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Protest against Construction of Massive Garbage Dump in Northern Russia

That question lies at the center of a protest against construction of a massive garbage dump in northern Russia — an environmental issue

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Protest, Construction, Garbage
In this photo taken on Friday, April 20, 2018, garbage trucks drive away from the Volovichi landfill near the town of Kolomna, about 100 kilometers (62,5 miles) south of Moscow, Russia. VOA

Who would want what’s possibly Europe’s largest landfill in their own backyard? Garbage.

That question lies at the center of a protest against construction of a massive garbage dump in northern Russia — an environmental issue that has come to symbolize growing frustration towards Moscow’s sway over Russia’s far-flung regions.

The fight over Shiyes — a remote railway outpost in Russia’s Arkhangelsk province that is to play host to the landfill — first erupted a little over a year ago after local hunters came across a secret construction site in the region’s swamp-filled forests.

It didn’t take long for locals to learned of the dig’s true purpose: to house a 52-square-kilometer storage area for refuse shipped in from Moscow, some 1126 kilometers away.

Government officials say Shiyes was chosen based on its remote location — with the new ‘Ecotechnopark’ a cutting edge example of innovative waste storage.

They also point to cash and incentives — such as a computer lab, annual New Year’s gifts, and healthcare access to top Moscow hospitals for nearby locals —  as a smart investment for regional development.

Protest, Construction, Garbage
In this photo taken on Friday, April 20, 2018, garbage trucks unload the trash at the Volovichi landfill near Kolomna, Russia. Thousands of people are protesting the noxious fumes coming from overcrowded landfills surrounding Moscow. VOA

But anger over the landfill has united a diverse swath of citizens across northern Russia — with many saying they see it as a threat to natural resources that define a way of life in extreme climate.

“Of course we’re against it,” says Antokha, a construction worker who travelled some 800 kilometers away to join the camp from the city of Arkhangelisk.

“The area’s swamps feed rivers that extend throughout the region and feed into the White Sea. Poison Shiyes with garbage and you poison the entire north,” he added, while declining to provide his last name.

Welcome to the Resistance 

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Antokha is just one of many Russian northerners who have joined a hundreds-strong protest movement that spent the past year locked in a standoff with authorities over construction of the landfill.

In that time, ‘The Republic of Shiyes’ has emerged — a tent commune just outside the dig site with its own anthem, flag, infirmary, as well as a makeshift kitchen and bathhouse.

While ‘The Republic’ even has a stage for concerts and announcements, this is no Woodstock. Among the camp’s strictest rules? No drugs or alcohol.

Yet Shiyes has attracted the eclectic mix of an ‘anything goes’ event: liberals share soup casually with nationalists, peaceniks with military vets, small business owners alongside eco-activists.

All have committed to rotating shifts into the camp — through a frigid winter and mosquito-infested summer — in an effort to keep the protest going.

“This really is a war,” says Anna Shakalova, a shopkeeper from nearby who’s emerged as one of the leaders of the movement.

Protest, Construction, Garbage
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, Sept. 5, 2019. VOA

“And if we stay together, it’s a war we win.”

Growing Resentments 

Beyond the immediate environmental concerns, the battle over Shiyes has also exposed simmering resentments about a top-down system of governance that centralizes power and critical regional revenues in Moscow’s hands.

There’s widespread feeling that Russia’s regions give their resources to the capital while getting little — or, even worse, garbage — in return.

“It’s an example of Moscow chauvinism against the rest of the country,” says Ksenia Dmitrieva, 33, who grew up swimming in the area’s rivers as a child.

“Moscow thinks just because they have the money they can put their trash where they want. They’re not better than us.”

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The Shiyes strike continues amid a year of growing discontent with Russia’s government — with complaints about a sagging economy affecting the regions disproportionately.

Recent elections saw whole swaths of territory — such as the Khabarovsk Province in the Far East — send stinging defeats to the United Party in local races.  The public has also condemned the government response to the spread of massive wildfires across wide swaths of Siberia.  Meanwhile, smaller cities surrounding Moscow have long complained about the overflowing dumpsites poisoning air and water quality.

But more alarming for the Kremlin? President Vladimir Putin is no longer immune.

After years of sky-high ratings, Putin’s support numbers have fallen in the wake of unpopular pension reforms and falling living standards.  Recent polls show trust in Putin has fallen to just over 30%. Meanwhile, a majority now think the country is on the wrong track.

“They ask: ‘why wasn’t that done?’ And when they don’t find an answer of course they become opponents of Putin” says Ilya Kirianov, an engineer who traveled to Shiyes from Severodvinsk — where the public was still reeling from a mysterious explosion that released radiation into the air this past July.

“You see people who just a year ago voted for Putin are now some of his harshest critics,” he added.

Count Liliya Zobova, a business owner, is among those who’ve lost patience with the Russian leader.

“I loved Putin and voted for him,” she says.

That changed after seeing Putin weigh in — briefly in an answer in May 2019 — to say authorities should take public opinion into account.

The result? Construction paused — but only briefly.

“It means Putin supports it,” says Zobova. “I don’t know who to believe anymore.”

Helicopters and Blockades

For now, protesters have blockaded old logging roads that provide the only access for equipment to the build site. Even getting to the camp involves a hike through dense sticky swamplands.

In turn, authorities have started using helicopters to ferry in diesel and supplies for a force of masked private security contractors and regional police who guard the site.

In a show of force against the Shiyes camp, several protesters have been arrested and face the prospect of criminal prosecution. Police regularly post signs warning a raid is imminent.

It’s natural to be afraid,” says Irina Leontova, a 28-year-old filmmaker from Syktyvkar, a 3 hour drive away.   “Anything can happen — arrests, fines — but still people keep coming.”

Surveying the camp, Vera Goncherinka, a retired accountant from the nearby town of Urdoma, marveled at how life had changed since she got involved in the Shiyes uprising a year ago.

“I should be on my couch at home but look at me now,” she said —-  adding that her experiences in Shiyes had convinced her that something was stirring in Russia’s regions.

“How do we know something like Shiyes isn’t happening somewhere else in Russia? Have you ever heard them talk about us on television?”

With that, a passing train blew its whistle in support — and the protesters waved back.

A sign that news — like the region’s water — always finds a way out of the swamp. (VOA)

Next Story

Central American Countries Rally to Protest For Conservation of Forests

Indigenous Groups Rally to Protect Latin America's Threatened Forests

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Conservation of forests
The coalition of governments, indigenous people, green groups and others announced a plan to protect 10 million hectares of forests. Pixabay

Central American countries are teaming up to conserve the region’s five great forests as part of a regional climate action plan released at U.N. climate talks in Madrid this week, the alliance behind the effort said.

The coalition of governments, indigenous people, green groups and others announced a plan to protect 10 million hectares of forests and degraded land inside those forests — an area roughly the size of Guatemala — by 2030.

In the last 15 years, three of the forests have been reduced by almost one-quarter in size, with illegal cattle ranching responsible for more than 90% of recent deforestation, it said.

Measures planned to safeguard the forests include bolstering agencies that look after protected areas, tracing beef to verify it has been legally produced, cracking down on cross-border cattle trafficking, helping ranchers find other ways to earn a living, and reforesting land where trees have been cut down.

Jeremy Radachowsky, regional director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a partner in the project, said financing would come from multiple sources, including Central American countries, donor governments and a dedicated fund that will be created for indigenous and community forests.

The five forests, spanning from Mexico to Colombia, are key to curbing climate change as they sequester carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels that would otherwise heat up the planet.

Spain Climate Talks
People shout slogans during a march organized by the Fridays for Future international movement of school students outside of the COP25 climate talks congress in Madrid, Spain. VOA

“Nearly 50% of the carbon in Mesoamerica is stored in the five great forests,” said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Costa Rica’s environment minister, adding he hoped they would not be fragmented by deforestation.

The forests also provide habitat for wildlife such as the jaguar and scarlet macaw, the alliance said. The initiative aims to ensure no species go extinct.

The forests include the Maya Forest in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize; the Moskitia in Nicaragua and Honduras; the Indio Maiz-Tortuguero in Nicaragua and Costa Rica; the Talamanca region in Costa Rica and Panama; and the Darien in Panama and Colombia.

They provide water, clean air, food security and other natural resources to 5 million people, the alliance said, noting that indigenous and local communities manage nearly half of the forest area.

Candido Mezua  of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, said it was sad to see the forests of the Amazon burning — and the impact that was having on indigenous people.

“In Mesoamerica, we have our five forests. They still exist. We can still protect them, and even expand them,” he said in a statement.

Amazon summit 

Amazon indigenous leaders, meanwhile, said this week they would host a world summit in Ecuador next August aimed at protecting the Amazon rainforest and other ecosystems in “response to the environmental crisis in the basin and abroad”.

Leaders representing 20 indigenous groups from Ecuador and Peru also called for global support to stop oil drilling and mining in the Amazon “Sacred Headwaters” region, an ecosystem rich in biodiversity that spans 30 million hectares in the two countries.

Deforestation in Brazil’s huge tract of Amazon rainforest rose to its highest level in over a decade this year, government data showed in November.

The data confirmed a sharp increase in deforestation under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, which is considering permitting commercial agriculture and mining on native reserves.

Risks to Brazil’s forests drew global concern in August when fires raged through the Amazon.

Scientists link the fires to deforestation, with people and companies cutting down the forest for timber and then setting fire to the remains to clear the land for ranching or farming.

Forests
In the last 15 years, three of the forests have been reduced by almost one-quarter in size, with illegal cattle ranching. Pixabay

Gregorio Mirabal, general coordinator of COICA, the biggest indigenous federation in the Amazon, said new ways were needed of dealing with threats to the Amazon, including the “devastating effects” of climate change.

At the U.N. climate conference, states “are making decisions for companies and not for the people”, he said.

“The inability of our governments to solve this (climate) crisis is calling us to do this ourselves, hand in hand with the youth and any others in goodwill who want to join,” he added.

Many indigenous groups are opposed to credits for forest protection being included in carbon trading markets, arguing it would damage their sacred lands and livelihoods, as governments haggle over new rules for those markets at the Madrid talks.

“We do not allow the commodification of nature or that it has a price. For us nature is of value as itself. It is our Mother Earth,” Mirabal said.

According to the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative, which works on forest issues, up to 65% of the world’s land is communally held by indigenous peoples and local communities and contains 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

But only 10% of those groups’ land rights have been legally recognized, it said.

“The local cultures and indigenous peoples are the ones that have best preserved nature, and we do not believe that solutions can exist without us,” said Mirabal.

Indigenous groups — officially represented at the U.N. conference for the first time — have pushed for language on protecting their rights to be included in the text on carbon market rules that is under negotiation in Madrid.

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But it is not in the latest draft as the talks near an end.

Indonesian indigenous activist Ghazali Ohorella said the rules should ensure safeguards for forest people’s land and rights, as well as a complaints mechanism and opportunities for them to participate in decisions on carbon offsetting schemes. “If not, it will create so much trouble further down the line,” he told journalists at the talks. (VOA)