Russia’s Rabble-Rouser for the Environment

By Staff
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Goldman Prize-winner Marina Rikhvanova talks about rallying Russians to protect their environment

interview by Lisa Gulya

Civil society in Russia has withered since its post-perestroika heyday. Controls on nongovernmental organizations have tightened, independent media have disappeared, and bureaucratic corruption persists. These conditions, along with the Soviet legacy of an industry-first, environment-be-damned development approach, make Russian environmental protection and restoration daunting. Russian biologist Marina Rikhvanova is undeterred.

Rikhvanova was one of six winners of the prestigious 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize announced Monday, recognized for her grassroots activism protecting Siberia’s Lake Baikal. Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake, is home to 1,700 unique plant and animal species. In Soviet times, a pulp mill damaged the lake’s ecosystem by pumping pollution into its water. In 1996, UNESCO noted concern about the lake’s pollution when it declared Baikal a World Heritage Site.

Rikhvanova works with her organization, Baikal Environmental Wave, to protect the lake and its environs through letter-writing, marches, protests, and collaboration with international volunteers. Her most visible victory was the culmination of a four-year campaign against an oil pipeline that would have come within a half-mile of Lake Baikal. She and volunteers gathered more than 20,000 signatures to oppose the proposed pipeline route. In 2006, Rikhvanova led thousands of Russians into the streets of the city of Irkutsk to protest. Soon after, President Vladimir Putin ordered the pipeline to be rerouted. Rikhvanova’s recent efforts have focused on opposing nuclear enrichment and power plants that would threaten Baikal. talked with Rikhvanova about her work and winning the Goldman Prize.

How will the Goldman Prize help your work?

This award will help most importantly my office, my organization, and the environmental movement in the Baikal region to help protect the lake. But even more importantly, this award raises the visibility of our work, and people [in the government] will listen to us more now that I have won this award.

How do you think President-elect Dmitry Medvedev will treat environmental issues?

We’ll see what happens. But I can say that Medvedev in a recent speech did talk about environmental concerns and that they are worth addressing. Unfortunately, often words are not the same as actions.

You’ve talked about the need to improve the parks and preserves surrounding Lake Baikal. How can they be improved?

Unfortunately, the status of these protected areas is pretty weak today in Russia. There isn’t the legal system and the regulations needed to ensure their strength and longevity. Unfortunately, people who have their own self-interest and material gain in mind often achieve the post of directors of these protected areas and exploit the resources of these protected areas to their own gain rather than putting their first priority as protecting the land and the lake.

Who are your strongest supporters among the Russian public?

Everyone supports us from the smallest to the oldest. But if we’re talking about numbers, our greatest numbers of participants come from youth and the elderly because they have free time they can give to the work. The elderly are thinking already about the kind of world they’re leaving their descendants, their children, and grandchildren. And the youth are very active and very creative.

Control of nongovernmentnal organizations has tightened in Russia in recent years, and there’s suspicion of organizations with foreign ties. What is the role of international participants in your organization?

The suspicions are there and the attitude in the government is strange right now, but it doesn’t matter. International participation in our work is still very important.

We have amazing international volunteers. Sometimes our volunteers even come up with their own projects. For example, there’s a woman who’s working with us through the Tahoe-Baikal Institute and she came up with the idea of doing a summer school for children. The kids spent two summers at the school and had a great time. These were underprivileged kids who otherwise would not have had an opportunity to go to Lake Baikal. They were very happy.

Is tourism to the Baikal area helpful or harmful?

It helps and harms at the same time. On the one hand, tourism is a source of income for local residents. On the other hand, it’s sort of a wild, uncontrolled, unregulated development. And we need to be setting aside areas that are exempt from development.

Last year we started a competition to find the best places to develop tourism and to promote those places specifically to contain the tourism. One interesting result is that we’re seeing some people who used to work in some of the protected areas, the preserves and the reserves, as well as some former foresters, go into the tourism business. They’re able to practice different methods to, for example, attract wild birds to their territory and other species to make it a more attractive place for tourists.           

I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by interest from business, and overall my impression is that the tourism industry and many people involved want to ensure sustainable tourism. Of course I can’t say that everyone is like that, but there are people like that.

What were the most effective forms of activism for your organization?

To be diverse in one’s actions. Because people get sick of the same format of action, and the mass media are not going to pay attention if we do the same kind of meetings and actions week after week. Therefore, we try to conduct lots of different kinds of events. Not long ago we organized a walk across Lake Baikal. We did a concert on April Fool’s Day.

What is the biggest environmental threat in Russia today?

The biggest problem in Russia today is the convergence of business and government. Business works hand in hand with the federal government to exploit natural resources. And they act without fear of punishment.

Another question has to do with pollution, essentially the remains of industrial development in Soviet times. Also, there’s just no economic incentive for businesses to promote energy efficiency and to promote greener practices and to minimize waste produced. 

Another problem is there’s no independent legal system in Russia. We really need an independent court system. Then we could actually force people to answer for their actions that destroy the environment.

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