Silent soldiers of the environmental protection: the issues and challenges of the Russian peatlands.

Peatlands are a key element of environmental sustainability and have a special place in the context of climate change. However, their importance is still underrated in Russia. We discussed the current challenges with Dr Tatiana Minayeva, the leader of the Russian peatland restoration project at Wetlands International.

Photo 1. Dr Tatiana Minayeva is a leader of the Russian peatland re-wetting project at Wetlands International and an active member of global climate policy discussions.

How did you become professionally involved in climate change politics and peatlands conservation activity?

I am originally a botanist, I graduated from the Department of Botany of Moscow State University in Moscow, and I have a PhD in Botany, but I was constantly dealing with peatlands, first from a botanical point of view, then more and more with landscape, functional, conservation and land use. The peatlands have a special place in the context of climate change, and therefore I very quickly engaged with climate policy. I worked a lot internationally, and practically since 2003 or even earlier, we persistently push these peatlands and wetlands in general through all international conventions into climate policy, so I closely follow those political and scientific processes around the climate and participate directly, to a greater extent in terms of wetlands.

How does climate change affect peat/wetlands?

That is not really climate which is influencing peatlands, but rather vice versa – peatlands are influencing climate. Peatlands are very resistant to any influence. How do peatlands function? The plants grown in wet conditions do not decompose – they turn into peat instead. Hence, peat is nothing else as compressed, not decomposed remains of plants.  This peat has an interesting function – hygroscopicity; it acts as a sponge and accumulates water. That gives more habitats for more plants that form more peat. That is how peatland originates and grows – like a living organism, which also is called mire. Mire ecosystem is a “Perpetuum mobile” and the most effective natural mean to help us to cope with climate change.

Every part of peatland plays its unique role in this mission. Plants are taking CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into organic matter; water preserves this organic matter for thousands of years, preventing turn it back to CO2; peat is accumulating water and by this preventing flood, cooling the atmosphere and giving refugia to plants, animals and humans during draughts.

Photos 2-4: Mire vegetation.

However, the situation changes when there is a huge human impact. Mires were drained for use all over Europe, including the European part of Russia. They were drained – to create new pastures, to grow forests, to plant crops or to excavate peat. It does not only deteriorate ecosystems but has a negative impact on people too – as mires are drained, the peat starts to decompose with the release of CO2 back to the atmosphere, surface subsides what leads to losses of lands, the living areas in some cases sag down the ocean area which damages households and essential infrastructures. So, it means that when we drain peatlands – we enhance climate change and lower the adaptation capacity of people to it. And the other direction it also works – when we restore peatlands, we reduce our impact on climate and enhance our adaptation capacity.

Last, wetlands are essential for Arctics as they work as thermoregulation protecting permafrost. And when oil extraction industries come there and destroy that layer of peat, permafrost starts thawing. This changes all the natural regimes causing erosion and temperature change. Methane and CO2 emissions increase crazy.  It is a very difficult issue in Russia as the Government supports fossil fuel industries, while there are no special regulations aimed to protect peatlands and permafrost.

Photos 5-6. Wetlands of the Russian Arctic.

What place does peat/wetlands conservation have on Russia’s climate policy agenda?

Well, we are working on it, if I say no, I will say that I have lived all my life in vain [laughing]. We always work closely with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology, and in 2002-2003 we developed a strategic plan for peatlands conservation and wise use in Russia and dragged it through the Ministry, however, it was all then hammered…but so far there is such a document. We still publish a lot, make all sorts of assessments about peatlands to provide the Government with the relevant information. And due to the fact that we are doing projects that are integrated both into the life of the regions, and entire Russia at the federal level, we manage to take some steps. Together with the Institute of Global Climate and Ecology, we managed to include wetlands and peatlands into the national reporting on the inventory of sources and sink of GHG. In the latest report we had included information on both GHG emissions associated with peatlands drainage and GHG reductions associated with peatland ecosystems restoration. This is very important as it gives sort of incentives to restore peatlands. From now, there is not only the state’s decree without any concrete regulations. Now, the state demands the progress on peatlands restoration to be reported with precise data and numbers. So, we can say that yes, there is a framework for peat conservation in Russia. Only the Arctic needs still greater attention, I believe.

Photos 7-8. Draught-caused fires in the peatlands (Volga Delta in Astrakhan oblast, April 2009).

Please, tell us about ‘Care for ecosystems’ – the consultancy you are the founder of? What does the organisation do and who are the ‘clients’/auditory you work with?

Yes, it was not only me who launched this organisation more than five years ago. It is a consulting company, and we offer an advice on sustainable development to private sector and not only. I do not like to be told what to do, that is why I created my own [organisation] and work on the projects I am interested in. But now I settled in Germany and would like to understand the local context… Because there is a myth that in Germany, everything is well-organised and everyone is concerned about climate change. In fact, there is only Angela Merkel who really cares [laughing]. There are many conservators in Germany, and they do not want to adjust for new reality, to change their lifestyles. At the moment, me and my husband who was working in the Ministry of Environment in Germany, together with some friends are developing a new organisation on the base of ‘Care for ecosystems’. It would be an NGO focused on education, spreading awareness about climate and environmental change here in Germany.

It is surprising that there is not much climate concern among Germans. Where do people worry more about climate change, in Germany or in Russia?

In Germany, it very much depends on geographical area, so in Saxonia where I live people are very conservative and the issue is not on agenda. Regionality also matters in Russia. Also, in Russia, environment issues are very politicized. Sure, there is ecological politics… Ministry of Ecology in Russia does everything correct but… to make policies work from the down, on public level, the grassroot movements must be supported. As long as climate activists in Russia are resisted by the police, there will be no real progress in climate mitigation. Without public action, no policies will do.

Integration is a key to climate mitigation and sustainable development overall. It is very important that people in Russia understand that they are a part of an ecosystem. Not the owners, but only a part. This understanding is not quite there yet, and I blame Soviet industrial approach to nature for this: ‘Let’s not wait for a mercy from nature, let’s take it all ourselves’. It is how they talked, right?

So, this approach is still present in Russia?

Yes, I think it is.

You are an Associate Expert of Wetlands International and work with UN Environment. Do ‘peatland issues’ receive sufficient attention at the global level?

In all international conventions and decrees, we reached our maximum. We stated clearly all our issues, needs and conditions, which are all recognized now and discussed by the international community. In 90s, when we came with this conversation, everyone thought we are freaks with our wetlands and peatlands. But now, if in any convention peatlands are not mentioned, this would be a poor etiquette.

Another question is the efficiency of international regulations. I am a lot in this global communities and I see that… yes, they sit together and reach an agreement almost on anything… but what comes after the resolution is adopted? Where is the action…? The strategies should be implemented, not just signed. The implementation mechanisms need to be improved. They should function from below, for example, through economic and fiscal regulations. But decisions agreed in the UN… they are nice but do not make sense without action. Given the amount of money allocated to the UN initiatives, its representatives will not be willing to leave their positions…so, there is hardly will be change in their approach any time soon… This is very sad. Hence, international environmental politics is not ideal. It is not only the case of Russia. However, let’s look in the future with hope, as always postponing solutions for the future generations that once can fail to carry all that postponed burden.

Front photo – by Mr Sirin.

Photos 2-4 and 5-6 – by Dr Tatiana Minayeva.

Dr. Minayeva (photo 1) is photographed by  Andrey Glotov.

Photos 7-8 – by Gennady Rusanov.

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