How Russia "saves" World Natural Heritage properties

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Feature story - 16 November, 2012
Today many people all over the globe celebrate 40th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. As for today, Russia possesses ten objects recognized as World Natural Heritage properties, though five of them are under threat of destruction. In this context it is worth recalling that each State Party to the Convention took a solid responsibility to «ensure the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage».

Andrey Petrov, Greenpeace Russia World Heritage Program coordinator noted: “One would believe, our country has to pride itself on having as many as ten natural objects with the most significant conservation status that is the World Heritage Sites accompanied by a relevant international recognition. We are owners of the unique natural wealth, the overall territory of which amounts to 320 thousand square kilometers and thus can be compared to the area of Germany. And instead of protecting this mesmerizing beauty careless public officials and businessmen are doing their best to satisfy an instant need”.

The brightest example of that practice is displayed with the Virgin Komi Forests territory, the first World Natural Heritage Object, which is experiencing both the geological survey and explosive works. In 2010 the Ministry of Natural Resources excluded the minefield “Chudnoye” out of the list of unique territories within “Yugyd Va” National Park. Following that, Rosnedra accountable to thereof authorized Gold Minerals Close Corporation Company for gold mining in the heart of that singular natural area.

During last three years the World Heritage Committee persistently reminded Russia about the intolerable seizure of land for the gold mining.  For two years in row Greenpeace Russia called on to the Prosecutor’s Office to recognize the land seizure illegal. That was not until August 2012 that it was taken into effect. Nevertheless, Komi authorities together with the «nature conservation» officials oppose that fact furthering the illegal practice.  Moreover, the local authorities consider the park gold mining to be a socially oriented project that has to yield profits to the budget of Inta and Komi Republic.  Is it an actual reason why Gold Minerals sourced its equity capital to offshore companies, registered in Cypress?

Another World Heritage property, Lake Baikal faces a bit better development.  In 2010 at the Committee’s  regular session  Russian officials decided it was incumbent for the country to tackle the problem of waste stream at Baikal Pulp & Paper Mill within 30 months,  i.e. to the end of December 2012 at the latest.  However, as soon as in August the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage extended the permission to dump the wastes into the so far cleanest lake ever seen.

There are consistent attempts being taken to weaken the legislation which protects Lake Baikal. In August 2012 the Parties to the Federal Council laid out the legislation blueprint, that allows the Central Environmental Zone of the Baikal natural territory to be exposed to the all-over deforestation and listing forest land under the new categories to carry out a line sites construction, promote fossil fuels development and realization of the specific ecological zones project. At that time the project was rejected by both the Ministry of Natural Resources and The Ministry of Economic Development. Yet, on 9th November the latest placed a similar project on its official website.

Despite being a true pearl of the World Heritage, Golden Mountains of Altai hosts  two-year design and survey work to construct Altai gas pipeline. Although in 2011 the Republic of Altai Prosecutior’s Office recognized the practice to be illegal, August 2012 saw Altai authorities’ permission to lay the pipeline via the Ukok Quiet Zone Nature Park. Oksana Engoyan, the member of Altai – XXI-Century Fund said: «The situation with the Altai pipeline construction displays alacrity of regional authorities to breach the law grossly in favor of large companies. The majority of all residents in the Republic are against the violation and further realization of the project may spark a social tension in the near-border area».

One more World Heritage property, Western Caucasus is threatened with plans to build a ski resort facilities in Lagonaki Plateau. The WHC highlighted many a time that building of the ski resort facilities and roads within Lagonakiy cannot be tolerated. But as turns true in our home country, it is a way simpler to change the law than to follow the existed order, i.e. in order to legalize the construction, they changed the Federal Law on Specially Protected Natural Territories and then Russian government specified the list of objects permitted to be built up in the biosphere polygons.  Recently the Ministry of Natural Resources has officially informed about elaborating changes of the World Heritage area borders to exclude the Lagonaki Plateau out of it.  It is still an open question whether the WHC approves of the decision or not. Besides, one cannot forget about the threat of road construction to the Lunnaya Polyana Presidential Residence through the Nature Reserve. The official name of the building is the Biosphere Scientific Center, but when in September of the current year the experts from the World Heritage Center and International Union for Nature Conservation expressed a will to at least air view the spot they leaned it was forbidden to reach it nearer than 10 km.

Russian state companies ravage the World Heritage even outside of Russia. With a support of Uranium one Company,  the Atomredmetzoloto Public Corporation gained a possibility to develop deposits at the uranium field in Mkuju River (Tanzania), that is inside thea Selous Game Reserve. Later at the request of the state authority and thanks to the Russian active support UNESCO WHC allowed for expunging of 200 square km. out of the Selous Game Reserve area.

Mikhail Kreindlin, Greenpeace Russia Protected Areas Program coosdinator said: «It is typical of a range of African countries to treat the World Heritage in such a way, for they lead wars on a regular basis. But if in these countries, for example in Mali, these are extremists who destroy the heritage sites, in our country all decisions a being made by the Federal and Regional Authorities. Lately, the International Criminal Court  recognized the World Heritage Sites destruction in Mali as a war offence.  We can be just laden with hope that someday the international community will treat those ravaging the WH on purpose exactly the same way.  That is when our unique alcoves of the Nature can get a possibility to survive».

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