Posted 3 февраля 11:34

Published 3 февраля 11:34

Modified 3 февраля 16:43

Updated 3 февраля 16:43

Ecological detective: the story of how the destruction of protected natural areas occurs

3 февраля 2023, 11:34
An emergency has occurred in the Smolensk region, which may affect the ecology of the entire European region of Russia. There, the State Nature Reserve "Khmelita" was deprived of the status of a specially protected natural territory. The question reached the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.

Irina Mishina

The story that happened in the Smolensk region is a vivid illustration of how forests disappear in Russia at the suggestion of local officials, rivers become shallow, the climate changes, which cannot but affect the health of people – you and me.

That is why we decided to look into the details of this detective story in such detail, which in fact is a crime against Russian nature and our common historical memory.

Are officials against nature? 

The territory of the State Nature Reserve "Khmelita" is more than 24,000 hectares of fields, forests and rivers. On this territory there is also a Museum-reserve "Khmelita" - a federal cultural institution. In 1998, by a decree of the then regional administration, the entire vast territory of the reserve was assigned to specially protected natural territories of regional significance.

"It is here that the Dnieper is born, the famous Vazuza River originates - a tributary of the Volga and Dnieper, high-age forests grow here, many trees are 180-200 years old. Many Red Book plants grow here, one of the main habitats of the lynx is here, many migratory birds rest here during their migration. The uniqueness of the "Hop" is also in the fact that cultural and historical relics are associated with this place. Russian Russian writers Alexander Griboyedov and Mikhail Bulgakov keep the memory of these places, this is the birthplace of the Russian naval commander Nakhimov. There are burial mounds and burial grounds associated with different periods of Russian history. Here, on the territory of the former "Vyazemsky boiler", there are, according to local historians, up to a thousand remains of Soviet soldiers who died in the 41st", - says Nikolay Markin, a member of the board of the NGO "Public Committee of the Vyazemsky district of the Smolensk region".

How did it happen that this unique territory was deprived of the status of specially protected?

It all started with a letter that the director of the museum-reserve named after Nadezhda Kulakova sent Griboyedov, who is located on the territory of the protected area "Khmelita", to the governor of the Smolensk region Ostrovsky. She came up with a strange initiative for her position – to recognize the decree on the protected status of this natural territory as invalid (letter No. 546 dated 12/20/2021). After that, the governor immediately invalidates the decree of the administration of the Smolensk region of 1998 "On the assignment of the territory of the State Historical, cultural and Natural Museum-reserve of A.Griboyedov "Khmelita" to specially protected natural territories".

Here, by the way, it is not superfluous to note that Ms. Kulakova has arranged far from the most modest cottage on the territory of the specially protected natural territory of "Khmelita". The development of protected areas in general is becoming fashionable with us. Houses in the bosom of nature near reservoirs are expensive, they sell well. We have practically no doubt that the territory of the former protected area "Khmelita" was also looked after by developers. However, let's return to the vigilant citizen Kulakova, the author of the letter to the governor. We got through to her and asked her to explain what caused her claims to the nature conservation area. But in response, they heard something vague about the fact that she, they say, "just asked to pay attention to the legal inconsistency in the documents."

Question: why would the director of the museum be so concerned about the fate of rivers, forests and peat bogs? Or is she an expert in ecology and nature conservation?

"There is a museum-reserve "Khmelita", which is regulated by the Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage Objects. But this does not mean that the heads and employees of cultural institutions can perform the functions of state inspectors for the protection of this territory as a protected area. A protected area regime can exist with an object of cultural heritage. The regional protected area should be under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Smolensk region. If this regime is going to be lifted, a justification agreed with the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia is necessary. The governor's intention alone is not enough in this case", - Anton Khlynov, a member of the Coordinating Council for Environmental Well-being of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, believes.

Nevertheless, after a letter from the vigilant director of the museum to the governor, events in the Smolensk region began to unfold rapidly. It turned out that the Regulation on the protected area "Khmelita" was not developed, where the area, the boundaries of the nature protection territory would be clearly marked and the conditions for the use of land and water bodies would be established. What is the question, it would seem? Take it and develop it! Proceeding from this simple logic, the Vyazma interdistrict prosecutor appealed to the court with a demand to oblige the Directorate of Specially Protected Natural Territories of the Smolensk region to develop Regulations on the protected areas of the State Historical, Cultural and Natural Museum-Reserve of A. Griboyedov "Khmelita" and to carry out work on the establishment of borders, and the administration of the region to oblige all this to approve.

However, without waiting for this, on January 25, 2023, the Vyazemsky District Court makes a decision to dismiss the prosecutor's claim, explaining that on December 13, 2022, the Smolensk Region administration issued a decree according to which the assignment of the museum-reserve "Khmelita" to the protected area was recognized as invalid. Accordingly, the development of a Provision on a specially protected area in relation to an area that is no longer a protected area is impossible.

We applied to the Department of Natural Resources and Ecology of the Smolensk region. They explained it to us there: "After conducting a number of studies and examinations, it was revealed that there are no scientifically sound, especially valuable areas of nature and landscapes in this territory, which is the primary basis for creating a specially protected natural area. Moreover, local residents regularly expressed dissatisfaction with the complexity of laying and connecting engineering networks in the specified territory".

The Department of the Smolensk Region for Natural Resources and Ecology also stated that public roads and other infrastructure elements, lands of settlements, farmland are located in the vast territory around the museum, and the status of a specially protected natural area "will complicate the development of the Vyazemsky district of the Smolensk region", - as allegedly stated in their appeals by unnamed locals.

However, the locals referred to in the Department of Natural Resources and Ecology of the Smolensk region, in fact, took care of something else entirely. After the court's decision, they appealed to the President of Russia and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation with a request to preserve the protected area "Khmelita" as a protected area. They even created a Petition in defense of the protected area "Hop".

Cottages on bones

The arguments put forward by the locals are more than weighty. After all, it is here, on the territory of the State Nature Reserve "Khmelita", that the highest mark of the territory of the Smolensk-Moscow upland with a mark of 319.9 m is located. Not far from this place, northeast of the village of Martyukhi, is the source of one of the most picturesque rivers in Russia - the Vazuza, a tributary Volga and Dnieper. Most of the territory of the nature reserve is generally located on the watershed of the Dnieper and Volga rivers. Coniferous and mixed forests are the natural protection of the sources of rivers, their cutting down for development will lead to shallowing and the actual destruction of these rivers.

"The drying up of rivers in Russia is closely connected with deforestation, which can cause a real natural disaster. After all, forests are a shield protecting people and nature from floods and droughts. When there are fewer forests, the area around them becomes desertification: after all, forests are a kind of pump that draws moisture deep into the continent. If this process is disrupted, if the moisture becomes less, the flow of rivers and lakes may be disrupted. There will be less water in rivers and lakes, they will dry up", - said Vladimir Morozov, chairman of the public council at the Federal Forestry Agency, a member of the advisory council of the OPRF on environmental well-being.

In addition, on the territory of the nature reserve "Khmelita" there are archaeological monuments, ancient settlements, burial mounds, which are of historical value. The famous village of Kasnya is considered one of the locations of the novel by Leo Tolstoy "War and Peace. In addition, the protected area "The State Historical, Cultural and Natural Museum-Reserve of A.S. Griboyedov "Khmelita" is the birthplace of the great Russian Admiral Nakhimov. This place is also one of the monuments of the Great Patriotic War, not yet fully studied.

"Vyazma land became the site of one of the greatest tragedies of the Great Patriotic War, there was the so-called "Vyazma Cauldron", when several hundred thousand soldiers and commanders of the Red Army were surrounded west of Vyazma. Excavations are constantly taking place here. Pathfinders are finding more and more new materials that speak about the mistreatment of Soviet servicemen who were captured by the Nazis. Only in the spring of 2021, as part of the "Memory Watch" near the village of Vsevolodkino, search engines managed to raise the remains of 132 soldiers. I wonder how the Ministry of Defense looks at the removal of the protected status from these lands? How will it be possible to build up and develop these lands? Cottages on bones?!", - says Nikolay Markin, a member of the board of the NGO "Public Committee of the Vyazemsky district of the Smolensk region".

Secret examination

There are also questions about the procedure for removing the protected status from the protected area "Khmelita". Why was a thorough examination not carried out, why was the obvious value of this territory ignored, as it is said even in high school geography textbooks?

"It seems absurd to me the argument of the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation that there is nothing of value in the protected area "Khmelita". Show the texture that proves it! There should be a thorough examination. We are told that the expertise was carried out by the Institute of Ecology. How can ecologists assess the natural value of a protected area? By removing the status of protected areas, we increase the risk of logging. In addition, large rivers are emerging in this region, the Dnieper takes its source. Why is this not reflected in the expert opinion? It is impossible to discount the fact that the protected area performs protective functions related to the climate, with animals. Specific detailed expertise is needed here", - said Anton Khlynov, a member of the Coordinating Council for Environmental Well-being of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation.

None of the officials says what kind of "studies and examinations" were carried out on this territory before the removal of the protected status from it. Everything connected with the removal of the protected status from the protected area "Hop" generally happens secretly. Who benefits from this?

"There are interested parties from developers. Deforestation has already begun in the area of the village of Vsevolodkino and the Kishkino tract. But this is the territory of the "Vyazemsky boiler", the place of mass death of Soviet soldiers. VIP hunting is also practiced in these parts. Considering how many animals are found in the local forests, we can conclude that there is interest from this side", - says Nikolay Markin, a member of the board of the NGO "Public Committee of the Vyazemsky District of the Smolensk Region".

Experts agree that the nature conservation status of the Hop requires investigation. The argument about the complexity of communications does not stand up to any criticism.

"If it is necessary to extend any communications, a differentiated regime of special protection can be provided in the Regulation on protected Areas, allowing economic activity to be carried out here under a number of conditions. But if they want to make a place for VIP hunting there, that's another question. Most likely, the main interested parties appeared from this side. The territory of more than two thousand hectares cannot enter into any categorical contradictions with the economy of the region. Officials of the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation, coordinating "with a light hand" the decision of the governor of the region on the abolition of protected areas, could act biased, lobbying someone's interests. But if the territory of a protected area is used for other purposes, we will receive social and environmental damage on an All-Russian scale", - said Anton Khlynov, a member of the Coordinating Council for Environmental Well-being of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation.

The Investigative Committee of Russia will have to figure out all this. As it became known, the head of the RF IC Alexander Bastrykin put under personal control a check on a report on possible violations of the regime of a specially protected natural territory in the Smolensk region. In the SU of the IC of Russia in the Smolensk region, a procedural check has begun on this fact.