In the mid-1990s, Irina Chebakova, inspired by an American colleague who told her of the annual March for Parks in the United States, started a campaign in the Russian Federation to encourage people to undertake marches in support of parks and protected areas. In April 1995, in the first such event in Russia and surrounding countries, 5,000 people took part in 20 marches to natural reserves.
The March for Parks has been growing ever since, and is now a widely publicised, annual event that includes more than 200 marches across the region.
“In 1998, there were roughly half-a-million marchers,” says Chebakova, who won an Associate Laureate Award in that year for her plan to boost public support for the marches. “Now there are about a million marchers a year. Before and after the annual marches, we collect about 600 press articles mentioning the event. They include articles about the marches, about the issue of protecting nature and about the people who spend their time working for nature conservation.”
Last year’s March for Parks — held in April — was the ninth such event, with people travelling on foot to about a hundred zapovedniks — strictly protected nature reserves — and to 35 national parks. Between 60 and 70 non-governmental organisations held events to coincide with the march, which in many parts of Russia is now the focus of local festivals.
Speaking out for the parks
Chebakova’s proven track record as a successful communicator — demonstrated by the growing support for the marches — led to her representing her region at a communications workshop organised by the IUCN, the World Conservation Union, in Switzerland, in summer 2003. Since 1994, Chebakova has been working for the Moscow-based Biodiversity Conservation Centre (BCC), through which she organises the March for Parks. The BCC is also linked to the IUCN, and in 1997 Chebakova became a member of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas — which has 1,300 members worldwide. In January 2002 she was appointed IUCN membership officer and coordinator for protected areas in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States, grouping Russia and other former states of the USSR.)
Frequently interviewed by journalists, Irina Chebakova says that there is one question nearly every Russian asks: Faced with major problems like poverty and high unemployment, why should Russians bother about parks? “People have lawyers to defend them,” she responds, “but parks have no lawyers to plead their cause. And that applies to nature and to all species. Humans are so concerned with protecting our cultural heritage — works of art, palaces, everything that is manmade. But they’re not so eager to protect the masterpieces made by nature. And yet these masterpieces have taken years to produce.
“Losing even a single species is breaking a chain that has taken billions of years to build. That chain is irreparable. To lose a species is to lose a natural wonder.”
A customized approach
Much of March for Parks’ success is due to Chebakova’s highly organised lobbying at all levels, from park wardens to the governors of the Russian Federation’s 89 republics and regions. “We write to the governors every year, encouraging them to support the march, but also urging them to take other action,” Chebakova explains. “Each letter is different, we remind the governor what protected areas lie within the region and of their status under Council of Europe or UNESCO listings.
“And the media also put pressure on the governors. Some governors have rung us after reading newspaper articles about a forthcoming march and asked: ‘What time do you want me to address the crowd?’ The governors just cannot afford to ignore these events.”
Engaging the people
Another group targeted by Chebakova are the managers of zapovedniks. “Traditionally zapovedniks have been closed to the public and reserved for scientists and specialists,” she says. “Zapovednik means ‘forbidden territory’. We’ve been trying to convince the park authorities that they rely on public support, so they need to share these masterpieces of nature. They are beginning to open the park gates to the public, allowing them in for special events.”
Chebakova says all her efforts are bearing fruit. Russia is changing — in the mid-1990s people were struggling to survive as their nation faced huge changes following the fall of communism. Now life is improving.
“People are able to think about nature again. And they are realising that the protected areas are worth saving.”Learn more about Irina Chebakova