Few hear the cries of those fighting to save wild Russia

If oil spills in the forest and no one is around to see it, will anyone care? Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace

Lying to either side of the Urals, the Republic of Komi and Khanty-Mansiysk in the north of Russia are among the country’s most oil-rich regions. Scarcely populated, they provide a substantial share of Russia’s oil and gas revenues.

The areas are famed for their pristine nature, unique biodiversity and nature reserves, such as the UNESCO-listed Yugyd Va National Park. They are equally renowned for oil, gas, nickel, gold and valuable timber. Intense mining and drilling over the past 20 years in both regions has made prosperous places of many former back-country towns, boasting developed social infrastructure, marble pavements, and shiny new shopping centres. But in spite of high levels of income, residents of oil-rich towns experience many social problems such as alcohol and drug abuse. The indigenous peoples of the Siberian north, many still living a very traditional lifestyle, experience the same problems while existing on poverty-level welfare payments.

Last month, Greenpeace Russia made several expeditions to the region. The first was to visit the state-owned Rosneft oil fields in Khanty-Mansiysk. Here, according to their statement, “thousands of hectares of forests and wetlands” had become “environmental disaster zones just in a matter of years”. The second was to Lukoil-Komi, a private company working in the Komi Republic, which had allowed an oil spill of at least 500 tonnes into a local river. It took weeks to redress the impact of the spill – the company and the local administration didn’t have enough resources of their own and even employed local residents to help out with the disaster.

According to Greenpeace statistics, the Russian oil industry spills more than 30m barrels of oil a year – seven times as much as from the Deepwater Horizon accident in the US gulf. Official watchdogs say that 97% of cases are caused not by accidents but from corrosion and lack of maintenance on the ageing pipeline infrastructure, many of which sit directly on the earth, in a swamp or stream.

Environmentalists claim that whenever state agencies discover the violation (which might not be that easy as the oilfields are far from anywhere in the middle of a snow-bound desert of permafrost), companies are not often in a hurry to solve the problem. Over the years, natural landscapes die and are replaced by industrial landscapes. Indigenous people are left without traditional businesses and crafts, wild animals and fish leave the areas, and deer pastures become roads and oil fields.

The largest oil spill accidents do get Russian media coverage, but such a story seldom makes it into a series of articles in the quality national newspapers, or to television, or spark about any public outrage.

Environmentalists argue that often local administrators play down the importance of oil spills and make excuses for offending companies – provided that oil revenues make up a large share of local budget revenues. The game of economy vs ecology is tipped heavily in favour of the latter. Ideas of a green economy and sustainable development are still very abstract in Russia, with only a few regional exceptions, such as support of bio-gas projects producing gas from agricultural waste, or UN-backed low carbon development strategies.

Often the reason for low public interest into environmental problems is lack of people in affected areas – accidents frequently happen where almost no one lives. There is no human aspect to the story of an oil spill in the middle of nowhere.

Millions of barrels of oil are spilt every year. Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace

Yet, environmental topics are becoming more important. It’s predominantly urban environmental problems that are getting most attention. Air and water quality, city traffic regulations, green zones in cities, campaigns against new industrial facilities are all areas where civic groups and public initiatives have sprung up to tackle the issues.

The first of this kind was the fight for Khimki forest north of Moscow, next to the Sheremetyevo International airport. Back in 2007, plans to cut down a small forest to make way for a highway connecting Moscow and St Petersburg provoked a wave of protests. Appearing in Russian and international media, in many ways it set an example of campaigning for Russian activists. The highway is to be built anyway (although the area’s residents received better compensation and concessions), but the protest provided tools and expertise to launch protests in many similar cases.

Another recent example is the campaign of residents of the Voronezh district in central Russia, famous for its fertile black soils and unique, biodiverse ecosystem, against plans for a copper-nickel mine.

Similar stories are unfolding across Russia, with civic movements and NGOs (even after a recent state crackdown on internationally funded NGOs) campaigning on various cases, from protesting the demolition of a town park to a campaign against a new industrial facility. Some are successful, others are not. Yet it seems clear that the more well-known and well-connected a group is the more chances of a favourable outcome.

These groups actively use social networks including Twitter, Facebook and its Russian-language equivalent vk.com. In fact, spreading information to the general public, enrolling supporters, informing media, and mobilising the public has never been massively and professionally organised in Russia as now. Yet social networking has its drawbacks - generating only short-term interest in the problem that is quickly forgotten, or purely online activism that doesn’t translate into boots on the street. Still, new media has proven to be extremely popular and successful in Russia, and is already more influential than print media. And with the global reach of web publications comes international attention, which proves useful in bringing support from the international NGO community.

International coverage of local environmental disasters and protests in Russia may improve the environmental record of many Russian state-owned and private companies, particularly those with a presence outside Russia. Exposing tales from Russia to the world may affect companies’ bottom line in more environmentally sensitive markets.

A recent report by WWF Russia criticised the double standards of many Russian companies which project an environmentally responsible image for the West yet ignore international and Russian laws at home, taking advantage of the lack of civil society engagement and the legal nihilism of the state.

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