Bashkortostan - A Gift in the MakingIn 1997, the President of the central Russian republic of Bashkortostan wrote to the President Emeritus of WWF International, HRH Prince Philip, pledging to increase the republic's protected areas by 1.9 million hectares. The pledge was a key element of an ambitious programme to establish the "Ecological Security of the Bashkortostan Republic".
Bashkortostan lies in the Southern Ural region and is home to a spectacular range of old-growth Siberian and European forests. Where the most eastern extension of the European broad leaved forests with oak and lime trees, meets Siberian species - there is an exceptionally high diversity and density of fauna and flora, including characteristic species of the broadleaved and mixed forests of the southern Ural such as the brown bear, lynx, wolf, moose, maral and roe deer and birds such as the black stork, golden eagle, imperial eagle, osprey, white tailed eagle, serpent eagle, steppe kestrel, and peregrine falcon.
The Ural region as a whole ranks among WWF's Global 200, and is one of the six terrestrial ecoregions located in Europe. A vast area, it stretches from the Arctic circle down to the steppelands, forming a natural frontier between northern Europe and Asia. Experts have identified the Southern section of the Ural as the area with the highest conservation potential, needs, and opportunities.
The more mountainous parts of the Southern Ural so far remain relatively undeveloped. The Middle Ural and the flatter portion of the Southern Ural, have, however, been developed for some time: mining, metal, chemical and military industries are well established. Moreover, there is ample scope for development of the mountainous parts of the Southern Ural. There are already at least 140 timber companies in Bashkortostan as well as a number of mines (mostly gold, chrome, and non-ferrous metals) and chemical plants whose sulphur and nitrogen emissions further threaten the region's forests.
Aware of the impact that uncontrolled development could pose to the republic's natural heritage (more than 40 per cent of Bashkortostan is covered by forest), the President decided to designate a large part of Bashkortostan as a Gift to the Earth. As well as increasing protected areas by 1.9 million hectares, the government gave "special conservation status" to 2.3 million hectares - 16 per cent of the republic's total surface area.
Bashkortostan's Gift marks the republic's commitment to develop an "Econet" of protected areas by 2005. Building on the federal network of "Zapovedniks" (strictly protected areas) and a complex system of different categories of protected areas, it aims to create an integrated system of conservation areas where the biodiversity to the region is being maintained and sustainable use of resources permitted and encouraged to the benefits of the local population.
Zapovedniks and National Parks will provide strict protection, but the corridors between these areas will have different conservation status and allow local people to use the forest and its products in a traditional, sustainable manner, e.g. hunting, fishing, bee-keeping, collection of medicinal plants, berries and other forest products, livestock grazing and traditional forms of agriculture. In addition, carefully selected areas are being set aside for local and regional tourism: Bashkortostan has identified more than 30 sites of national and regional interest, where low-impact tourism can be developed.
Having drawn up the Econet plan, the next step has been to win support and approval from different stakeholders, ranging from local authorities to the general public. Other elements of the programme are the training of all relevant interest groups in sustainable land use and environmental conservation and the provision of Econet training to federal and regional conservation staff, as well as the enhancement of the role of the "Zapovednik" centres as environmental education centres. As part of its drive to increase public awareness and involvement, WWF has set up a "Friends of WWF" club in the city of Ufa - the republic's main city. Club members include teachers, students and parents, and in June 2001 senior pupils from schools in Ufa spent two weeks in the Bashkir nature reserve, studying the animals and plants that live in the reserve's forests.
Bashkortostan's Gift to the Earth is a remarkable indication of political support for conservation. In return, WWF is doing its utmost to support the republic's plans, providing conservation expertise where it is needed, and building up local capacity to ensure that the Gift is put to good use, and that the republic's exceptional natural wealth is handed down to future generations. The project has received support from the Swiss Government (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) for the period 1999 to 2002.