By Elena Nikolaeva, WCPA Regional Vice Chair for North Eurasia.
North Eurasia covers very different countries – from southern Tajikistan to Russia with its eleven time zones. In general it includes countries of the former Soviet Union. The region has a diverse range of habitats, various cultural traditions, and very different conservation challenges and opportunities.
The largest country – the Russian Federation – currently has 103 national nature reserves (“zapovedniks” – from the word “zapoved” that means “commandment”), 48 national parks, 64 federal reserves, and a number of regional and local level protected areas (PA). The establishment of PA system dates back to 1917, when the first zapovednik – Barguzinsky – was created on Baikal Lake.
On the eve of zapovedniks’ centennial celebration, it is time to reflect upon the current state of protected areas in the whole region of North Eurasia, and what the next 100 years of conservation would look like.
The idea behind the system of zapovedniks in the beginning of the 19th century was to protect biological and landscape diversity as a basis of the biosphere. Professor Grigorii Kozhevnikov had proposed in 1908 that Russia’s reserves “should be zapovedni in the fullest sense of the word…[where] nothing needs to be removed, or added, or improved. Nature should be left to itself – and the results observed.” So early Russian naturalists advocated for the establishment of vast, virgin natural reserves preserved primarily for the study of nature. Management strategies excluded any type of economic activity, access to the areas and resource use were strictly controlled and limited.
(Photo: Elena Nikolaeva)
This approach dominated PA management goals up to the early 1980s, when the first national parks started to appear in the region. The necessity of support for conservation became obvious, and starting from 1990s, conservation policy broadened to include environmental education, cooperation with local communities, and recently ecological tourism.
In the last two decades the level of public awareness about the importance of nature preservation has increased, but still support for PA in North Eurasia is rather low in comparison with some other countries. It is necessary to work with a variety of stakeholders, and in particular, find the ways to connect with young people, many of whom are very disconnected from nature today. We should reach out to young generation to inspire them to protect our planet for their kids, so that we make a difference in the long run.
In addition to the lack of support, there are many other environmental challenges that we need to address in region. The PA network has not reached its optimum yet; we should continue to establish new protected areas to achieve the Aichi Target 11 which calls to protect at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas by 2020. Currently less than 12% of the region is protected, and PAs are distributed rather unevenly. Many fragile and valuable ecosystems still do not have a special protected status.
Another big threat is the extraction of mineral resources, oil and gas. North Eurasia countries are rich in these resources, and the conflicts of interests are rather common. Construction of pipelines often poses a threat to the integrity of protected areas. Another current challenge for mountainous PAs is the construction of ski resorts that happen in some national parks, including those that are UNESCO Heritage sites.
As for ecological tourism, which is now at the very beginning of its development, most countries of North Eurasia have inadequate legislation and methodological basis to develop it in such a way so that it can contribute to resource conservation and provide opportunities for economic development of the region and enhance the quality of life of local residents. PA managers in the region have little experience and lack of traditions to properly develop ecotourism.
One of the most pressing issues of our time – climate change – threatens many PAs as well, but unfortunately there are only very few cases in the region when climate change strategies have been incorporated in PA management plans and decision-making processes.
The centennial of the zapovedniks’ system is a wonderful time to celebrate unique natural and cultural sites that Russia and other countries of North Eurasia have, to reflect upon the progress made since 1917, and to inspire for the smart planning for the next hundred years, that would build on existing strengths and consider current challenges. Only working together across countries and across different sectors we can make a real difference in conservation.