Sustainable forest management and empowering forest residents are still paying dividends around the Polistovsky Nature Reserve five years after the first efforts to build a local ecotourism economy.
Between 2009 and 2012, the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (FLEG) program supported the Bezhanitsy municipality in Western Russia located near Polistovsky National Nature Reserve in developing ecotourism opportunities in response to the region’s collapsing community and unsustainable forest management. This community-based ecotourism was aimed at improving environmental management and empowering the local community in the pursuit of more sustainable livelihoods.
Since the end of FLEG’s intervention, the Bezhanitsy community has been able to take full control of the ecotourism development while sustainably utilizing their natural forest resource. This ecotourism venture has not only provided a source of employment and income but has also strengthened the community awareness on the importance of protecting their forest resources.
“Our major task was to help the community to build a roadmap and steps to take in order to develop a sustainable model for the use of non-timber resources, and making sure that this model is legal” says Andrey Zaytsev, FLEG coordinator for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of three implementing organizations working under FLEG.
In the Polistovsky Nature Reserve, the opportunity of tourism exists because of the natural beauty manifested in its wetlands, forests and bogs that sustain a wide variety of flora and fauna. However, due to strict forest legislation and overall economic decline, the number of inhabitants in nearby Tsevlo settlement dropped to today’s 600, from 2500 in the 1980’s, as inhabitants were forced to forego the great natural beauty to look for employment elsewhere.
FLEG established a dialogue between the local community and the Director of the Polistovsky Nature Reserve in order to improve the relationship between the two parties as well as to determine their needs and priorities before providing recommendations for ecotourism and conservation of the forest reserve.
Zaytsev inspired Bezhanitsy community to apply for a grant from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The community was awarded 7000 Euros which helped create its plan of action and initiate the “Eco-tourism Pilot Project”. The significance of this achievement was recognized by the Governor of the Pskov region, which in turn made the community feel valued and motivated to fully cooperate with the FLEG programme initiatives.
Eco-trails, cranberries and teas
There is an abundance of cranberries growing wild in the natural bogs of the Polistovsky Nature Reserve. Zaytsev and other FLEG team members, who are based in Moscow and St. Petersburg, saw the potential success of serving cranberry Russian cakes in the restaurant located in the reserve.
“These cranberries are delicious and contaminant-free”, said Zaytsev. “There is value in that.”
Indeed today, the Bezhanitsy restaurant partnering with Polistovsky Nature Reserve draws crowds of tourists by serving specialty cranberry cakes. The restaurant and reserve’s visitor centre also sell a variety of medicinal herbal teas, made using the leaves of forest plants, as well as local handicrafts.
The FLEG programme continued to provide Polistovsky Nature Reserve with information on regulations of forest resources and technical assistance in setting up an integrated tourist strategy, leading to the successful culmination of the pilot phase. This success enabled the community to leverage more funding from the Russian Ministry for Nature Protection of about 100,000 US Dollars, which financed the construction of the nature reserve visitors centre and the refurbishment of its lodge. The nature reserve has also reached an agreement with several Estonian and Lithuanian tour operators to include Polistovsky eco-trails into their travel programmes.
Mikhail Yablokov, Director of Polistovsky Nature Reserve, visited other nature reserves in Belarus, Estonia, England, Sweden and the USA as well as some Russian regions to learn about conservation management strategies and conflict management of poaching and encroachment.
“However, we can now rely on the support of the community in reporting poachers and illegal activities” stated Andrey Zaytsev. “The local community now has a sense of ownership and responsibility for their land and natural resources, and this is a very important achievement.”
The Polistovsky model of ecotourism has been so successful that efforts are underway to replicate it in Northwestern Russia, the Baikal Region and the Russian Far East. In October 2013, FLEG launched the second phase of the Program, and the FLEG-2 programme has begun negotiations with 15 reserves that are interested in replicating Bezhanitsy successful model of ecotourism.
The Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (FLEG) II European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) East Countries Program supports participating countries' forest governance. At the regional level, the Program aims to implement the 2005 St. Petersburg FLEG Ministerial Declaration and support countries to commit to a time-bound action plan. At the national level, the Program is working to review and revise forest sector policies and legal and administrative structures and to improve knowledge of and support for sustainable forest management and good forest governance in the participating countries. And at the sub-national (local) level, the Program is working to test and demonstrate best practices for sustainable forest management and the feasibility of improved forest governance practices at the field-level on a pilot basis. Participating countries include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine. The Program is funded by the European Union.