat extraction to begin in the peatlands which belong to the nature protection fund.

Proponents of peat extraction in protected areas argue that in 1960s–1970s these territories were a source of raw materials. According to their reasoning, if the country has economic problems and lacks its own energy resources, peat extraction in protected territories justified.

Environmental NGOs experts disagreed with this reasoning. They claim that the extension of peat extraction in protected territories will have a negative influence on the climate, biodiversity preservation and lead to the depletion of water resources. In turn Belarus' ministry of environment officials have often reminded the public that an ecological evaluation should precede any mining. In cases of Vetrevichsky and Aziory natural reserves the expertise proved inexpediency of peat extraction.

Moreover, the promotion of short-term profits for a few companies which leads to the destruction of wetlands ecosystem attracted the attention of foreign donors. For example, it caught the attention of United Nation Development Program which provides financial support for the "re-wetting" of Belarusian mires. That negatively influenced an already broken image of Belarusian authorities.

In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands campaign

The idea of the campaign belongs to participants of the Green Alliance association. A very young team that came up with an idea of the campaign In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands have never taken part in any opposition political movements, nor did they have nay experience with public campaigns. For that reason, the activists were able to successfully cooperate with officials and state media.

The campaign caught the attention of independent media as well as official TV, which resulted in a TV report criticising peat extraction in protected territories. According to journalists mining activity can result in water resource depletion and a decrease in biodiversity.

Many international environmentalist organisations also supported the activists. Surprisingly, together with Finnish Association for Nature Conservation and Czech Green Party, Marea Socialista movement supported the campaign. Marea Socialista belongs to The United Socialist Party of Venezuela whose ex-leader Hugo Chavez was a close friend and ally of Alexander Lukashenka.

In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands activists travelled to wetlands areas, teamed with residents of local villages and provided legal assistance for local people to prevent peat extraction in those areas.

The peat extraction issue did not have any political connotations and for that reason lawsuits from local residents had good chances for succeeding. It proved that the decision of the prosecutor’s office, which declared the decision of Pukhavichy regional Executive Committee for reorganisation of zakaznik Vetrevichsky as an illegal act and, further on, prevented peat extraction in the protected area near Minsk.

In addition, activists collected 17,000 signatures for the abandonment of plans for the destruction of 8 natural mires included in the list of protected territories of national importance. They also organised dozens of activities such as exhibitions, art performances and lectures aiming to make people aware about threats to the wetlands.

Despite the successes of the campaign, the probability of peat extraction in protected territories persists. Celebrating the one year anniversary of the campaign, the activists’ coordinator Ola Kaskevich mentioned that the current situation with four wetlands situated in protected areas is still unclear and a huge work has to be done to prevent peat extraction in these territories.

Wetlands campaign - exception to the rule

The struggle in defense of wetlands continues and it is difficult to predict its outcome. The obvious fact, however, that the wetlands campaign is unique for Belarus. The activists of the campaign have avoided any repressive measures. Moreover, they were able to cooperate with officials and effectively use legislation and courts to achieve their goals. 

But, such “liberalism” would impossible if wetlands issue concerned politics or ruling business elites.  For example, activists of campaign against Belarusian nuclear station construction are constantly subjected to repression. Exactly the same way environmentalists are not able to influence the decisions on real estate construction in places originally used for recreation.

Nevertheless, the wetlands campaign demonstrates that the Belarusian environmentalist movement has potential. It also serves as a positive example that local people in cooperation with NGO activists can influence the cloudy decision making process of authoritarian state institutions.  

Vadzim Bylina is a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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