A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Białowieża forest is one of the largest areas of primary lowland temperate forest in Europe and in need of restoration. The forest straddles the border between Poland and Belarus, and the two countries have managed their portions of the forest in different, and sometimes conflicting, ways. In Belarus, for example, the majority of the forest is protected as a national park, whereas in Poland less than a fifth of the forest has the national park designation. In decades past Belarus has drained some of the forest’s wetlands, repurposing them for agriculture. More recently, Polish foresters have been trying to increase logging activity, their plans thwarted only after NGOs took them to the European Court of Justice. These disruptions to the natural processes of the forest are among the reasons the ELP has provided funding to develop a plan to restore the landscape.
Although humankind’s actions in the forest are organised along national lines, the natural processes of the forest do not recognise borders. Efforts to re-wet areas of the Belarussian forest have been limited by the fact that the water drains over to the Polish side of the forest. The groundwater level will never reach the target height if drainage activities continue across the border in Poland. If the landscape is to be effectively restored it is essential that landscape managers from both countries share the same vision and work together. Forming a shared vision has always been a central theme of the ELP project – bringing together stakeholders, rangers, foresters and government ministries from both sides to collaborate on a plan to ensure the survival of the forest and all of its important flora and fauna.
To develop the plan, teams from Frankfurt Zoological Society, and local BirdLife partners (Polish Society for Bird Protection (OTOP) and APB-Birdlife Belarus) organised a schedule of meetings and consultations to raise awareness of the restoration work needed in the forest and to determine how it could be best achieved. Monika Kotulak, the project manager from Frankfurt Zoological Society explained: “The idea was to create one common vision, we wanted to enhance the cooperation between the two countries”. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, had other ideas and cooperation, especially through face-to-face meetings, became a real challenge or impossible.
Unfortunately COVID-19 wasn’t the only complication hampering the project’s progress. A few months after the beginning of the pandemic, major political unrest began in Belarus. Monika continues, “the Belarusians are open and willing to work on this plan, but since the 2020 elections and the resulting political revolution in the country they have bigger issues to deal with. NGOs receiving funds from abroad are under strict control and public authorities have other priorities than nature conservation”.
Organising meetings to forge a central vision for the forest was the core activity of the project, but border closures, due to the pandemic and the revolution, made this very difficult. It remains very difficult to cross the border into Belarus.
The project partners tried a few online meetings with key decisionmakers from both countries, but switched to holding national-level meetings in person. Monika Kotulak explained the rationale behind this decision “thinking about the work culture of the Eastern [European] world, it’s really very physical. They aren’t used to online meetings, so they would never be so open, creative and engaged online. When you meet them in person it’s a completely different conversation. They behave differently, they can talk more easily, they are way more open, and of course in the time when we are not recording anything, or taking minutes, we take some food, drinks, go for tours in the forest, it’s a completely different atmosphere. The project lost a lot because we couldn’t meet face-to-face but we hope to catch up on that in the coming months.”
As for the local stakeholders, in-person meetings presented some issues: “we were supposed to meet stakeholders in a conference room, but we were worried people would not attend due to COVID-19”. Instead, the team switched to outside meetings, talking to local people in the landscape they are trying to protect. Many local people and journalists turned up for these forest tours and outdoor events, even turning out in bad weather. But the project team went a step further to make sure they could reach even more local people with their plans. They designed a set of infographics that stakeholders could access online, and are displaying the infographics on posters in villages across the forest area, in order to inform residents who don’t attend the organised meetings. They will also open an exhibition featuring the infographics in the spring.
To inform the development of the plan for Bialowieza our partners have completed a hydrological assessment for Belovezhskaya Puscha National Park in Belarus. The data for the Polish side has also been collected and is currently under analysis. The partners have also undertaken pilot restoration work at Zharkauschcyna where the first positive results of water flooding the lowland forest can already be observed.
Despite the serious challenges of pandemic and political revolution, our project partners have worked tirelessly in their goal to protect the Białowieża forest. Their work is a great example of using innovative solutions to the problems we face when restoring landscapes.
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