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Story Publication logo November 11, 2013

Marina Rikhvanova’s Quest to Save Russia’s Lake Baikal


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Monotowns, Russian cities dependent on dying industries, face an even more uncertain future now that...

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Image by Brendan Hoffman. Russia, 2013.

Marina Rikhvanova, the soft-spoken but persistent leader of the environmental group Baikal Wave, has fought for more than 20 years to save the world's oldest and deepest freshwater lake. Last month, she apparently won the battle: Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, which had been polluting Lake Baikal and threatening its plant and animal life for over 40 years, finally shut down.

Rikhvanova was the one who, back in 2011, waded into snow up to her chest to discover and photograph the mill's illegal dumping of lignin-based slurry, an industrial waste product. Her group's report on the practice to UNESCO played a crucial role in the mill's closure. "At the end of the day, the main argument for shutting down the mill was its waste. To put the end to the pressure from international community, President Putin promised UNESCO to close the mill," the executive manager of Baikalsk pulp mill told The Daily Beast.

In many countries where environmental issues are taken seriously, Rikhvanova's activity would have brought her fame and a string of awards. But no laurel wreaths waited for Marina on the day of her victory. Now, though the lake's future looks safe, lawsuits and court hearings occupy Rikhvanova's days.

Baikal Wave, one of Russia's first environmental NGOs, is now being targeted by authorities over its funding sources, which include some overseas entities like Ford and USAID, and over its political activism. Last week, a Russian court labeled Rikhvanova and her 21 employees as "foreign agents." Their purported offense? Last January, "as an individual with a strong social position," Rikhvanova says, she personally participated in a street protest against President Vladimir Putin's bill that aimed to permit the Baikalsk pulp mill to dump the slurry waste into the lake. After the protest, Baikal Wave released a resolution urging authorities to pay attention to ecological consequences of the mill's discharges. "But most officials did not welcome our work," Rikhvanova says.

Baikal Wave is not the only environmental group that has been forced to deal with Russian courts. This week, a Murmansk court pressed hooliganism charges against 26 out of 30 Greenpeace activists who were arrested in the Russian Arctic last month. They are facing up to seven years in prison for their attempt to prevent Russia's Gazprom from drilling oil in the Pechora Sea.

On a recent night, Rikhvanova was making tea at her cozy office in the outskirts of Irkutsk. Her walls were decorated with photographs of the lake, dark blue and trimmed in white snowpeaks. Lake Baikal's deep beauty enchanted Rikhvanova even as a child. Her father, a documentary filmmaker, brought her on his field trips to Baikal—there, on a path paved with the lake's reddish sand and round stones, she took her first steps. Decades later, as a young scientist at the limnological institute in Irkutsk, she studied the chemical pollutants, discharged by Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, that were in the lake's ecology, and even turning up in the milk of the earless nerpa, Baikal's unique freshwater seal. A mother of two little children, she decided to devote her life and energy to saving the lake. Together with her British partner, Jennis Sutton, Rikhvanova founded Baikal Wave, first as a club of Baikal lovers and then in 1992 as non-profit organization. In the past two decades, the activists organized eco-education for thousands of students in Irkutsk.

The activists had little idea of the price they would have to pay for their passion. For more than a decade, the group has been closely watched by Russia's security agencies. Baikal Wave's office was raided by police first in 2000, then again in 2002, when the Federal Security Service searched the office, apparently looking for secret maps and materials. Ecologists realized there was pressure coming from above but they continued to protest against the authorities for destroying nature. In July 2007, one activist was killed and five more were seriously injured by 15 men in masks who attacked an environmentalist camp that Rikhvanova helped organize. "That was a terrible year for us," Rikhvanova said. The attackers beat activists with iron rods and baseball bats and shouted nationalist slogans. In a personal tragedy, police arrested Rikhvanova's own son, claiming that he had been involved in the attack, and held him for a year before releasing him. Rikhvanova says that her son was framed.

Two years ago, police came back to Rikhvanova's office together with anti-extremism department officers to confiscate all the group's computers and memory cards and check if Baikal Wave environmentalists were using licensed equipment. "Interrogators treated us in a hostile manner; they told a few of our girls that no employee would give them a job again, after they had worked at Baikal Wave," Rikhvanova recalled. She also pointed out that by some "mysterious coincidence," the search took place on the day of a street protest against Baikalsk mill that her group had organized. "The reason there is no understanding between environmental activists and men with power and money is that their goal is to produce and make money today, as if there will be no future generations after them," Rikhvanova said. She pulled out a prospectus from under the heaps of papers on her desk featuring a plan for making the town of Baikalsk eco-friendly. Even if the authorities shut down Baikal Wave, the activists are not going to give up their green dreams.

Meanwhile, now that the plant's pipes have stopped emitting harmful substances into the atmosphere, Baikalsk's residents can finally breathe fresh air and not the stinky vapors—rich with methyl mercaptan—that for decades could be smelled from miles away. Lake Baikal's natural cleaners, little crabs and algae, have stopped dying from sulfates, chlorides and other poisonous chemicals dumped into the water. But hundreds of the plant's workers lost their jobs this month. They are not preoccupied with their health and protecting nature's beauty—their immediate concern is how to feed their families tomorrow. "Authorities never thought of the future of people of Baikalsk," says Yuri Nabokov, the leader of the mill's workers union. "Now everybody feels happy about the clean lake, forgetting about the future of hundreds of families who were dependent on the mill."



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