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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Nature Protection and Conservation

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For over a century, nature protection in Northern Eurasia focused on conservation in set-aside areas. Long traditions, the high priority of conservation as a scientific issue and state land ownership allowed the creation of a fine and extensive system of nature reserves. This system is superior to many other national and regional conservation schemes and stands out from the otherwise destructive exploitation of nature during the Soviet era. In a debate about the present and the future of conservation in the FSU three things are important: impacts of economic and property rights transformations, access to funding and qualified personnel, and conservation in impoverished and politically unstable regions.

Since the early 1990s, there has been an increased awareness of environmental damage inflicted by development during the Soviet period. Economic liberalization was expected to bring a positive reversal and to a degree this expectation has been borne out. However, the pressures of economic transformation and the advent of the free market economy have also opened new possibilities for environmental abuse and overexploitation of resources. The continuing economic problems and divorce from central funding, combined with poorly defined property rights, a 'get-rich-quick' mentality, and aggressive acquisition, threaten nature in the post-Soviet states. The anticipated private landownership should, in the long term, bring responsibility to future generations. Now, however, the development of conservation in the FSU requires governmental intervention which will without doubt be more difficult on private lands. The much needed expansion of the system of protected areas will come under threat because the withdrawal of land will require large investments and conservation is not generously funded. One of the solutions to the anticipated problem could lie in persuading private owners that biodiversity has economic value. This, however, may prove problematic. First, capturing the full market value of biodiversity is a notoriously hard task anywhere. Second, although for most of the time conservation has enjoyed governmental support and sympathetic media coverage, and was popular with the public in the FSU, the long domination of Marxist political economy has led many to believe that biodiversity has no market value until it is exploited for human use.

Traditionally, policies in the Soviet Union were highly centralized and uniform across the country. In the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, the situation has changed. In some republics, the declaration of sovereignty has strengthened state environmental initiatives, increased participation of the public, and addressed national environmental concerns. Other states, facing a challenge of meeting growing economic needs, have diverted governmental attention and resources from the environmental priorities. In many regions, poverty, political and social breakdown and instability make environmental laws and treaties ineffective, setting back the improvements in conservation. In such areas, the lack of means, corruption, and indifference are powerful enemies of conservation. Often, the costs of living with biodiversity are highest in the regions with the lowest living standards and the highest political uncertainty. Thus, Central Asia harbors the greatest biodiversity but it also accommodates environments whose condition could be described as critical; it is least able to afford conservation and avoid destructive exploitation. Many countries and regions lack an adequate pool of qualified experts willing to work in conservation, particularly in more remote areas.

The success of conservation depends partly on the environmental quality beyond the boundaries of a protected area. Operating a successful system of protected areas requires effective environmental management in general and national and regional coherence. Northern Eurasia still contains undisturbed natural landscapes of exceptional scale and of global significance. There should be an international debate on conservation in Northern Eurasia which embraces wider issues of environmental and resource use in their political and economic frameworks. Ultimately, successful conservation in Northern Eurasia needs a greater appreciation of the benefits of nature, the integration of local communities into conservation planning, and broadening of governmental support for conservation.

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