Colonization and Carbonization of Ukraine
The large-scale destruction of Ukrainian nature as a consequence of colonialism
A common feature of all empires is contempt not only for human life but also for the natural environment of conquered lands. After all, for the colonizer, both people and natural resources are just tools to achieve their imperialist goals — the conquest and exploitation of new territories, as well as the subjugation of new peoples in order to increase their population.
At the same time, the long history of colonial exploitation of nature, which always involves the indigenous population, leaves an imprint on its collective consciousness. It manifests itself in the fact that the commodity status of the economy and the overexploitation of natural resources continue to be considered normal even after enslaved people have gained independence.
Let's try to understand this statement using the example of the colonization of modern Ukraine by the ancestors of our current enemies: first by Muscovy (the late-medieval Principality of Moscow) and the Russian Empire, and then by the Soviet Union.
The colonial history of Ukraine’s status as the "breadbasket of Europe"
For many millennia, the territory of modern Ukraine was characterized by favorable conditions for human habitation, and therefore it was quite actively inhabited and used by various tribes, ethnic groups, and peoples. The fairly high biological productivity of our ecosystems — various forests, steppes, meadows, and wetlands — played a significant role.
At the same time, due to its location on the border of the steppe and forest biomes of Eurasia, Ukrainian lands were the scene of several fierce wars between representatives of settled and nomadic peoples. Therefore, since the Middle Ages, Ukraine’s natural spaces have remained less developed and more wild than those in Central and Western Europe.
This was especially true of the steppe zone, which for thousands of years was dominated by nomadic peoples , and where separate settled localities near large rivers and sea coasts were periodically founded and then destroyed by the onslaughts of other tribes. This way of life on such a large territory was characterized by a special approach to natural resources management: the steppe territories were huge pastures and hunting grounds for nomads and the residents of a small number of settlements. Under such conditions, there was enough space for a relatively wild natural ecosystem with a rich variety of flora and fauna species, and only a small part of the land was used for agriculture.
The situation changed radically with the annexation of the Ukrainian steppe by the Russian Empire in the second half of the 18th century. The destruction of the Zaporozka Sich and the Crimean Khanate, in addition to the tragic social consequences for the captured peoples, also led to the elimination of methods of nature management that had been established for centuries. Active colonization of the Northern Black Sea region began, orchestrated by the Imperial court, and facilitated in every possible way.
During the 19th century, cattle breeding was quickly replaced by grain crop cultivation. The proximity of the powerful ports of Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and other cities made it possible to send the grain produced to other countries. The land reform of 1861 freed millions of former serfs, but also left them in a difficult economic situation, forcing them to look for free land for their livelihoods. In the 1860s, the active construction of railways began. It made it possible to quickly transport large volumes of grain to the aforementioned ports. These two factors accelerated the plowing of the steppe. By the beginning of the 20th century, only steppe areas that remained virgin were those that were too difficult to plow, those that were used as horse farms, and the newly created Askania-Nova reserve.
During the 20th–21st centuries, the area of steppes in Ukraine continued to decrease because of the mechanization of land cultivation and the decline of free-range animal husbandry. This happened because of a lack of understanding of the value of the steppe as an ecosystem and, to some extent, the privileged status of the agrarian sector of the economy.
In addition to significant negative consequences for nature (for example, the complete extermination of the wild ancestors of the native species of horses and tarpans by the end of the 19th century), such rapid colonization of the steppes also had climatic consequences. Virgin steppes, which exist in harsh conditions of constant moisture deficit, form most of their biomass in the root part of plants. Thanks to this, they reliably retain a significant amount of organic carbon in the soil in the form of dead remains of the steppe plants’ roots and the humus produced by their decomposition. On a global scale, the mass of carbon in soils is three times greater than its mass in the atmosphere.
After plowing, a significant proportion of the soil’s organic matter decomposes over the next few years, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — the main cause of anthropogenic climate change. This happens due to the wetting of the soil during rainfall and the decomposition of the labile (mobile) pool of organic matter caused by the activity of soil fungi and bacteria. During this period, the yield of crops remains at a high level. But after this it sharply decreases when the reserves of organic matter available for consumption are depleted. Then the process of soil carbon loss slows down somewhat, unless the land is cultivated annually, in which case it will continue as the humus content in arable soils gradually decreases.
The parallel social consequence of the aforementioned colonization of the Ukrainian steppe was the consolidation of an idea of our country as the “breadbasket of Europe", and later the breadbasket of the world. This metaphor managed to become so entrenched in our collective consciousness that it turned into a point of national pride. At the same time, the environmental cost of such a status is usually not mentioned. However, the high portion of plowed areas (over 90% in some southern communities) is the cause of rapid soil degradation and threatens large-scale desertification of the southern part of the steppe zone in the coming decades.
Solid fields around villages in the temporarily occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions as an example of excessive exploitation of nature in post-colonial Ukraine.
Naval forests: how Ukrainian primeval forests were sacrificed to the Russian Imperial fleet
In the context of the Russian occupation of Ukrainian forest regions, it would be appropriate to mention the destruction of tens of thousands of ancient trees for the construction of the Imperial Russian Navy, and its Black Sea Fleet in particular. Several hundred old trees, mostly oaks and pines, would have been used to build one large warship.
Shipping forests were usually chosen near large and medium-sized rivers so that logs of felled trees could be conveniently transported by water to the nearest shipyard. Another mandatory condition for the selection of shipwood was the presence of a significant number of old trees with tall and straight trunks in the forested area. Such trees are protected, and their felling was strictly prohibited — with the exception of moments when quality wood was required to build another ship for the Imperial Navy’s needs.
A total of 101 plots with a total area of about 107,600 hectares were designated for ship groves in Ukrainian provinces, 82% of which were oak forests .
After shipwrecks were discovered and described, their numbers steadily declined. After all, the rate of logging significantly exceeded the rate of growth for trees used in shipbuilding, which usually take more than 100-150 years to reach maturity.
Intensive exploratory felling of old trees for the construction of the fleet significantly impoverished the structure of Ukraine's forests, as well as their biodiversity, because the older the tree, the more species of living organisms live on it or feed on it.
More than 150 years have passed since the forests ceased to be used intensively for shipbuilding, but the current number of old trees in Ukrainian forests is nowhere near what it was at the beginning of this wooden shipbuilding period. Selective felling of the oldest trees has now been replaced by industrial forestry practices that use continuous logging, which has its advantages and problems for our forests.
The destruction of the Polish marshes and the Dnipro River within the framework of the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature
Polissia is a significant historical and geographical region, mainly within the boundaries of the Polissia lowland. It covers the northern part of Ukraine and the south of Belarus. For thousands of years, a characteristic feature of this region’s landscape was the presence of a large number of swamps, which were surrounded by mixed forests. During the Middle Ages and the following centuries of the modern era, the territory of Polissia was actively developed by the Slavs through the establishment of numerous villages and hamlets. This led to a gradual reduction in forests, but until the 20th century, the share of wetlands did not significantly decrease. The traditional economy of the residents of Polissia was adapted to coexistence with marshes, where grass was mowed for cows and horses, reeds were harvested for roofing, and people occupied themselves with hunting and fishing.
Of course, this situation, with its traditionally frugal use of nature, did not suit the Soviet government at all. Every hectare of land was to be involved in the building of the "bright communist future". Especially since there were always ambitious plans to increase the gross collection of grain crops.
Because increasing the productivity of already existing land required modern approaches to land cultivation (an intensive method) and significant investments, a simpler, more extensive approach was decided upon — the requisition of new lands for agriculture. Since there were hardly any unplowed steppes suitable for cultivation at that time, the Soviet authorities decided to focus on the development of swamps, which had to be drained first.
Even though attempts to drain individual Polissian swamps had been taking place since the 19th century, the culmination of this process was Stalin's Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature, designed for implementation during the years 1948–1965. A large-scale reclamation program was launched on the territory of Ukrainian (and Belarusian) Polissia, within which thousands of canals of various sizes were dug. The huge peat sponge, which held billions of tons of water, began to rapidly decrease in size. Collective farms then drove equipment and people to the "liberated" areas for growing crops.
Thanks to this reclamation, large areas of Polissia, previously surrounded by powerful masses of surface water, are now water-deficient. Water in wells is still disappearing to this day in villages near drained swamps due to a decrease in the levels of soil and groundwater.
However, the reduction of water resources and the silting of the rivers of Polissia are not the only significant problems caused by the large-scale reclamation of the region.
More than a third of soil carbon on the planet is stored in peat deposits, which slowly accumulate in swamps over thousands of years. Thanks to this, peatlands hold more carbon than all the forests in the world , despite the fact that global forested areas are ten times larger. As long as the ecosystem remains intact, this peat holds large masses of water, which protect it from fires and decomposition. However, as soon as the swamp is drained and the peat loses water, a rapid process of mineralization begins, which is accompanied bylarge-volume carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In addition, peat in drained swamps can catch fire for various reasons, and then burn for weeks or even months, polluting the air in the surrounding areas with toxic smoke and releasing large masses of carbon into the atmosphere.
All these examples can be considered cases of resorcification and carbonization of the Ukrainian economy. The plowing of the steppe, the felling of ancient forests, and the draining of swamps have caused the release of huge amounts of carbon from soils and peat, along with the degradation of damaged soils.
Another component of the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature was the destruction of the natural habitats along the Dnipro River within the borders of Ukraine by blocking its free flow with a cascade of six hydroelectric power stations with large reservoirs. In addition to meeting the growing energy needs of communist industry, these reservoirs were designed to store water and further irrigate large agricultural areas in the south and east of Ukraine, as well as supply water to primarily metallurgical enterprises.
Even though hydropower is quite developed in the EU countries, not a single reservoir has flooded such large areas of land, which once included dozens of settlements, as the reservoirs of the Dnipro Cascade. Communist gigantomania fully manifested itself in the construction of these reservoirs.
As a result, thousands of square kilometers of rich riverine ecosystems with important historical sites were flooded. The flooding of Great Meadow National Nature Park alone, together with at least five Zaporozka Siches, archaeological monuments of different times, and perhaps the richest spawning grounds and nesting places for birds in Ukraine, are a loss that cannot be fully evaluated in monetary terms.
The efficiency of using water from the Dnipro reservoirs is also an important issue. Due to the shallow depths and large areas of their water tables, several billion tons of fresh water simply evaporate from these water bodies every year. Similar volumes are lost when water is transported through old open channels, where it seeps into the soil and evaporates.
The use of water at water supply facilities is not any better. Due to outdated Soviet-era technologies, water consumption per unit produced remains significantly higher in Ukraine than the EU average.
In this context, the detonation of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, one of the more recent crimes committed by the Russian occupiers, gives us an unexpected chance to review the post-colonial economic model with a concrete example. It also gives us a chance to find a solution that will allow the use of modern technologies to restore the ecosystems of Great Meadow National Nature Park together with the water supply for the population and industry. Such a decision would be a significant step towards the decolonization of our economy and nature.
A chance for "decolonization" of Ukrainian nature
Recently, the preservation and restoration of natural ecosystems has become a general trend in EU countries. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 declares the need to protect at least 30% of the territories and water areas in member states.
If Ukraine decides to join this general European trend, it will have to increase the protected areas by more than four times. Unfortunately, the post-colonial structure of our landscapes will not allow us to achieve this goal simply by protecting existing natural and semi-natural ecosystems. We must also restore part of the ecosystems that have been destroyed in the past.
For example, drained peatlands must be irrigated and restored, wherever the socio economic conditions allow. In addition to the benefits to biodiversity, such a step will be a good contribution to the decarbonization of Ukraine. It will reduce the emissions caused by peat mineralization and peat fires, and help to restore the processes of carbon accumulation by irrigated bogs.
The restoration of the lost steppes could be facilitated by the conservation of lands degraded from excessive and improper exploitation, as well as territories that have been heavily polluted during the current war.
Although thinking about large-scale restoration of Ukraine’s natural ecosystems seems to be an idealistic goal at the moment, it is possible for it to be fully realized, as long as we apply modern scientific data on how these natural ecosystems function. With these ambitious ecological goals, as well as victory in the current war with russia, and confirmation of Ukrainians' right to independence, can all contribute to our chance at decolonizing our attitude towards nature.