Devoted to Saving Lake Baikal, She Won Even Putin's Ear

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, April 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Devoted to Saving Lake Baikal, She Won Even Putin's Ear


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


In a land where oil dominates politics and environmental issues barely make the agenda, it was a veritable coup.

Concerned with plans to route a major oil pipeline within 900 yards of pristine Lake Baikal, Marina Rikhvanova and her Baikal Environmental Wave advocacy group led thousands of people into the streets of nearby Irkutsk; collected over 20,000 petition signatures; and summoned "flash mobs," which used tactics such as handing bottles of murky "Baikal water" to embarrassed officials.

After two months of protests, President Vladimir Putin pointedly asked the chief of state-owned oil company Transneft on TV whether an alternative route was possible. "If you are hesitating, then there is such an opportunity," Putin told the quavering official. The pipeline was subsequently rerouted.

In recognition of her work, Ms. Rikhvanova will on Monday receive the Goldman Environmental Prize at a ceremony in San Francisco. A biologist and veteran environmental crusader, she has spent her life battling to save Siberia's "sacred sea" - which holds over 20 percent of the world's fresh water reserves - from the depredations of Soviet industrial planners and unregulated Russian businessmen.

"Around here she is a major authority, in both public and scientific circles," says Yelena Tvorogova, president of the environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO) Revival of Siberian Land Foundation in Irkutsk. "[Rikhvanova] is one of the founders and is still a key leader of the movement to save Lake Baikal. She's always been persistent and uncompromising in her principles."

In addition to cofounding Baikal Environmental Wave, Rikhvanova is cochair of the International Socio-Environmental Union, a network of Russian NGOs, many of whom cooperate with her group on Baikal issues. Her organization has received support in the past from a wide variety of international sources, including the US Agency for International Development, Germany's Green Party, the Ford Foundation, the Moscow-based Vernadsky Foundation (an environmental NGO), and others. Its international collaborators include the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, The Heinrich Boll Foundation, the Pacific Environment Research Center.

Encouraged by the success of Baikal Environmental Wave in banning the pipeline from a sensitive seismic zone near Baikal's shores, Rikhvanova is now organizing to block the expansion of a state-run uranium enrichment facility at Angarsk, just 50 miles from Lake Baikal, where the Russian government is planning to import nuclear waste from around the world for reprocessing.

"It is extremely dangerous for people who live in Irkutsk and along the Angara River, because underground waters move in their direction," says Rikhvanova. "I don't think Rosatom has considered the danger to the region and to Lake Baikal. They do not provide information to the public about their plans, or the possible damage."

Rikhvanova still lives in her cramped Soviet-era flat in Irkutsk, trying to juggle motherhood, scientific work, and environmental activism. "I have studied Lake Baikal all my life and worked and protested," she says by phone. "It hasn't been easy, but it has been interesting."

Rikhvanova has endured frequent harassment from the FSB security service, including several search and seizure raids of her home and office. Last year her adult son Pavel was one of 20 people arrested after a still-unexplained attack on her group's environmental encampment, apparently staged by nationalist thugs, in which one activist was killed and several injured.

She describes it as an attempt to intimidate her. "Pavel is still in prison, although I believe the authorities know everything that happened," she says. "My son never belonged to any nationalist groups."

Environmental activism is growing increasingly hazardous in Putin's Russia, say other ecologists. …

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