An unlikely battlefront against climate change

360 degree photos by Dmitry Lasko

With entire ecosystems under threat of mining and irrigation, Belarus has vowed to conserve its natural bogs. In doing so, it could prevent 500 million tons of carbon from going into the atmosphere.

It’s a brisk autumn morning, a two-hour ride away from Minsk. A group of us are walking in knee-high mud that sucks in every one of our steps.

“These are cranberries,” says Alexander Kozulin, a stern, tall man with salt and pepper hair as he pulls a few brightly colored specks from a thick layer of moss.

We’re in the peatlands, a vast network of shallow waterways and fen mires that’s home to hundreds of species of rare birds, insects and fish.

In fact, when you hold it in your hands, peat feels exactly like the moist greenhouse soil you buy in flower shops. It’s a one to ten-meter thick mattress of tree roots, brushwood and earth that has built up over thousands of years.

Alexander Kozulin squeezes water out of a chunk of moss. (Left) Rail tracks are used to transport mined peat. (Right)

We’re walking along a long rail track in what is now a 3,000-hectare natural reserve. “This is where peat transits. Tons of it get extracted here every day and are transported out to Sweden, the Czech Republic and Lithuania”.

Just 500 yards away, larger-than-life Belarusian tractors are digging. Mined and revived areas are interlaced. It’s clearly visible from the air: our drone footage is showing a mosaic of black and green patches.

A former ornithologist, Kozulin works with the National Academy of Sciences. Over the years, he’s become Belarus’s main expert on how to conserve this ancestral land. He is at the forefront of a movement to preserve 1.6 million hectares of peatlands.

It took years of lobbying but the government, finally recognizing the value of peat, will soon pass a law, mandated by the president, that makes their conservation and regeneration mandatory.

Belarus will become the first country to do so.

Mines and replenished land seen from above.

Worldwide, peat is a 100 million ton per year industry that heats up homes, fertilizes fields and produces electricity on an industrial scale. According to a U.S. market research firm, by 2025 the industry will make an overall profit of US$13 billion.

When Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, 1 million hectares of peatlands were drained for potato farming, mining or forestry. Although the draining has declined, the country is still exporting 5 million tons every year to keep up with market demand. “It’s big business,” says Kozulin.

And a devastating one at that. Entire ecosystems are now dying under the influence of mining and irrigation. Waterways are disrupted, lakes and migration birds — including the famed aquatic warbler— are vanishing. Dried or degraded peat becomes sterile. And in the worst-case scenario, it catches fire, threatening property and causing respiratory problems.

Sporowski became the first wetland site in Belarus to be designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

In 1998, 15,000 hectares were set ablaze here and burned for almost a year underground. “There were unexploded ordnances from World War II that detonated in the process. Imagine this hellish scenario,” says Kozulin. In 2010, Moscow was engulfed for weeks in thick smog as the Russian peat burned. It was the same story, happening again and again.

Peat is also the one of the world’s most effective carbon sequestration mechanisms. In Belarus alone, the peatlands hold close to 500 millon tons of it. “Forests breathe carbon in and out. Peat is your most generous friend. It just keeps all the carbon in. It pays a huge service to the world.”

In 2002, the Ministry of Environment commissioned the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to establish a map of degraded and charred peatlands. The conclusion was unequivocal: the only way to deal with the problem was to replenish them with water.

But the real incentive behind the peatlands’ regeneration wasn’t global warming. It was protecting biodiversity and the local economy. The cranberry industry depends on it. Locals make peat briquettes for heating, while making sure it regenerates in the process.

Over the years, a real grassroots movement emerged. People from across Belarus descended on Minsk to protest against peat extraction at new sites. Thanks to the Academy of Sciences, peat mining is now limited to 90,000 hectares of land, and the mining industry is slowly beginning to re-wet the lands. For now, many of the mine owners are doing it voluntarily. In time, it will be an obligation.

“I am completely optimistic, very positive. If the law is approved, there will be no going back,” says Kozulin as he scrutinizes one of the human-made canals which keep the water trapped inside the soil.

Belarus now boasts a network of natural reserves which people come to visit from as far away as China. One of the natural reserves, Sporowski, close to the border with Poland, even has its own fan club in Scotland. In Gorodnaya, situated in the country’s south, people built their own church with cranberry money.

This promising business is being supported by UNDP, the Global Environment Facility and the European Union.

A few months ago, Kozulin struck up a conversation with some fishermen. “They told me how nasty this place used to be. Now they’re fishing 5kg pikes”. The fishermen thought they were chatting with a random stranger.

The sun sets over the peatlands of Miory district, close to the border with Latvia.
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