Bringing Ukraine’s steppe back to life – interview

Oleg Dudkin, executive director of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds
Oleg Dudkin, executive director of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds

Black soil is a basic element to successfully cultivate agricultural products. The EU and Ukraine are jointly supporting steppe ecosystems to restore the soil’s fertility and rehabilitate Ukraine’s degraded land.

We interviewed Oleg Dudkin, executive director of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds, partner of BirdLife International in Ukraine. He spoke about steppe biodiversity and possible ways to mitigate climate change. Dudkin is a manager of the Steppe Biodiversity project, which received a €1.4 million EU grant.

What is steppe biodiversity and why is it important for people?

Steppe biodiversity refers to the whole range of living creatures existing in the steppe. We can identify the status of individual ecosystems by observing certain types of mammals, birds, insects, and plants. Unfortunately, ecosystem health is frequently compromised by human activities.

We have to remember that all food products are cultivated on land. There is no alternative way to provide people with proper nutrition, like producing synthetic products for example. The steppe is a resource that has been created over millions of years. People have been using it for 10,000 – 15,000 years, accelerating the exploitation of the resources during the past two centuries.

What are the key problems with degraded lands in Ukraine?

At present, Ukraine has 40 million hectares of agricultural lands. One tenth of them qualify as degraded. This means that their soil has low humus content, which makes crop cultivation economically inefficient. This problem arises due to intensive farming and the water, wind or chemical erosion associated with it.

In Ukraine, 90% of land is used for agricultural purposes, compared with 50-60% in Europe overall. The optimal level is actually 40%, with the remaining 60% of land ideally being rehabilitated. At some point in the future, the productivity of agricultural land will become very low. The time required to rehabilitate land can’t be compared with the rapidity of its exploitation.

Are there any EU requirements concerning these issues?

There are some requirements on environmental policy within the framework of the Association Agreement. According to EU recommendations, protected areas should make up at least 15% of the land. In Ukraine, 5.2% of land is currently protected, compared with 7% in the Netherlands and 9% in France. In other words, even developed European countries do not fully adhere to the above mentioned recommendations. However, the proportion of protected areas is still higher in these countries than in Ukraine.

A lot of land in Ukraine is wasted not due to low humus content but because it was not farmed. The current situation makes cultivation of agricultural products expensive and it is not supported by the state.

In the EU there is a Common Agricultural Policy, which provides farmers with a system of public subsidies. In Ukraine, small farms are taken over by agricultural holdings that rent land for 20-40 years. All of them want to earn the maximum profit from their agricultural activities. However, some of these holdings have already started using innovative and progressive methods of crop cultivation as well as modern fertilisation technology.

How does your project contribute to rehabilitation of depleted and abandoned steppe lands?

We want to preserve and increase soil capability. A number of options exist to increase humus content on abandoned farmlands: 1) plant crops that are hardy to arid conditions, 2) create efficient pastures and ensure effective management by regulating pasture load.

We will pilot some of these techniques at a farm in Moldova to restore an abandoned pasture. We are also rehabilitating pasturelands totalling 69 hectares in Petrivka village in the Odessa region that belong to the local community. We offer advisory services and technical assistance, but we are particularly interested in long-term co-operation with land owners.

What are the consequences of climate change for the Ukrainian environment? How does the project help to mitigate them?

Some forecasts predict that Crimea could become a desert in 50-100 years due to the decline in precipitation in the region. Our goal is to enact preventive measures to mitigate the consequences for the environment and people.

We are also developing a regional action plan for the Luhansk region, based on analysis of the mid-year climate changes and 25-50 year forecasts.

We also have to tackle the disproportionately small number of pastures compared to lands for ploughing in Ukraine. We suggest increasing the number of pastures to create reliable steppe land spaces. This is important for the accumulation of carbon in the soil and the formation of humus.

Background

The EU project, “Enhanced Economic and Legal Tools for Steppe Biodiversity Conservation and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation,’’ aims to overcome threats to steppe biodiversity. The three-year project will run in the Luhansk and Odessa regions, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Southern Moldova until December 2013. The EU contributes over €1.4 million (73% of the project’s total budget) to project, which is managed by the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds. More information: http://birdlife.org.ua/Stepove-bioriznomanittya and http://steppe.org.ua/index.php