2014-04-28

Co.Exist

Meet The Russian Environmentalist Standing Up To Putin To Save The Country's Ecosystem

Suren Gazaryan tried to keep the Sochi Olympics from being an environmental disaster. After years battling the Russian government, he's still fighting even though the rest of the world stopped paying attention.

In many ways, the Sochi Olympic Games--mishap-laden as they may have been--weren't nearly as disastrous as some people feared. There was no catastrophic terrorist attack. All the athletes returned home safe. But for Suren Gazaryan, a prominent environmental activist from Krasnodar, Russia, the Olympics were an unqualified disaster, leaving environmental destruction in their wake. And now that the Olympics are over and the world's attention has shifted to Ukraine, few people are paying attention.

Gazaryan, one of six winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize for his work exposing illegal use of forestland and government corruption in the Western Caucasus, became enamored by nature as a kid, when his parents would take him on hikes. During university, he took up caving--first just for fun, and eventually for work. His PhD dissertation was on "The Bats of the Western Caucasus."

"In the course of my fieldwork, I became aware of threats to nature in the area," he explains. "Not just the general environment, but specifically to bats." More specifically, Gazaryan discovered illegal logging and construction activity around a cave. The area was going to become a site for tourists. So Gazaryan contacted a local NGO, Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), and teamed up to stop the logging, and to prevent the cave from becoming a tourist site. Gazaryan and EWNC were successful in part because of cooperation from the local government.

That incident, in the late 1990s, was Gazaryan's first taste of environmental activism. Since then, he's had a number of other successes with EWNC. Some of his biggest successful campaigns, done in tandem with EWNC and other environmental activists: collecting signatures and blocking bulldozers to prevent the construction of a palatial estate by former president Dmitry Medvedev on protected land in the Utrish Wildlife Refuge; and campaigning for the creation of the 25,000-acre Utrish Nature Reserve along the coast of the Black Sea.

Starting around 2007--when preparations for the Sochi Olympics intensified--environmental activists in Russia were subject to increasing government pressure. In the past, Gazaryan and his fellow environmentalists had been able to work with the government on environmental actions. No longer. "The previous mechanisms for change no longer worked. That's why we started more radical activities. We had to become a more reactive body," says Gazaryan, who now lives in exile in Bonn, Germany.

His first radical action was in 2009 during a campaign to stop the logging of endangered trees for Olympic construction. Gazaryan and other environmentalists protected the trees, which were illegal to log according to Russian legislation at the time, with their bodies. From a legal standpoint, Gazaryan and the others were in the clear. But they were arrested anyway--and months afterwards, Russia changed its forest code to allow logging of the endangered trees. "They realized there was no legal way to build Olympic facilities otherwise," he says.

Throughout the construction of the Sochi Olympics sites, Gazaryan and EWNC chronicled illegal waste dumping, threatened wildlife, and other environmental destruction. The devastation continues. "It's gotten worse since media attention has disappeared from the region," says Gazaryan. "The end of the Olympics meant the end of government interest. There have been no efforts to remediate the negative impacts of construction."

The government had promised a project to restore the ecosystem at Olympic sites, but it has allocated no money to follow through. Now, Gazaryan says, the landscape of the nearby Mzymta River Valley, formerly home to an incredibly diverse ecosystem, has been transformed (see EWNC's full Sochi report here). Landslides, erosion, and mudslides are common.

In 2012, Gazaryan's environmental activism reached a tipping point. He angered the government so much that he fled the country for Estonia instead of facing an unjust prison sentence, handed down supposedly for his threats to kill guards at a construction site. His EWNC colleague, Yevgeny Vitishko, is now living in a penal colony (in February, he was sentenced to three years in prison for damaging a fence). Just a week ago, EWNC received notice that it has been shut down and its bank accounts have been blocked (this is possible because of a relatively new law in Russia that allows the government to audit and shut down organizations that get money from other countries, without going through due process. Hundreds of NGOs have been affected).

"Maybe we will create a new NGO, but I'm not sure it's feasible," says Gazaryan.

After spending time in Estonia and Georgia, Gazaryan took a job in Germany working on bat preservation. His ex-wife, children, parents, and brother all still live in Russia. He supports EWNC--an organization with about 110 members, 20 of which conduct real boots-on-the-ground activism--from a distance, using social networks like Facebook and Twitter to bolster campaigns in support of Vitishko. The Goldman Environmental Prize money, he says, will go towards finding permanent housing. "The prize gives a certain security, safety. International recognition is important both for me and my organization," he says.

While the near-term future of environmental activism in Russia is bleak, to say the least, Gazaryan hasn't lost all hope. "If the whole society changes, of course the situation will change," he says. "The people have to learn how to control the government, and when they learn to control the government, we'll have a civil society again."

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