Two years have passed since I last visited Komi, a region in the Northern part of Russia. Throughout my years at Greenpeace, very few places – if any – have left such a lasting impression on me. I am certain other places across our fragile planet are suffering as much as Komi. In fact, within Russia alone there are places that struggle as much as Komi.
But that doesn't change the fact that being confronted with this amount of recklessness in this beautiful region and the corresponding stress on the people living here, has left me feeling, not only angry and desperate, but guilty. The amount of spills here are so ubiquitous it almost feels as if the oil companies are more interested in destroying the area than making a profit.
As both the oil companies and the administration fail to localize, report and act on the almost daily spills, Greenpeace together with local groups such as the Save Pechora Committee are the only ones trying to document this ongoing disaster. Even though it is impossible to get a precise overview of the magnitude, the best estimates are appalling. Every 18 months, the same amount of British Petroleum oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 goes into the Arctic Ocean via Russian rivers. On its way, it wreaks havoc on rivers and soil with dire consequences for fish, animals and humans. And this is only the amount that goes into the Arctic Ocean.
I had tried to brace myself before facing the spills. Even though I had been at oil spills before and even though we all have witnessed disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion on television, I don't think I'll ever truly ever be able to completely prepare myself for it. One recalls the feelings and the sight, but to stand in it, the stench is overwhelming and all the small details – trees crumbling and withering, oil on branches and leaves, dead animals smeared in oil – all these things suddenly comes to life again and slowly erodes the wall I have tried to build to protect myself.
My Russian colleagues and the local Indigenous Peoples have been fighting this uphill struggle for more than two thirds of my lifespan. In that time the devastation and destruction has done nothing but continue to spread throughout huge parts of Northern Russia. But something is changing.
In the last couple of years, even though the oil companies have gotten unprecedented freedom and power under Putin, the local administration has started to take action. After Greenpeace and the Pechora Committee documented many hundreds of spills, two Russian oil companies were penalized with fines of more than 20 million US dollars each (one fine was later revoked). After local protests spread throughout the region, the administration organized a local committee to inspect the spills and have agreed to participate in a round-table discussion with Greenpeace and others next week.
This is of course is only a plaster on a gaping wound and not anywhere near sufficient to solve the ongoing catastrophe. The oil spill patrol, which is part of a larger Greenpeace project, has in just this past week confirmed more than 50 spills, which hadn't have been registered yet. We need more than a piecemeal handling of the situation. We need to ensure the proper protection of nature and stop the oil companies from their destruction. This is largely for the sake of the people who live in this dystopia. It is also because, if this does not make us stand up and say enough is enough, then what will?
The battle might seem like a losing one, but we need to carry on. We must not allow ourselves to sit idly by while this crime against nature and humanity takes place. It is not an easy battle, but that must never be an excuse – as long as there is just a glimmer of hope, we must carry on and if we stand together, I am certain that we will prevail.
Jon Burgwald is an Arctic Campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic