Russia — Russia’s environment has worsened considerably in recent years, with many unique nature reserves, including the world’s biggest freshwater lake, coming under threat, Greenpeace officials said Friday.
Activists highlighted an increase in forest fires and oil spills, and a decline in environmental spending, as part of what they called Russia’s destructive environmental legacy over the past decade.
“Ten years ago we predicted the situation would get worse,” Ivan Blokov, Greenpeace’s program director in Russia, told a news conference. “The results are very saddening, but for the time being the situation is not catastrophic.”
The period in question coincides with the leadership of Vladimir Putin, who served as president for eight years until 2008, when he became prime minister.
But Blokov stopped short of casting broad blame on Putin. “I wouldn’t give any general judgment because it would be incorrect,” he said.
Blokov pointed out, however, that it was Putin who, just days after being inaugurated president in 2000, abolished the country’s forestry service and environmental protection committee depriving the country of independent environmental regulators. Blokov noted that Putin signed legislation in 2001 making it possible for Russia to import spent nuclear fuel for storage and reprocessing.
“It was absolutely clear that more than 90 per cent of Russia’s population is against importing nuclear fuel, but Mr. Putin signed the law,” Blokov said.
While Russia has not yet imported spent nuclear fuel and Blokov said he doubted it will statistics show a rise in forest fires, oil spills, and the industrial and toxic waste created.
For instance, official figures show the amount of territory ravaged by forest fires more than doubled from the late 1990s to 2009, to 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) in 2009. Greenpeace activists claim that the actual size of forests destroyed by fire tripled.
“Unfortunately, the situation with forests is the most depressing aspect of environmental protection, and over the past decade maintenance of forests has been more chaotic than ever before,” said forestry expert, Alexey Yaroshenko.
Mikhail Kreindlin, an expert on protected areas, stressed that Russia’s nine UNESCO-protected nature sites “are threatened with extinction.”
One of them, Lake Baikal, is the world’s deepest lake and largest reservoir of fresh water. Last year Putin showcased the wild beauty of the lake by descending 4,600 feet to its bed in a mini-submarine. Earlier this year he signed an order to reopen a paper mill that environmentalists claim is a threat to the Baikal’s estimated 1,500 unique species of plants and animals.
This is why the status of Baikal, along with four other Russian sites, will be reviewed by UNESCO this year putting Russia in first place in terms of UNESCO-protected sites that are under review due to threat risks, Greenpeace activist Mikhail Kreindlin said.
The Greenpeace news conference was held the day before World Environment Day, which is Saturday.