Thursday, October 19, 2017

Russia’s Environmental Issues

By: Hayley Harding
Produced and Edited by: Sarah Wagner

Russia’s Environmental Issues

Russian diesel locomotives expel carbon emissions, adding to the widespread pollution.
Photo courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons
In the north, much of Russia’s notorious permafrost is melting. In many of the country’s biggest cities in the west, air pollution has Russians breathing dirty air. In the Russian Far East, industrial development has led to illegal logging and poaching along with other problems.

The country — the largest in the world, spanning 11 different time zones — faces a diverse range of environmental problems, but amid limited resources for activists and an increased crackdown on NGOs, it can be difficult for activists to feel like they have any impact.

Those looking to take action may find that it’s hard to know where to even begin.

“It’s really hard to generalize,” Angelina Davydova, a freelance journalist covering environmental issues, said. “It’s really hard to come up with just two or three sentences describing the (environmental) situation because it’s very varied.”

During much of the Soviet era, the government did not regulate many pollution-creating activities on the grounds it would slow down economic development and business growth. The country has not been quick to remedy the resulting problems or to counter current ones.

Yakimanka District, Moscow, Russia.  Photo Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons

Generally agreed upon is that in big cities, traffic, manufacturing and other air pollution-producing activities have led to diminished air quality, although “it’s better than it used to be in the latest years of the Soviet Union,” Davydova said.

Other problems include fewer forests for legal logging, smaller habitats for endangered species and, perhaps most crucially of all, limited governmental support for those working to protect parts of the environment that are most at risk. In some places, NGOs working to protect the environment feel government agencies could be working against them.

“Provincial officials often do not support and understand the importance of conservation work by NGOs,” said Sergei Bereznuk, director of Phoenix Fund, a non-governmental dedicated to biodiversity recovery. “Instead, such work, especially when funded from abroad, can be considered as subversive activities. On the other hand, it is almost impossible for independent NGOs to receive governmental funding so there is no cooperation and support.”

2017 is Russia’s “year of ecology,” according to a decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2016, but Human Rights Watch reports it to be one of the worst for environmentalists, declaring environmentally focused NGOs “an endangered species.”

The government audited Bellona, a Norwegian-based international environmental group, and declared it a “foreign agent,” a label that indicates a group works with or accepts money from foreign governments, which is not allowed under Russian law. The tag has connotations of Cold War-era espionage and comes with a heavy stigma for the groups to which it is applied.

Such a label makes it harder for a group to work within the nation’s borders and makes it subject to more extensive restrictions and audits. It is often a kiss of death, forcing an organization to close its doors. Seven environmental groups have been shuttered since the law came into effect in 2012, just a few of the dozens of organizations to get the label.

Financial support from overseas, even when not from government agencies, can be tricky to come by. For instance, the recent tensions between the United States and Russia coupled with the Russian financial crisis has hurt Phoenix Fund’s fundraising efforts.

“For the last few years, Phoenix (Fund) has lost support from a number of donors in the US and the UK,” Bereznuk said. “We are hoping that the economic crisis will end soon and people and businesses will be able to go on giving their donations for nature conservation efforts.”

The government does not often provide resources or solutions to act in response to such groups once they are gone, creating ever more problems for those still working to help with conservation and other environmental efforts.

“Russia’s state institutions are very weak in terms of working for real solutions, and to avoid public disapproval, they prefer to hide the real problem behind false official reports,” Violetta Ryabko, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Russia, said. “Greenpeace Russia’s role is to be a source of reliable information, provide … expertise and share the experience of educational work.”

In some cases, though, the government helps with preservation. In a statement from World Wildlife Fund Russia press officer Daria Kudryavtseva, the organization says some general progress has been made.

For instance, Russia signed the Paris climate accord (although it has not yet ratified it), a move the United States also made but then reneged. The Russian Federation also increased the number of specially protected areas and “introduced a temporary moratorium on issuing new licenses to companies to develop oil and gas fields on the Arctic shelf,” Kudryavtseva said.

While these small steps serve to benefit the country as a whole, the repercussions from governmental actions can mean “the moment (for conservation efforts) can be missed,” Bereznuk said.

Many experts, however, agree that environmental activists in Russia face significant challenges.

“Some environmental activists are facing pressure, political pressure, social pressure, sometimes even violence, but that’s not the universal case,” Davydova said. “There are some regions where environmental activists are super successful and super proactive, and then there are others where they are being oppressed or not being heard. … There are many dimensions to this story.”

1 comment:

Isobe Ltin said...

In some places, NGOs working to protect the environment feel government agencies could be working against them.
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