FEATURE: Future success of new agricultural burning ban in Russia’s Kuban region hampered by scant enforcement options

ingressimage_fireskuban.jpg Photo: selchanka.com/

Agricultural fires: a burning issue

Kuban is an agriculturally important historical Russian region sitting on the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in the Russian south and encompassing, wholly or partly, a number of Russia’s administrative divisions, such as Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Stavropol Region, and Krasnodar Region, with the Caucasus Mountains towering in the south and further to the southeast. It is Krasnodar Region – which includes the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the city of Sochi – that is often implied in Russia when Kuban is mentioned.

Adopting a region-wide ban on burning agricultural waste in Kuban was an initiative proposed last December by the Russian ecological non-profit organization Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (in Russian). The previous fall, environmentalists had inspected the wetlands sprawling along the coast of the Sea of Azov and had been dismayed to see the sheer scale of man-made fires that were destroying the area. Protected by the Ramsar Convention – the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat, signed in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 – it includes a unique group of limans, or long narrow lagoons, where the rivers Kuban and Protoka flow into the sea. Dozens of thousands of hectares of dry reed were erased by fires in the delta of the Kuban River in the first week of last October alone. This is a large enough area to fit a couple of million-strong cities.

A month before that, fires had blazed in the federally protected nature reserve Priazovsky and the area in the lower reach of the river Beysug. In the case of the former, locals were blamed, for allegedly setting fire to the reeds in retaliation against the reserve’s administration, which prohibits fishing and hunting on the territory. The latter, on the river Beysug – which was long ago turned into a regulated reservoir system – was the site of what is referred to by the large local fish farm as “sanitary and technical measures” (in Russian): In the spring, fish swims into the Beysug from the sea for spawning; at the end of the spawning season, the fish farm closes the floodgates, then, when the rearing period is over in mid-summer, drains the reservoir, emptying the water and the new young fish back into the sea; it then sets about reed-burning, which, the management claims, is needed to clear and sanitize the reservoir bed in preparation for the next breeding season.

Other fish farms in the area, however, manage by mowing the dry reeds and plowing the floor of the breeding reservoirs.

Still, agricultural burning remains a broadly practiced method of clearing land from agricultural waste – such as fields from crop residues, to prepare them for new planting. It presents a considerable fire hazard: If a blaze gets out of control, it can spread over to the adjacent forests or property. Another serious concern associated with agricultural burning is its contribution to the levels of black carbon, or soot, in the Earth’s atmosphere – no small factor in global warming and climate change. And of course, man-made fires are a major source of air pollution.

Every reed-burning season, starting in early summer and ending in late autumn, residents of the four districts located in the area of the Beysug fish farm breathe air poisoned with pungent smoke and watch as clods of ash settle on their houses and gardens.

And for their neighbors further down south and southeast, in Krasnoarmeisky, Slavyansky, and Temryuksky municipalities, the fall is the time when the sky is clouded with smoke from straw burning at local rice fields.

It was no wonder that, faced with the dreadful air quality and numerous complaints from residents, Kuban officials chose not to brush the environmentalists off when they came in with their initiative, as might otherwise be the case. The proposal to place a legislative ban on agricultural burning was discussed at a meeting of the regional governor’s Public Ecological Council as, among other purposes, a primary measure to save the ecosystem of the Ramsar-listed wetlands in the Kuban river delta.

Regional legislators also received a request to support the initiative from the St. Petersburg-based Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona. The Public Ecological Council agreed that amendments were warranted in the regional Law on Atmospheric Air Protection; that burning of dead vegetation beyond the limits of populated areas was to be expressly prohibited (the law, in its previous version, only banned the burning of dead vegetation and waste within the boundaries of the region’s towns and settlements); and that administrative penalties were to be introduced for violations of the ban.   

It took six months to develop the bill. Late last June, the amendments were finally adopted, and amounts established for the fines were codified in the statutes on administrative offenses.

What are the penalties?

From now on, individuals brought up on administrative charges for violating the ban on the territory of Krasnodar Region face the prospect of paying a fine of between RUR 1,000 and RUR 2,000 ($30 to $60). Officials will be fined ten times as much – between RUR 10,000 and RUR 20,000 ($300 to $600). Even heavier sanctions await legal entities: between RUR 40,000 and RUR 50,000 ($1,200 to $1,500).

Administrative fines will be levied for using fire to remove dead vegetation, straw, crop residues, domestic waste, and even dead leaves, irrespective of where the burning is done – in a populated location, on a farmland, or in a forest.

According to Alexei Kondratenko, deputy chairman of the Krasnodar Regional Legislative Assembly’s Committee on the Use of Natural Resources and Ecological Safety, the new provisions will help carry out efficiently the protection of atmospheric air in the region.

That said, the amounts set for the fines are, arguably, rather lenient. Even for a small farm, RUR 40,000 to RUR 50,000 is chump change. Furthermore, as experience tells us, it is usually the immediate perpetrators who get sanctioned – tractor drivers, farm mechanics, or head growers – rather than the enterprise itself.

Regrettably, too, the fines are not scaled to the scope of the consequences that a particular instance of waste burning entails and remain the same regardless of specific circumstances. In other words, be it unique, internationally protected wetlands or a heap of garbage in one’s backyard, equal liability applies.

In the region’s neighbor to the west, the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, crop residue burning resulting in environmental damage is a criminal offense punishable by an imprisonment term of two to five years. If it causes loss of human life, mass animal deaths, or other severe consequences, the sentence is five to ten years in prison.

In Russia’s south, however, fields are often seen ablaze, and as farmers destroy wheat straw or other crop residues, fires engulf nearby shelter belts, steppe gullies, and reed beds running along river banks – ravaging for which no one is held accountable. Damages could theoretically be recovered via a lawsuit, but no known precedent exists in Krasnodar Region where a court would force an enterprise to pay compensation for the environmental harm resulting from heedless agricultural burning.

Managing expectations, but hoping for public involvement

Officials who are now charged with the responsibility of enforcing the new regional law are openly skeptical about its prospects. A representative of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Krasnodar Region told Bellona that there are only 14 inspectors on the payroll whose job it is to oversee compliance with agricultural waste burning regulations. The authority is severely understaffed to be able to investigate all the complaints that are filed with the ministry. And as for regular patrol rounds in the rural communities, there is simply no one to carry out those.

Likewise, no available funds have been provided in the regional budget for hiring additional inspectors – or assembling mobile rapid-response fire service teams, or acquiring a real-time satellite monitoring system, or using drones equipped with infrared imaging sensors, or many other expenses needed for open-air burning prevention.

Yet up-to-date technology is absolutely required to efficiently address the agricultural burning problem, identify those responsible for violations, and take appropriate measures. Offenders are very rarely caught red-handed – and similarly, the very fact of illegal burning is very difficult to prove: As a rule, as soon as, say, unwanted stubble has been cleared in a field using fire, the field is plowed over, and all the evidence is gone.

Unlike controlled agricultural fires, blazes that break out in wildlife areas are impossible to conceal and are more easily detected. The problem is the woeful scarcity of means to fight them with: The units scrambled to extinguish wildland fires are ordinary fire brigades that are ill-equipped for wildfire suppression. They lack trucks with off-road capabilities, the necessary mobile equipment, or personnel skilled in battling open-field fires raging over large expanses of land. In most cases, firefighters are forced to passively stand by, watching as the fire devours the area and only taking measures when it spreads far enough to threaten populated localities.

Fighting and watching out for wildfires, which yearly plague Russian regions that see summer temperatures climb to scorching highs, this summer in Kuban involved the resources of an unprecedented number of Russia’s law enforcement, defense, and emergency management bodies – including the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (EMERCOM), and even the Federal Security Service – as well as local administration and volunteers. And still the many cooks could not contain the combustible broth (in Russian) of wildfires, tourist fires that got out of hand, and purposeful man-made fires – lighted, in one instance, apparently, to clear a plot of land for construction – that claimed many hectares of forests and woodland.

To sum up, hopes would wisely be tempered for now that the adoption of a new region-wide ban on open-air burning will greatly improve the agricultural burning and wildfire situation in Kuban any time soon.

Still, one important avenue for action has now been afforded Kuban’s regular citizens, who suffer from the seasonal smog hazard but will, with the ban’s introduction, have legal redress options available to them. Bringing action against the offending enterprise may create solid enough legal precedent to compel many farms to abandon their antiquated methods of removing field residues or other agricultural waste and seek safer and more ecologically friendly alternatives.  

For the time being, agricultural enterprises will likely find it cheaper to just pay a fine and continue business as usual.

Bellona’s Kobets: Enforcement still the weak link everywhere

According to Yelena Kobets, head of ERC Bellona’s agricultural burning air pollution reduction project, the situation with the new open-air burning ban in Krasnodar Region is quite typical for other Russian regions. Federal regulation is ineffective, and tracking and analysis of the accumulated enforcement experience is practically non-existent since there are no agencies to assume such work. Little can be done in these circumstances to improve the legislation, says Kobets.

She points out that many people – including those working in the agricultural industry – nonetheless understand what harm agricultural fires can do to public health and the economy. Kobets cited the results of a 2011 poll conducted by Bellona among agricultural producers (in Russian), where around 50 percent of respondents spoke in support of stricter legislative measures to address the problem.

This is why experience newly offered in regions where laws have been recently passed that may hopefully help reduce these fires is important. Such legislation is already in effect in Rostov Region, in the south of European Russia, for instance. But the oversight required over compliance with the law is still the weak link everywhere such a law is enacted.

Of course, says Kobets, adopting a law alone will change nothing. Besides introducing tougher penalties for offenders, alternative methods must be promoted for crop residue removal. In the short term, economic incentives are necessary to help transition toward different agricultural technologies. And that, in turn, calls for the development of a government support program for those producers that choose to stop practicing agricultural residue burning, Kobets said.  

Bellona’s legal researchers, drawing on information supplied by regional environmental protection and agriculture committees, as well as regional branches of the EMERCOM and the interior ministry, have compiled a comprehensive overview of the existing regional environmental protection laws that ban agricultural burning (in Russian). This survey analyzes the enforcement experience gained to date in European Russia and proposes recommendations on how the situation could be further improved.   

Dmitry Schevchenko

Maria Kaminskaya