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News Alert

December 2003

Telegram Sends Shockwaves Through Russia’s Nature Reserves and National Parks
By Margaret Williams, WWF US with information and assistance from Evgeny Shvarts, WWF Russia, Nikolai Maleshin, Partnership for Zapovedniks, and Melissa Mooza, Russian Conservation News

On Friday, December 5, 2003 a telegram sent from the Ministry of Natural Resources to all of Russia’s 35 national parks and 100 zapovedniks (strictly protected nature reserves) sent shockwaves across the country. The missive grimly informed the managers of Russia’s protected areas about the inexpediency of their further existence and demanded a list of documents and budgets, as though to give the managers one last chance to justify their existence.

The telegram bewildered the leaders of this nearly 80-year old system of nature reserves and its younger national parks. It also caused a great stir in Moscow where the environmental community rallied immediately. World Wildlife Fund (WWF)- Russia organized a “panda passport” action for people to send letters of protests to the ministry by fax and email. SocioEcological Union, Greenpeace, WWF and other NGOs are now monitoring the situation. A number of front-page stories in national and regional papers carried the story (including Izvestia, on Dec. 8), spreading the news that Russia’s federally protected areas would be closed.

An amazing reversal occurred on Monday, December 8, when a second, very brief telegram was sent to all of the same recipients from Deputy Minister Pavlov (the same person who sent the first telegram). In this telegram he reported that the first one had been “sent mistakenly” and that those who made the error will be “reprimanded/punished.”

Why was the first telegram sent?

Apparently this was generated by bureaucrats from within the Department of Property of the Ministry of Natural Resources, which is responsible for managing state-owned properties (land and physical structures such as buildings) that fall under the Ministry's management oversight. The Department of Property is also responsible for implementing the current governmental policy to transfer small state-owned enterprises that are not profitable to private ownership. This means that small scientific institutes under the Ministry will be closed and/or privatized. Some of these occupy valuable real estate. Apparently a number of these small institutions recently received a telegram about the lack of expediency and practicality of their existence, and it appears that the same missive was fired off to “mailing lists 51 and 50,” the parks and reserves. Apparently, the institutes of the Academy of Sciences or university system will not be affected.

How and why this Deputy Minister sent such a telegram to the parks and nature reserves is unclear. Evgeny Shvarts, Director of conservation at WWF-Russia wonders if perhaps this was a way of testing public opinion, to see whether there would be any reaction. Shvarts also draws a correlation between this event (misstep or feigned attack?) on protected areas and current changes in forest policy.

There is now underway an effort to privatize valuable lands, a tendency reflected in the recent version of the federal forest code passed by the Duma (which proposes, for example, the privatization of green belts surrounding Russian cities, which are prime real estate for dachas, or country homes.) The forest code continues to erode decision-making authority of the conservation/management branch of the forest service. Such a power play seemed to be at work when the Dept. of Property overstepped its bounds, issuing the telegram to the national parks and nature reserves, which are actually managed by the Dept. of Biological Diversity and Protected Areas.

Nothing has been stated publicly about privatizing the protected areas and for now they seem to be safe. It should be noted that even if a second telegram had NOT been sent to nullify the first, the orders sent last week from the Ministry would have been un-enforceable. The Ministry cannot just blot out the country’s nature reserves with the swipe of a pen (or in this case, the tapping out of a telegram). Federal legislation protecting the nature reserves and national parks would have to be changed to disband these protected areas.

However, this is clearly an issue to watch. The fact that such mishaps, or even possibly purposeful ill-intended efforts, can occur is extremely alarming. Russia has the world's premier system of strictly protected areas. While not perfectly managed, this system is unprecedented in its mission to conserve biodiversity. Putin’s administration has done very little to shore up this imperiled system during his administration. In fact, after a ten-year expansion of the system in the 1990’s, the years of the Putin presidency marked the first years when no new reserves or parks had been established.



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