Samara forest needs protection

23 July 2014

In Ukraine, Zelenyi Svit / Friends of the Earth Ukraine campaigners, alongside other environmental organisations, are keeping up their efforts to create a protected area in Samara forest in the Dnipropetrovsk region of the country, which is under threat from human activity.

Samara is the largest and southernmost natural forest in the steppe zone of Ukraine, encompassing an area of about 15,000 hectares, and extending for 30 km along a narrow strip down the river that shares its name.

Samara forest is a unique natural formation. Its richness and diversity of ecosystems, size, and the degree of preservation of its wildlife put it among the most valuable natural sites in Europe. In total there are 142 types of landscapes, including streamside and terrace forests, gullies, sand steppes, estuaries, saline lands, a large number of streamside lakes, oxbow lakes, reed and sphagnum bogs, the Samara river complex, and a natural oak forest that is home to 300 year-old trees.

More than 1070 species of higher plants are registered within Samara forest, representing 20% of the entire flora of Ukraine and 75% of the flora of Dnipropetrovsk region. Bird life in the area is also vibrant, with the forest included in the international network of Important Bird Areas (IBAs).

Many of the birds that nest in the forest are listed on the IUCN's Red List for threatened species, including the eastern imperial eagle, the serpent eagle, the white-tailed eagle, the booted eagle, and the black kite. Rare predators such as the stoats, pine martens, and European otters exist alongside nine different species of bats, which indicates the huge capacity of the area to support a wide range of species.

There is a long history of human-induced threats to Samara forest. Unregulated logging, drainage during the fight against malaria, soil subsidence because of the coal mining industry in Western Donbas, poaching, eleсtro-fishing and fires have all caused tremendous damage to the forest's ecosystems. Since independence, the air force and army have set up bases in the forest. The troops systematically violate environmental legislation by conducting firing and training during breeding and migration seasons for birds and mammals.

National-level plans to protect the forest from these activities have proved ineffective. A law passed in 2000 to create a national park "Samarskyi bir" (Samara coniferous forest) between 2005 and 2007 is yet to be put into action as of 2014.

Another important obstacle to conservation in Samara forest is the opposition of local people, who see it as an obstacle to their use of natural sources (food, feed, pasture for cattle, and firewood). It is important to convince people that a protected area does not mean that it cannot be used productively. Many alternative activities can be proposed for local people, such as the development of rural tourism beekeeping, picking mushrooms and berries, and the creation of new pasture through arable land. Finally, there is a need to develop alternative, clean energy technologies to reduce the need for firewood for domestic heating.

Campaigners from Friends of the Earth Ukraine and other environmental organisations are continuing to push for a protected area. Campaigners have been instrumental in developing and coordinating a project to create an official protected area, requiring co-operation between the national and regional levels. The next step is to put pressure on the regional forest department and finally receive their agreement.

Friends of the Earth Ukraine have also worked closely with Friends of the Earth Switzerland to develop a mutual project to preserve biodiversity in Samara forest.