One of the oldest and largest wildlife NGOs in Belarus is being forced to shut down after accusations of “extremist activities”, as conservationists warn of “darkness” engulfing 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 under suspicion of attempting to destabilise the political situation in the country under the guise of protecting birds. The organisation has been ordered by a court to close next month after 24 years of work.
Across the border in Ukraine, wildlife scientists working on bat conservation and the gut microbiome of venomous snakes are being accused of working on bioweapons. Vladimir Putin has erroneously claimed “dozens of laboratories in Ukraine” are experimenting with infectious diseases such as coronavirus under guidance from the US.
In Belarus, environmentalists say they are concerned about phones being tapped and the safety of individuals who speak out. A source told the Guardian: “Belarus has pretty much been taken over by Putin.
“The darkness that has engulfed the east of our region is catching up also with those protecting the environment,” the source said. “Aside from the sheer injustice, this a massive blow to conservation at a global scale.”
These countries are home to Polesia, a wetlands area more than two-thirds the size of the UK (18m hectares), known as “the Amazon of Europe” for its extraordinary biodiversity, as well as parts of the Carpathian mountains and Danube delta, the largest river delta wetland in Europe. Adham Ashton-Butt from the British Trust for Ornithology has been working in the Belarus 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 had been closed down, with a spate of raids and arrests.
APB was one of the last remaining organisations still operating. “Increasing paranoia from the government changed that,” he said. “Any organisation that was thought to have the potential to be anti-government was under threat. In terms of APB, I think this was completely false. APB were not involved in this kind of politics, they were completely focused on nature conservation.”
Ashton-Butt said the organisation had achieved “huge things” with minimal funds. This included rewetting more than 17,200 hectares (42,000 acres) of carbon-rich peatlands and expanding one of Europe’s largest mire complexes, bringing it to a total size of 100,000 hectares. APB also led efforts to stop the E40 waterway development linking the Baltic and Black Seas, as well as saving the aquatic warbler from extinction.
“If conservation organisations cannot work, it leads to the potential erosion of protected areas,” said Ashton-Butt, adding that it was “crazy” to think about Russian tanks driving over the pristine peatlands where he used to work. Some conservationists in Polesia have found themselves at the heart of the war, stuck in their houses without power or water.
APB acted as a barrier against new development and with the organisation now gone there is more of a chance of large infrastructure projects going through, he said. “You can see drainage of wetlands and commercial forestry going ahead because no one is there to argue against it. The forests and peatlands of Belarus are the most pristine in Europe. If they are drained or degraded or cut down they will be the last forests and wetlands of their kind in Europe.”
As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues and the fastest-growing refugee crisis since the second world war unfolds, human lives take priority. Environmental work is being put on hold and urgent attention is being directed to providing food and shelter for refugees leaving Ukraine. Neighbouring 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 of its European programme due to the war in Ukraine, where it had been doing conservation work for two decades. It has supported efforts to help refugees fleeing the conflict find a temporary place to stay in protected areas.
Organisations such as WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN have released statements saying that peace is essential for nature to thrive, condemning the war as having profound humanitarian and ecological consequences. “The damage caused by armed conflicts goes far beyond that caused by the fighting itself. By destroying governance, the reverberating ecological consequences of conflicts can last decades,” the UN said in a statement.
Politically the war risks compromising the biodiversity plan of the European Green Deal, with the EU delaying publication of the sustainable use of pesticides directive and targets for “nature restoration”, citing concerns about food security arising from the war.
More than 160 environment NGOs have signed a letter to the European Commission asking it not to postpone green proposals, because of the urgent need to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises. Instead of cutting provisions for nature in response to the war, they argue the commission should be cutting food waste, reducing livestock numbers, reliance on fertiliser and discouraging the use of food crops for energy.
Ariel Brunner, head of policy for BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, said: “There is a furious attempt going on to derail them [the green proposals] in the name of food security. Basically, the farm lobbies are saying, ‘there is a war in Ukraine, Ukraine will not export grain, this will lead to a food security crisis’, and that we need to get back to produce, produce, produce, and drop the environmental stuff.”
Brunner believes this risks killing the green agenda and fuelling the next environment crisis. “There is a scientific consensus that the one big threat to our ability to feed ourselves is climate change and the collapse of ecosystems, so using food security to not deal with these problems is completely self-defeating.”