In November 2018, Belarus opened its part of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, also known as the “Polesie State Radioecological Reserve”, to organized tourist groups who can visit a range of unique attractions including bee and horse farms, bison feeding grounds, as well as abandoned villages.
Farming projects such as these help to examine the impact that radiation has on agriculture and in addition, generates economic opportunities for beekeeping, horse breeding and tourism.
The Exclusion Zone was deemed too unsafe for people to return, however, wildlife and nature have flourished, and nature has retaken what man once had.
Since its opening in 1988, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone continues to be the biggest rewilding experiment in Europe. The Reserve’s highly-prized scientific community has accumulated unique knowledge on the impact of radiation on wildlife and how nature recovers after a disaster of this type.
Nature has adapted and benefitted at great cost to the people who retreated from these lands, with no hope of repopulating it for what is estimated at the next 24,000–25,000 years.
For the communities remaining on the edge of the Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl is not over yet.
For almost three decades the affected districts were indelibly associated with nuclear contamination and the stigma that comes with it.
The widespread public image of socially and economically depressed territories with traumatized populations often prevents economic activities from developing in the affected communities.
Continued support and attention are essential for the impacted communities. Forging partnerships with local governments, businesses and civil society is designed to stimulate modern and innovative socio-economic development for fueling up strong, sustainable economy that will offer lasting solutions.
Thirty-three years on, the communities and local administrations of the most affected districts in Belarus are looking to expand human capital and high-tech investments – as well as capitalizing on the region’s natural strengths, such as rich soil and dense forests.
Today, Chernobyl-affected districts are using their knowledge and experience to implement development projects and resource mobilization to solve local social, economic and environmental challenges. Some of them, such as Brahin District, have become leaders in pushing local strategies for sustainable development.
The process of economic recovery is unique for each district, and for the most affected communities the road to post-Chernobyl recovery is long and winding. Many local food and timber producers still struggle with the weight of public fears that suppress demand. The radiation remains a challenge for local farmers.
Radiation tests are carried out by state authorities within the local communities to monitor the health of not just people, but garden and forest berries, wild mushrooms and game as well as agricultural and forestry products.
The main development goal is not just to recover, but to build a growing economy. That is why UNDP has committed its support to a broader regional development perspective.
For almost a decade, with the support from development partners such as the European Union and in close cooperation with local authorities, UNDP has been leading a transition from the emergency relief and humanitarian assistance to capacity-building and sustainable development. Through the implementation of more than 200 projects, UNDP has supported prevention and awareness raising in the field of non-communicable diseases, organic farming and tourism development, promotion of nuclear safeguards, preservation of heritage and culture, rehabilitation of ecosystems and disaster management and mitigation.
Since the beginning of the decade there has been a considerable increase in economic activity — 37,000 small- and medium-sized businesses now operate in the areas directly affected by the disaster, up from only 2,375 in 2002.
In the future, realizing the economic potential of the affected territories will depend upon stronger cooperation with the private sector – which UNDP is attempting to broker through social impact investment (www.impactinvestment.by ).
Local history museums are strong tools for raising awareness about the Chernobyl disaster and its impact on people’s lives. Almost every district capital hosts a museum exposition dedicated to the dramatic events that unfolded there 33 years ago.
Unlike older generations, the youth living in the affected districts have no strong emotional connections to the disaster. They look at Chernobyl in a historical context, as the dark page of the country’s past.
Tourism can become an additional growth engine for local economies, if properly supported, regulated, and infrastructure and services are improved to accommodate visitors.
The administrations of Khoiniki and Brahin Districts and the Polesie Radioecological Reserve are currently designing a plan that could help boost nature-based and science tourism in the area. Much of the development would be directed towards establishing an international research hub in the Reserve, which would be a magnet for scientists and tourists who are passionate about science, history, nature and wildlife.
UNDP and its partners will continue working to make the affected districts part of the 21st Century economy by promoting holistic and integrated solutions across various sectors and helping find partners and investors to bring funds, knowledge and new technologies to the local communities.