It isn’t the first time I’ve been to Usinsk in the very north of Russia, so I shouldn’t be surprised — but once again, I’m shocked. I was here for the first time back in May, where I, together with my colleagues from Greenpeace in Russia, witnessed and documented the horrible consequences of the never-ending oil spills in this once beautiful region.
I’ve returned here not because I’ve missed the stench of oil, the sight of the constant flaring or the headaches from the ever present chemicals; I’ve returned because we had a chance to do some good here, and give a helping hand to the Indigenous Peoples of Russia.
We invited representatives from all over the Russian Arctic, as well as one from Greenland and one from the Niger Delta, to come to Usinsk. We invited them here to an Arctic Indigenous conference to show them what is going on here, but more importantly to get them to join forces in their struggle against Big Oil’s destruction of their homes.
During this three-day conference, we heard from Reindeer hunters whose very way of life has been permanently altered due to the oil industry; we heard from Alice Ukoko, who comes from Nigeria where her people have been dying because of the same reckless, inhumane activities of the oil industry there – in her case, Shell. We heard from a man whose brother died cleaning up the big oil spill here in 1994, from a representative of the Saami Parliament, from a scientist who conducted oil spill modeling research that showed the devastating effects an offshore Arctic spill would have on their seas and shores.
We even heard directly from a Lukoil representative, the head of their “environmental” division, when he took us to see their clean-up operations in the field. This was perhaps the most staggering moment—after following our bus as it visited spill after spill, he invited us to see the “green” side of Lukoil. We thought we would be witnessing their greenwash in action, but to the contrary – the place where he brought us was the site of the most extensive on-land oil spills we had seen; a large, black, oozing swatch of oil, stretching as far as the eye could see, and with nothing in place preventing it from leaking into the surrounding environment. I can still taste the noxious fumes.
All of this, however staggering, is not the reason why I’m surprised. I’m surprised because I thought I was prepared for what we would meet today on our excursion into the belly of the beast. But even though I’ve witnessed this destruction before, my mind couldn’t prepare me for the way my senses reacted. When you see, smell and taste the air from a massive pool of toxic production water your reaction is not controlled by your mind, but by your instincts. This huge rusted lake of “water” is used in the oil fields then pumped back into a massive pond where it kills everything in its path, until it flows directly into the local river — a river that was once so important for the locals.
The inhumanity and the blatant disregard for the environment and human life, struck me in a way I wouldn’t expect – especially after feeling so mentally prepared. Who does this to their own people, their own land, and their own wildlife? To me, it is incomprehensible. It is not something I will ever get used to or be prepared for; nor should anyone have to become accustomed to such corruption and disdain for life. One of the participants so correctly concluded: What we’re watching here is not only an environmental disaster — it is the end of nature.