The Yelyna Reserve, marked by amazing beauty and a spectacular case of nature’s symphony, is a peat bog and a nature reserve in northern Belarus covering more than 23,000 hectares.

But it was not always like this.

In 2002, a fire destroyed more than 70 percent of bog’s moss layer. The cost to the ecosystem and nature was heartbreaking, bringing with it a huge economic cost, as well. The Yelyna bog is the natural habitat for almost all species of flora and fauna that can be found at Belarusian upland bogs. It's also an important home for migrating birds, with 98 different species permanently living there. 

I was privileged to visit Yelyna in the winter of 2016 with our partners from the United Nations Development Program, our bottling partners Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company (HBC) of Belarus and our team from Coca-Cola Belarus.

The Coca-Cola system's efforts in Yelyna began when the “Let’s Save Yelnya together!” project launched in 2007.  Coca-Cola HBC Belarus started initial restoration work in cooperation with local NGO APB Birdlife Belarus at the Yelnya bog.

Since then, the portfolio of projects in Yelyna have both widened and deepened.

Now, 2017 is a special year. It marks a decade of our sustainability programs in the Yelyna Reserve.

Over the past 10 years, many projects have been implemented in Yelyna. In the beginning, “Volunteer Camps for Building Dams” were established by Coca-Cola Hellenic volunteer teams. Human interference in the ecosystem threatened the bog’s extinction when reclamation canals were built there in early 20th Century. Several volunteer camps were organized over the years to help build dams, close the main drainage and raise water level in the bog and surrounding lakes. To date, more than 50 dams have been built.

In 2015 and the years that followed, our programs in partnership with UNDP began implementing initiatives in Yelyna both within the scope of New World and Every Drop Matters programs. Having implemented more than 130 community-based projects together with our partners in 25 countries between 2007 and 2013, we recognized that Every Drop Matters (EDM) had the potential for even greater results. Expanding on the success of EDM, in 2014 we launched New World to broaden the focus from water and sanitation to women and youth empowerment.

Under Every Drop Matters Program, in 2015 46 industrial dams were constructured with the financial support of The Coca-Cola Foundation. Continuous monitoring of dams’ condition and water level helped to make scientific prognoses for further restoration of the bog.

Within the scope of the New World program in 2016 and onwards, the focus was educational tools and awareness raising for students. To that end, an eco-educational center opened in 2016 in a local school in Germanovichi village to increase ecological awareness among 1,500 youth from targeted districts with support of Coca-Cola HBC Belarus, UNDP and The Coca-Cola Foundation. A course on water resources conservation and ecological importance of the Yelnya bog was also developed and added to the educational curriculum in local schools.

Germanovichi school

At the Germanovichi school educational material and an eco-educational centre was established to increase the awareness of students regarding the Yelyna Reserve and its ecosystem.

Maryia Vincheuskaya, UNDP

What Makes Yelyna Bog Projects Special?

Increasingly, as discussions around sustainability evolve, two priorities are rising to the surface of discussions among thought leaders in this field: Are the efforts sustainable? And secondly, are they inclusive?

Indeed, the Yelyna Reserve programs are both sustainable and inclusive. They are sustainable in that they are all built to complement each other and impact sustainable development in the nature reserve and, more importantly, improve the resilience capacity of 18 surrounding communities in the Myory and Sharkovschina districts.

The bog also plays an influential role in local communities, as cranberry harvest is economically significant for the region. Damage from the 2002 fire to the local people’s income was huge. Since the restoration work at the bog started, the situation has substantially improved.

As for inclusiveness, both in terms of integration of the local community to the program but also the diversity of partners and institutions whom have gathered collectively to make an impact, Yelyna makes a special case.

To monitor and control the bog on a daily basis, the locals created “Yelnya wardens” teams. They watch over, maintain and preserve the bog and will continue to do so once the Coca-Cola system programs concludes. Additionally, students at the Germanovichi school who have learned and experienced the bog through the eco-educational center, and the 1,500 youth that have been integrated to the program, will be the future keepers of the nature reserve.

Wardens of Yelyna

Wardens of Yelyna:  Members of the local community that preserve and monitor the bog.

Maryia Vincheuskaya, UNDP

And the results on these efforts speak for themselves: Due to the combined efforts of volunteers, local citizens and our partners, there were no significant fires since 2008 and water level in Yelyna has risen by approximately 1 meter.

The Yelnya case is inspirational to deliver more for the environment, it is a best in class practice to learn about the impacts of sustainable development and to trust future generations to preserve humankind’s common heritage.

All of this, collectively, creates magic. The magic that is Yelyna. 

The canals of Yelyna

The canals of Yelyna

Maryia Vincheuskaya, UNDP

Aydan Olcer is corporate affairs and sustainability communications manager for Coca-Cola, based in Istanbul, Turkey.