Several hundred thousand people took part in more than 170 mass marches to protected areas in former republics of the Soviet Union, in China, Finland, Mongolia, and Poland from April 18 to 25, 1998. The events were a demonstration of support — and a significant fundraiser — for some of the most precious storehouses of our natural treasures. And they can be traced back to one woman: Irina Chebakova.
Protecting Russia’s Wilderness
Since 1995 Chebakova has organised dozens of annual fundraising and public awareness marches that have raised around half a million US dollars for nature protection. She has already helped to extend March for Parks to the republics of the former Soviet Union and several Eastern European countries. Her ultimate goal is to involve every single protected area in her native Russia in this public movement and to convince a core of Russian businesses to support the parks.
The task is certainly urgent. Russia alone has a vast network of protected areas that includes both national parks, which number 33, and zapovedniks, or Strict Nature Reserves, which number 99. With the changes in the former Soviet Union since 1985, the pressures to exploit all the protected areas have increased, while the reserve managers are short of resources.
The situation of zapovedniks is particularly critical because of their unique history. Zapovedniks were for decades strictly off-limits to the general public. Although they protected a wide range of plants and animal species, including the Siberian tiger, the steppe marmot, snow leopard and polar bear, the zapovedniks had a negative image as forbidden areas and led to a common belief that they were reserved for the ruling elite.
Changing Public Attitudes
Chebakova saw public support as the key to protecting the reserves, and she also saw the challenge this represented in Russia. For despite Russians’ deep love of nature, it was necessary to empower them to take charge of their natural heritage and not rely merely on the state. "It was necessary to change public attitudes," she observes. "It was also necessary to convince administrators of the zapovedniks that the reserves could not survive without public support."
Chebakova was well-equipped for the task at hand. A specialist in national park management, she had worked at the Russian Institute of Forest Planning. At the end of 1994 she joined the Biodiversity Conservation Centre, a charitable fund in Moscow, and became the Protected Areas Management Programme expert.
In January 1995 Chebakova met Margaret Williams, a Russian-speaking American who came to BCC as Coordinator of the U.S.-based Center for Russian Nature Conservation. Williams spoke about the annual U.S. March for Parks, a festival held in several parts of the country in conjunction with Earth Day to raise awareness and support for protected areas. She suggested organising a March for Parks in Russia.
"Everyone in the conservation community said it wouldn’t work," Williams recalls. "Irina was the only person at the BCC who supported it at the time."
Within two months, the two women put together the first Russian event, which brought together 20 protected areas, many non-governmental organisations, schools and museums, plus 5,000 people from April 21 to 23, 1995. It was one of the first major grassroots and spontaneous public demonstrations for nature conservation on a national scale in Russia.
From Strength to Strength
Since 1995 Chebakova has gone from strength to strength. When Williams returned to the United States later that year, the Russian continued as sole coordinator. She planned March for Parks 1996, which involved an astonishing 100,000 people, officials from 26 national parks and 70 zapovedniks, and dozens of non-governmental organisations and schools. It also raised US$100,000 for projects for maintenance and development. For the first time, the event was international, with parks in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine joining the movement.
The 1997 march increased even further public support. It gathered 150,000 people in 107 protected areas, involved 150 local events and raised US$200,000. Parks in Armenia, Belarus and nearly all the Central Asian Republics participated.
Since 1996 Chebakova has been spearheading this movement single-handedly. Chebakova has run March for Parks in Russia on her own, a major feat of organisation and coordination of activities across that huge country. "To have started from scratch in 1995 and in only two years mobilise so many thousands of people in so many places is really a remarkable achievement," says John Massey Stewart from a supporting British initiative.
With her 1998 Associate Laureate Rolex Award, Chebakova plans to train more leaders, print more publicity and educational materials, and help make March for Parks a worldwide annual event. She also hopes to make Earth Day a national holiday in Russia.
Published in 1998