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'How Can I Not Go Into the Forest?'

Poaching in the Chernobyl zone continues, and it’s not hard to see why. From Euroradio.

8 September 2017

“Well how can I not go into the forest, when it’s so close?” complains the first person we come across at the radioecological reserve, set up to enclose the area in Belarus still contaminated after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. “I went, over there, gathered a handful of chanterelle mushrooms, and they fine me a million and a half [old Belarusian rubles, or around $78]. It’s inhumane. Who’s the one that planted them, and who decided that I can’t pick them!? I eat everything that the earth provides, I get ultrasounds, everything is normal. Of course it’s good if the forest beyond the barbed wire is returned to the people, how much radiation can there be?”


The mushroom picker turned out to be the owner of a bizarre home. The territory surrounding his house is decorated with figurines of forest animals and a boat with a person, reminiscent of an official. His son created the figurines, and now he has left to work in Germany. When asked to introduce himself, the mushroom lover politely declined and then rushed to conceal himself from our view.


House on the outskirts of the reserve


Kirov village, in the Norovlyansk region in southeastern Belarus right by the Ukrainian border, is closely adjacent to the radiological reserve, which is officially called the Polesie State Radioecological Ecological Reserve. Some residents have the radioactive forest just beyond their backyards. A road in the village leads further into the reserve, and there is no checkpoint here, so one can drive into it by car. The forest is full of bilberries, moist, and, in season, home to many berries and mushrooms. If you forget about the dangers, your own hand stretches to pick something. The village residents were not evacuated, and they have been living here their entire lives, unafraid of radiation. These people do not understand how going into the forest could be forbidden.


The foresters in the reserve are also mostly locals, though some of them are from resettled villages that were once inside the radioactive zone. For them, this is an opportunity to work in their native area, which is why they understand very well the “village poachers.” Nikolai is 43 years old, and he has spent 21 of these years working in the reserve. As an assistant ranger, part of his responsibilities includes reporting trespassers, but he does not like to do so:


“Locals live here, just like me. The signs for the forest are practically in their backyard. Chanterelles get sold, people are preparing for the winter. It’s money after all. People grew up here, these places are all theirs. And now, people came, chastised [the locals], and said not to enter the forest. Well, some old lady will go in with a little bag. It’s not humane to punish her, but it’s necessary by law. But she’s already 80 years old. So she took that mushroom, what will even happen to her? Today, in fact, some pair was driving through the forest, and they came across border guards [at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border]. And that’s it, they were arrested.”


Billberry shrubs in the territory where economic activities are allowed. Here, the value of gamma radiations is eight times greater than the safe level.


Poachers and marauders have always been in the zone. Local residents left empty-handed [after the explosion at Chernobyl], counting on the fact that they would soon return. All appliances and extra things were left behind where they were. Not for long. In the first years after the catastrophe, despite the high levels of radiation, property that had been accumulated over many years was taken out of the zone by the truckload. Locals say that the second-hand market at that time grew like mushrooms, and much of it went to Minsk. Appliances were taken in the first wave and in the second – furniture. Now that there is nothing valuable left in the houses, hardwood floors, metal, and even heating briquettes are being taken.


The Bogdanov family left their home in the village of Belaya Soroka immediately after the catastrophe. It was very difficult to leave their native home. Every year for Radonitsa [a Russian Orthodox holiday commemorating the departed], the whole family returns to their birthplace. Last year, a sturdy fence still stood in front of the house; this year it has fallen down, because the metal supports have disappeared somewhere.


The former house of the Bogdanov family


Valery Dombrovsky is a senior researcher in bio-resources at the Laboratory of Molecular Zoology of the Applied Science Center of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. He is also a leading researcher in the ecology and fauna of the ecological reserve and has been visiting the zone for 24 years now. Today Valery is working on a rotational basis: he spends around two weeks a month in the reserve, and the rest of his time in Minsk. He carries out several scientific experiments at a time in the reserve and, with the help of cameras placed along the migration paths of animals; he keeps track of the amount and kind of animals in the area. But it is not just wild animals that appear on film. The scientist now has a small collection of portraits of trespassers, which he gives to the reserve’s security officials. If Valery were to place his cameras near the villages on the reserve’s outskirts, he would have even greater capturing success. The people who he does catch on film are mostly poachers who go deep into the zone to collect deer and moose antlers or to catch fish. At the checkpoint I was told that for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of antlers, one could earn up to $20. There are approximately 2,000 moose in the reserve. Every year, half of them shed their antlers. Calculate for yourselves ...


A trespasser caught by Dombrovsky's camera


The danger lies in the fact that radioactive strontium most easily accumulates precisely in antlers and bones. The purchase of antlers is done by Chinese pharmaceutical company representatives.  According to workers in the reserve, at rest stops in the nearby Belarusian town of Khoiniki, there are advertisements offering to buy antlers at a high price. The neighborhoods surrounding the resettlement zone are among the poorest in the Gomelsk region. For example, the average salary in April in the Khoiniki neighborhood was 519.50 rubles ($271). Even expensive fines do not stop poachers. The punishment for illegal trespassing onto the reserve’s territory can be higher than one’s monthly salary, and if they are caught red-handed, a three-fold or five-fold compensation for damages is added.


We spent two days with Valery Dombrovsky in the reserve. We drove through the Khoiniki and Norovlyansk neighborhoods in order to change the cartridges in the set-up cameras, and used GPS tracking to search for the den of a wolf pack. During the first day, our cellphones showed that we had walked 22,000 steps, though we moved around mostly by car, and in general, we drove around 200 kilometers (124 miles) through the reserve. During this entire time, we came across only a fire truck and a brigade of foresters. They were both easy to pass by, because approaching cars can be clearly heard from several hundred meters away. And it’s not hard to leave the road and become inconspicuous. If one imagines the vast area of the reserve – over 215,000 hectares (531,276 acres) – and the 25 people who work as security inspectors, who patrol the area by car, then it does not seem surprising [to see almost no one].


Sign on the edge of the reserve warning of radiation hazard


There are plenty of easy ways to enter the reserve. In Norovlyansk, the reserve comes right up to the edge of town. One can walk through the collective farm field, and end up in the zone in 100 meters. Part of the border of the reserve runs along route R-37, which goes from Norovlyansk to the border checkpoint Aleksandrovka. One side of the road is ordinary forest, and the other side is part of the reserve. Nothing differentiates them by sight, and signs warning of dangerous radiation are only along exits from the route. Barbed wire surrounds only 30 kilometers of the zone, but even that has plenty of holes.


Valery Dombrovsky remembers well how he first came to the zone in 1993:


“They didn’t give us tents, nothing, they said: go, research migration. We exited the bus and around us was darkness, we could not see anything, and slept somehow near the pumping station. In the morning we found the abandoned village of Pirki, and in it, a lone, self-settled elderly woman. We lived with her for three days and, as it turned out, her house was a transfer station for mushroom harvesters. Men were carrying sacks of mushrooms to her home! We had a dosimeter and we just put it near [the mushrooms] when it started going out of control. We told them that even standing near this sack of mushrooms was dangerous. ‘Where do you take them?’ In response, they told us that they are accepted quickly, they are somehow soaked, somehow steamed, and are sent to France.”


Just yesterday, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka signed an order abolishing the protection zone of the ecological reserve. Of course, that’s not the only cutback: there are plans for the near future to cut off part of the reserve’s territory and use it ... for economic activity. Local residents have not yet been told what that will mean. Whether the checkpoint to the 30-kilometer zone will be removed, whether the extra money [from not running the checkpoint] will be paid to the employees of the reserve and of the forests that are part of it, since the land, after the decree, will automatically become clean and it will no longer be harmful to work there.


Yes, most likely, the security department will stop catching mushroom pickers. But will the mushrooms and berries be made any better from this decree?

The original version of this article, in Russian, was published on the ERB website. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. All photos courtesy of Euroradio.


Translated by Anna Bisikalo.

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