Photos: Siarhiej Leskiec for UNDP Belarus

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.

 

80 colourful hives of an experimental apiary in the scientific part of the zone are buzzing with honey bees.
The honey is regularly tested for radiation. The total honey harvested in 2018 was 3.1 tones.
The biggest horse farm in Belarus is located in the Exclusion Zone. It has 380 horses of Orlov Trotter and Russian Heavy Draft breeds.

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.

 

There are 95 deserted villages on the Belarusian part of the Exclusion Zone.

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.

 

An abandoned village swallowed by the flourishing vegetation and a view of the shiny dome of the Chernobyl sarcophagus over the breached reactor.

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.

 

More than 12% of Belarus’ population currently live in affected territories.

For almost three decades the affected districts were indelibly associated with nuclear contamination and the stigma that comes with it.

 

Katsiaryna Kryvenchyk, 86, is sitting on a bench on a “ghost” street in the village of Navaselki on the edge of the Exclusion Zone. Before the Chernobyl disaster, Navaselki was a big and inviting community with more than 1,300 residents. Today there are only 20-25 houses left. More than half of them are abandoned and dilapidated. Most residents left the village in the years following the disaster.

The widespread public image of socially and economically depressed territories with traumatized populations often prevents economic activities from developing in the affected communities.

 

Almost all villagers in the small and remote community of Navaselki are in their 70s, 80s and 90s and their future is uncertain.

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.

 

The radioactivity has reduced over time and some impacted communities have sprung back to life. Brahin District’s birth rate in 2019 has been the highest among all other districts of Homiel region.

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. 

 

Children from a school in the village of Strelichevo in Khoiniki District are showing the UNDP’s Resident Representative, Alexandra Solovieva, how they use scientific knowledge to measure radionuclides in locally-grown raspberries. The berries are safe to eat.

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.

 

UNDP and the Brahin District authorities are working together to leverage the vast knowledge and experience that resides within local communities to harness new technology to ensure the district’s successful future. Many bankable local project ideas are put on the table.

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.

 

The Simonavy sisters live in the small village of Selets in Brahin District and they are very passionate about developing their small milk farm just 10km away from the border of the Exclusion Zone.
Initially with two cows in a barn, Tatiana and Elena joined a local initiative aimed at encouraging farmers within the diary business. Since then, they have successfully increased the number of cows they have to ten dairy cattle.
The milk that the sisters farm is subject to radiation testing and control. Test results show levels are below the national safety standards for milk. Every morning Tatiana and Elena collect fresh raw milk and hand it to a local dealer. The Simonavy’s future dream is to start a private dairy farm and to produce high-quality cheese and curd.

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.

 

“UNDP is heading towards developing integrated lines of support to the communities in the Chernobyl recovering regions. A strong focus is made on further boosting local capacities and resilience. To do this, UNDP aims to generate bankable solutions for socio-economic development in broad partnerships with public and private sectors, national counterparts and international development partners.” said Alexandra Solovieva, UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus.

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.

 

Before the disaster, Brahin District was well-known for its high-quality food produce. Local farmers like Elena Molochko are turning to innovative ways to eliminate the “Chernobyl food” stigma and to support the region’s re-emergence as the “breadbasket” of Belarus.

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.

 

The Chernobyl exposition at the Khoiniki District Museum of Local History occupies the whole second floor and tells the true story of heroism, suffering, resilience and revival.

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.

 

A student from the Art School in Hoiniki is drawing a postcard of the town’s most historic building during a plein air (outdoor art session). When ready, the kids’ cards will be sold to tourists in the museum’s gift shop, thus helping boost tourism in the area.

Tourism can become an additional growth engine for local economies, if properly supported, regulated, and infrastructure and services are improved to accommodate visitors.

 

The Polesie State Radioecological Reserve is governed by the Belarusian Ministry of Emergencies and special permissions are required for tourists crossing into the Exclusion Zone through special checkpoints along the border.

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.

 

Forlorn tumbledown brick buildings, decayed wooden houses and pristine nature give rise to a curiosity and interest from tourists who are keen to explore new experiences and emotions.
A place where time has stood still – inside an abandoned school in the Exclusion Zone. Study books and copy books with unfinished exercises remain intact where they were left 33 years ago by pupils who never returned to pick them up.

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.

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