They are well organized, come from all levels of society – and will not give in until they are physically carried away. The construction of a garbage landfill in a forest in the Russian Arctic has stirred an unprecedented public engagement – one that in the longer run may have consequences for the Russian political elite.
This text was first published in April 2019.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.
SHIES, ARKHANGELSK COUNTY: - We will never accept that the garbage mafia builds another Chernobyl here. We will protect our land and never surrender, says Yuri Alekseyevitch Shigaryev (59).
Heavy timber logs lie across the narrow forest road. Shigaryev is adequately dressed for the Russian winter; a thick fur hat and large boots allow him and the rest of the crew at this road post to keep the cold out during their 12 hour-long shifts.
We are deep into the flat marshlands of northwestern Russia. We are surrounded by birch and pines as far as the eye can see. A rag doll equipped with a gas mask has been set up as a scarecrow on the side of the road – to warn about what expects visitors deeper into the woods.
The construction of a 5,000-hectare garbage landfill near the Shies train station in Arkhangelsk County has enraged Russians. It is about the destruction of untouched nature and groundwater, and about the depositing of large amounts of unsorted waste. And it is about an increasing garbage waste problem across all of Russia, and about the authorities’ lack of efforts to introduce recycling.
Though it is also about lies and vicarious motives, about large sums of money and a lack of acceptance of taking people’s worries seriously.
59-year old retired railway worker Yuri Shigaryev has had enough. For more than one month, he has been on guard out in the forest here. He is just one out of hundreds of volunteer “forest guardians” who work more or less as a self-defense group – fighting an enemy threaten to invade. The enemy is both the company behind the construction of the garbage landfill, Ecoteknopark, but also the authorities.
The guardians of the forest have emerged based on increasing frustration with the authorities’ lack of ability to protect nature. A fact they all share is that they have never been publicly engaged before. They have experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the chaotic 1990s, when all their savings disappeared in the devaluation of the ruble, political corruption and election fraud.
But they only hit the streets now, when a garbage landfill is under construction.
Or rather; they hit the woods.
Yuri Shigaryev appears soft-spoken and cautious, yet his voice is trembling with rage when he talks about what the authorities are doing.
- The government needs to wake up and start working on the challenges in waste disposal. They should stop cooperating with the garbage mafia. When the government does not do its job, we must do it, he says.
We do not want another Maidan rebellion; we are not political protestors. We are only here to protect nature.
Russia’s Enormous Waste Problem
About one fifth out of all waste produced in Russia comes from Moscow, and some 90 percent of this ends up at landfills, unsorted. While 40 percent of all waste in the EU is recycled, 96 percent of all Russian waste ends up at landfills – metals, food, plastic and paper.
And environmental problems are piling up at overfilled landfills like this, in particular in the areas around the Russian capital. In March last year, 57 school children ended up at hospital with vomiting and nose-bleeding following their breathing in toxic gases from a waste area near the town of Volkolamsk, northwest of Moscow.
The incident with the school children gave rise to local protests, and also to larger environmental protests in several towns and cities surrounding the Russian capital. Eventually, president Vladimir Putin himself had to personally intervene. He ordered a major waste landfill east of Moscow to be shut down following a live-TV caller begging him to do so. However, this only led to a new problem: Where now to place the waste that is still produced – waste that needs depositing?
Shies in Arkhangelsk became one of the places to aid Moscow’s waste. However, the authorities underestimated the extensive public outrage that ensued. When the first train carrying construction workers and equipment arrived in Shies late July last year, the inhabitants of nearby villages woke up. Equipped with video cameras they demanded an answer as to why more than 100 construction workers were suddenly chopping down the woods around the train station, and why excavators and trucks with Moscow license plates were brought here.
Elusive answers led to growing rage on social media. The first explanation given was that the railway station was to be upgraded. Later, people were told that a timber factory was to be built. However, the locals realized that this could not be true – there were already two timber factories nearby, both struggling to acquire enough raw materials to run a full-scale production.
In next to no time, public meetings were organized in several of the nearby villages. The social media engagement hit the roof and people who had never protested before in their lives were now ready to sleep and work shifts in the woods.
Yuri Shigaryev has been involved in eight “incidents” himself over the past month. Construction workers are trying to bypass them with their trucks to supply fuel and sand. Activists are blocking the road, both with logs and their own bodies.
Shigaryev says straight out that he will chain himself before construction machines as a human shield if it becomes necessary. Nevertheless, the 59-year old stresses that the guardians of the forest to not work politically.
- We do not want another Maidan rebellion; we are not political protestors. We are only here to protect nature.
- Can this engagement lead to political changes in the longer term?
- Possibly, however, that is not our goal. We are here to protect nature.
500,000 of waste per year for 20 years
Shies is the name of a disused railway station that has been named after the river flowing nearby. Nine months ago, this was a place where you would not find a soul and the was nothing going on. The only way to get to Shies was by train. Perhaps that was why the Arkhangelsk governor last year said yes to the plans about bringing 500,000 tons of unsorted waste from Moscow households here each year, for 20 years to come.
Here, in the woods, 1,240 kilometers along railway lines from the Russian capital, surely no-one would care if a waste landfill was built?
Men in black wearing balaclavas and holding long batons eye us carefully when we approach. The disused Shies railway station has been turned into an industrial area with a helipad, depot, stalling area of vehicles and its own hen house.
Outside the construction worker barracks, two football goals have been set up. The workers do not have much to do following the activists starting to block the area. Some have gone home; others are restlessly pacing the area with a shovel across their shoulders.
The construction company has hired private security companies to keep nature protectors and activists under control.
The area is still officially defined as forest in public registries. And conservationists therefore use their right, rooted in the Russian constitution, to freely roam the woods – even if the woods we walk are not made of clay or sand, but concrete. Our attempt to enter one of the barracks is efficiently interrupted when the tall men in black stand together to form a wall before the activists.
It is the first time in my life that I participate in such a movement. And it feels perfect.
The “Stalingrad” tent camp has been set up just north of the railway station. The activists who sleep out here say straight out that the fight against the garbage landfill is their “Stalingrad” – the symbolic and strategically important city Hitler never managed to conquer; the one that became the turning point for the Nazis’ advance during WW2.
- It is the first time ever in my life that I participate in a movement like this. And it feels perfect, Vladimir Lutsik (61) says with a smile. He offers me a cup of hot tea around the campfire. The men in black keep their distance now, but every single movement we make is recorded by small cameras attached to their chest pockets.
Lutsik comes from the Urdoma village, a few kilometers from Shies, and he’s on duty at the camp for 24 hours ever third day.
The rota says two hours on, then two hours’ sleep. Russian flags are flapping in the wind from the top of the nearest tall pile of sand while Lutsik explains why he is now willing to barricade on a proposed waste landfill.
- I do not want my children and grandchildren to grow up like this. This is not about politics; this is only about ecology and our nature. I will stay here until we have won, he says.
Several actionist groups have appeared at Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. The most important group, called “We oppose the waste dumping in Lenskiy” has some 20,000 followers and is a place in which people from all walks of society and life have joined forces.
The conflict about the construction in Shies is hardly mentioned in state media. That is why social media become the most important source of information about the protests – as well as an arena for recruiting new activists.
Like Yelena and Denis Mayle, an ordinary Russian couple in their early 40s with a flat in the city. He works in the construction industry; she is a teacher. Just like so many other Russians, they have never before engaged with anything, be it politics or other parts of public debate.
But that was before they read in social media that waste was to be transported from Moscow to the forests around their town.
- We ship our oil and minerals to Moscow and receive their waste in return. People are furious, because what happens now concerns all of us. We are the ones who must live close to this, Yelena says.
Together with a handful of other activists we meet at a coffee shop in Syktyvkar, a town some three hours’ drive south of the Shies railway station.
- We should actually thank our local authorities for this. For this has opened our eyes to other problems in the country too, Yelena says and adds:
- Before this landfill was planned, I never care much about things like this.
“The battle is won, but the war is not over”
The businessman Victor Visnyevskiy has made career of selling toys. He now uses his contacts to assist the activists who hold their ground in the forest. He shows us a 50 square meters’ camouflage colored field tent that some business associates have donated.
Visnyevskiy makes no secret of the protests around Shies resembling warlike conditions.
- We have won a battle and managed to interrupt the resupply of fuel. However, the war is not over yet, he says.
Visnyevskiy argues that the many countries from both local authorities as well as the entrepreneurs have angered the people.
Nevertheless, the strong opposition is also about a strong discontentment with the central power. He does not understand why Northwest Russia must handle Moscow’s environmental challenges.
- I want to live in the High North. I do not want to move to Moscow or anywhere else in the south. People understand that this is a life or death battle. The current situation in Russia is not easy and many people life off the land. People are therefore upset about the destruction of the forest and the pollution, Visnyevskiy says.
“The activists have the right to worry about the situation”
Governor Igor Orlov responds in writing to answers from High North News in this case. His answers are included in full below.
- Who approved the development plans on a regional level?
- Allow me to begin with a brief introduction to the topic of discussion. The Moscow government’s plans about constructing a landfill for waste in the Arkhangelsk region were first announced 18 October last year. The project was assessed by the Arkhangelsk region’s commission for investment and competition development, and its joint decision was to award the project status as a priority and a large-scale project. This decision gives an investor the right to acquire a land area of project implementation as a priority.
- In this case, we are just talking about a concept and the “approval” really just means that the regional authorities do not oppose the project as it has been presented, given that all the parameters declared are further confirmed with all investigations required and relevant technological projects.
- This means, which was not said once by the governor, that the project will not be implemented or carried out should not documentation of the environmental security of the project be submitted.
- Until now, neither the results of the environmental assessment nor the final project plans have been received by the regional authorities in Arkhangelsk. There is thus no valid permission for constructing the landfill, and it is therefore not possible to conduct major construction works in the area.
- Yet, as I am sure you know, there is some equipment at the Shies station in the Lenskiy district, and there is also some work going on. That is true. The Technopark company is constructing an area for on- and offloading, however, this is within a strict 47-hectare limit and an area that they lease from the Russian railways.
- It is a point when people usually ask: “Why are they building a logistics hub if the decision about constructing the landfill is not made yet? Of course, it is better to ask the investor directly, but it is nevertheless only the investor’s risk and he knows about the potential consequences.
- How much is EcoTeknoPark to pay for the construction of the landfill?
- If we talk about economic indicators, the investments will amount to 10.5 billion rubles (€ 140 million, journ.note). This will open up more than 500 jobs with an average salary higher than normal for the entire region. In addition, the extra tax income for local and regional budgets for the first six-year period is expected to reach up to 1 billion rubles (€ 13.5 million, journ.note).
- What does the governor think about the big protests and the resistance against the project?
- Most local activists have the right to be worried about the current situation. And that can be explained – the regional authorities have not been able to come up with information in due course. This view, as well as the activists’ worries, are shared by Igor Orlov. The Governor is very much aware that when speaking about the project, the regional authorities are about to get updated on the situation now.
- However, as stated above, there is as per now no final information about the project since the assessments required have not been conducted and technological projects have not been expanded. We will be able discuss this in detail only when we see the final version.
- Alongside with this, the regional authorities are making a series of attempts to reach out to society regarding waste management in general, not just about the proposed project at Shies station. The good thing is that the sudden public activity provides us with the opportunity to speak about the problems related to existing landfills, and about waste management and processing. These issues were kept in the dark for years; they did not receive attention and today we are finally able to manage them.
- And here we are. We are gradually approaching each other, the rather minor category “political protestants”, who all of a sudden started meddling in ecology – only when the issue of waste management became such a hot topic of discussion. They openly express their political demands and the latter, as you know, have nothing to do with solving the ecological problems. Their loud statements are promoted to dissolve private political and sometimes economic interest of single individuals. And the ecological issue is simply being used as a tool for pressuring the state bodies. Despite this, regional authorities and the governor personally have invited even the loudest opponents to a dialogue, though in most cases they have rejected any interaction. Because any interaction will not help them reach their political targets, as long as their interest exclusively lies in countermeasures.
This will open up more than 500 jobs with an average salary higher than normal for the entire region.
- Should nature be used as a depository for waste management?
- That question is not entirely valid, and it is even provoking, to some extent. Because, and I repeat myself, we do not yet know what ecological effects the proposed project may have on the environment. Last, but not least, we cannot even tell whether the project will be conducted as we do not have any assessment results yet. One could of course argue that waste is waste and will have its effect on nature regardless, and the latter holds negative connotations. However, any discussion will be futile until we have the results of the ecological expertise, detailed morphology of the waste, as well as measures to be taken in order to limit effects on the environment.
- If the opposition to the project does not come to an end, and activists keep blocking the supply of fuel and other materials, will the governor ask the police to intervene?
- The maintaining of law and order as works independent of the governor’s permissions. They have monitored the situation in the Lenskiy district from the very beginning with regard to observing the outer boundaries for the construction area of the Russian railways and up to providing security measures through mass actions. The relationship between the on-site workers, local residents and visiting activists who have come to observe can be described as tense. Everything that matters in this situation is to do all you can to keep anyone from going beyond the limits permitted and violating the law, and then all will find its place in due course.