Ukraine war deals ‘massive blow’ to nature by shutting down Belarus’s largest wildlife NGO | overall development

One of the oldest and largest wildlife NGOs in Belarus is being forced to close after accusations of “extremist activities” as conservationists warn “darkness” engulfs a region known for its rich natural heritage.

Former employees of BirdLife Belarus (APB) were arrested and one has been in jail for six months on suspicion of trying to destabilize the political situation in the country under the pretext of protecting birds. A court has ordered the organization to close next month after 24 years of work.

Across the border in Ukraine, wildlife scientists working on the conservation of bats and the gut microbiome of venomous snakes are being accused to work on biological weapons. Vladimir Putin has wrongly stated “dozens of laboratories in Ukraine” are experimenting with infectious diseases such as coronavirus under the guidance of the US.

In Belarus, environmentalists say they are concerned about wiretapping and the safety of the people who speak. A source told The Guardian: “Belarus has practically been taken over by Putin.

“The darkness that has engulfed the east of our region is also reaching those who protect the environment,” the source said. “Sheer injustice aside, this is a huge blow to conservation on a global scale.”

Alexander Vintchevski, founder of Birdlife Belarus, scans the swamps for birds in Pripyat National Park in the Gomel region.
Alexander Vintchevski, founder of Birdlife Belarus, surveys the swamps for birds in the Pripyat National Park in the Gomel region. Photograph: Vincent Mundy/The Guardian

These countries are home to polesia, an area of ​​wetlands more than two-thirds the size of the UK (18 million hectares), known as “Europe’s Amazon” for its extraordinary biodiversity, as well as parts of the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube Delta, the delta wetland of the largest river in Europe. Adham Ashton-Butt of the British Trust for Ornithology has been working on the Belarusian and Ukrainian parts of Polesia. In 2019 he said the region felt politically stable, but when he returned after the worst of the pandemic in 2021, dozens of NGOs it had been shut down, with a series of raids and arrests.

APB was one of the last organizations left in operation. “Government growing paranoia changed that,” he said. “Any organization that was thought to have the potential to be anti-government was under threat. In terms of ABS, I think this was completely untrue. The APB was not involved in this type of policy, it was completely focused on nature conservation.”

Ashton-Butt said the organization had accomplished “great things” with minimal funding. This included rewetting more than 17,200 hectares (42,000 acres) of carbon-rich peatlands and expand one of the largest bog complexes in Europe, bringing it to a total size of 100,000 hectares. APB also led efforts to stop the Channel E40 development linking the Baltic and Black Seas, as well as saving the aquatic warbler of extinction

“If conservation organizations can’t function, it leads to potential erosion of protected areas,” Ashton-Butt said, adding that it was “crazy” to think of Russian tanks on pristine peat bogs where he used to work. Some conservationists in Polesia have found themselves in the heart of the war, trapped in their homes without electricity or water.

APB acted as a barrier against new development and now that the organization is no more, there is more scope for large infrastructure projects to take place, he said. “You can see wetland drainage and commercial forestry going on because no one is there to argue against it. The forests and peat bogs of Belarus are the most pristine in Europe. If they are drained, degraded or cut down, they will be the last forests and wetlands of their kind in Europe.”

The Sluch River, a major tributary of the Pripyat River, flows through the Middle Pripyat Reserve.  The region's rivers are rich in freshwater fish species, including carp species such as sea bream and roach, along with species of pike, catfish, molluscs, river perch, sticklebacks and eels.
The Sluch River flows through the Middle Pripyat Reserve. The region’s rivers are rich in freshwater fish species, including carp species such as sea bream and roach, along with species of pike, catfish, molluscs, river perch, sticklebacks and eels. Photograph: Vincent Mundy/The Guardian

As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues and the fastest growing refugee crisis since the second world war unfolds, human lives have priority. Environmental work is being suspended and urgent attention is being given to providing food and shelter for refugees leaving Ukraine. Neighboring Romania, Slovakia and Poland are working to buy emergency supplies and deliver them to the border, as well as helping colleagues fleeing the country.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society has lost more than a third from its European program due to the war in Ukraine, where it had been carrying out conservation work for two decades. He has supported efforts to help refugees fleeing conflict find a temporary place to stay in protected areas.

Organizations like WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN they have issued statements saying that peace is essential for nature to thrive, condemning war as having profound humanitarian and ecological consequences. “The damage caused by armed conflict goes far beyond that caused by the fighting itself. By destroying governance, the reverberating ecological consequences of conflict can last for decades,” the UN said in a statement. statement.

Politically, the war risks compromising the European Green Deal’s biodiversity plan, with the EU delaying publication of the directive on the sustainable use of pesticides and targets for “restoring nature”, citing security concerns. war-related food.

More than 160 environmental NGOs have signed a letter to the European Commission asking you not to postpone the green proposals, due to the urgent need to address the climate and biodiversity crises. Instead of cutting provisions for nature in response to the war, they argue the commission should reduce food waste, reduce livestock numbers, rely on fertilizers and discourage the use of food crops for energy.

Ariel Brunner, head of policy for BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, said: “There is a furious attempt to derail them. [the green proposals] in the name of food safety. Basically, the farm lobbyists are saying, ‘there’s a war going on UkraineUkraine will not export grain, this will lead to a food security crisis, and that we need to go back to producing, producing, producing and leaving environmental things.”

Brunner thinks this runs killing the green agenda and fueling the next environmental crisis. “There is a scientific consensus that the only major threat to our ability to feed ourselves is climate change and ecosystem collapse, so using food security to not address these issues is completely counterproductive.”

Find more age of extinction coverage hereand follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and patrick greenfield on Twitter for the latest news and features

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