The wardens of Yelnya: Protecting a Belarusian bog

Kasia Kazachonak (right) and other wardens help build a dam. Photo: UNDP Belarus
A path through Yelnya bog. Photo: UNDP Belarus
Cranes flying over the Yelnya bog. Photo: UNDP Belarus
Maryna Fedarava teaches the ecological class. Photo: UNDP Belarus
Yelnya bog. Photo: UNDP Belarus
Fighting a peat fire. Photo: APB-BirdLife Belarus
Students in the ecological class. Photo: UNDP Belarus
Yelnya bog at dusk. Photo: UNDP Belarus

Almost every morning, ecologist Kasia Kazachonak walks through the Yelnya bog. She is one of the 40 "Wardens of Yelnya" who monitor the bog's condition, threats and species, and help repair the dams.

Another warden, Maryna Fedarava, has been visiting the bog since childhood. A secondary school teacher, she helped start a specialized environmental class teaching students how to preserve the natural resources of the bog, which is.

For Kasia, Maryna and around 37,000  others in the area, the Yelnya bog is a lifeline. Its unique ecosystem, home to a large number of rare species of plants and animals, draws scientists’ interest and expeditions. During the cranberry harvest season, locals earn extra money picking berries.

But this richness was not always the case. In recent years, the bog faced the threat of extinction.

Highlights

  • The eco-classroom helped raise ecological awareness of more than 1,500 youth
  • 7,800 hectares were restored
  • 46 dams were constructed
  • Yelnya’s ecosystem services are estimated at US$300 million, considering the values of fresh water stored in the peatland, natural water purification, and cranberry harvest

Over the last century, local industry has required more water.  With rivers drying up, a network of drainage channels was cut across the bog’s terrain. A raised bog has a dome-shaped architecture, so the water trickles down through the channels naturally.

The ecosystem, which had been functioning for more than 9,000 years, rapidly fell into decay. Dried moss turned the bog into a powder keg, and since 1975, more than 14,000 hectares of the bog (77% of its total area) had been burned to ashes by peat fires.

In 2015, Kasia helped the firefighters put out the peat fire. “It was very scary,” recalls Kasia. “As the flame and smoke were looming over, it was impossible to come closer…The water to put out the fire was taken from [a nearby lake], but even the hoses were burning.”

Since 1999, efforts have been ongoing to restore and preserve the Yelnya bog, with support from the UNDP-Coca Cola Foundation New World Initiative, UNDP-Global Environment Fund, and the EU.

Special dams were constructed to block the bog’s channels and restore its dome. In 2006, various  methods of hydrolic restoration were tested on  12 of the damaged peatlands, totalling 7,800 ha. In 2015, 46 dams were constructed, and already groundwater levels have risen to 70 cm.

The restoration has meant a lot for the cranberry harvest as well. Local pick up to five buckets a day, often taking off work to capitalize on the extra profits.  For Maryna, whose salary as a teacher is not high, picking cranberries is the financial backbone for her family.

The cranberries, along with the bog’s unique crane population, attract tourists as well. Yelnya is an international bird “airport”, with about 20,000 cranes stopping there every fall, which draw many bird watchers.

bog

Environmental education: in harmony with nature

Maryna is working hard to educate the community, especially the youth, about the bog’s importance. She actively supported the creation of the environmental class on sustainable use of natural resources at her school.

“As a warden of Yelnya, I want to preserve this ecosystem for our children,” she explained. The new eco-classroom, supported and equipped by the UNDP-Coca Cola Foundation’s New World Project, allows them to virtually visit the bog and explore its plants and animals.

Modern interactive equipment in the classroom turns the classes into a fascinating and interactive learning process, getting the younger generation involved in Yelnya’s protection. 75 students from three schools are involved and a textbook is being prepared about the eco-system of Yelnya for students of 6-11 grades.

Maryna says that thanks to the ecological education people started treating Yelnya with more care. "Local residents often see us as we patrol the bog...Adults, who see the kids picking up the litter in Yelnya, are also changing their behaviour."

The bog is regularly monitored to ensure sustainable water management and preservation of the bog vegetation, and a regular assessment of greenhouse gas exchange and water volumes is maintained. But nothing is be 100 percent effective without the active participation of local scientists, businesses, teachers and students, parents, and government. A strong cooperation between UNDP, businesses, NGOs and local authorities has been established.

The bog restoration has led to changes for the people who live here. “We wanted to save Yelnya, and as a result our actions have had a much bigger impact — we changed ourselves and those around us”, says one of the wardens.  

We hope that the soil of the bog will fully recover over 30-35 years,” says Nikolai Cherkas, Technical Coordinator at the New World project. “ Yelnya is one of the most valuable protected natural territories and its ecosystem services are estimated at about US$300 million. Yet for those who really depend on the bog, it is priceless.”