Greenpeace volunteer Thomas Karlsson from Denmark takes part in oil spill clean up operation in a forest outside Usinsk in the Komi Republic
On the 37 hour train ride from Moscow to Usinsk in northern Russia I saw nothing but endless trees, only interrupted by wide winding rivers, pass by the window. This is raw nature far more than I have seen before, and it is difficult to imagine that anything could interrupt these massive surroundings – but 40 years ago oil was discovered underneath the forest. Since then the oil industry has moved in and leaves black spots on the landscape. Today Usinsk is one of those places in the world that stand as clear cut examples of the catastrophic consequences we face when neglecting and exploiting our natural surroundings.
And that is why I get off the train here. For two weeks in I will be part of an international team of experts and volunteers to monitor and recover the massive pollution of oil spills around Usinsk in the Russian Komi Republic.
The first time we go through the oil field I have the feeling of being in a movie. Chimneys gurgle flames and black smoke high into the sky, and mixed with the nauseating smell of burned rubber it all seems to belong in a surreal world – especially on the background of green forest that stretches in all directions.
But this is the reality in Komi. Here the oil spills go hand in hand with rusty pipelines through the landscape. It is part of a simple calculation: To the oil companies it profits to hide and neglect the problem, instead of improving the pipelines and actually clean up.
Unfortunately this calculation does not include the nature and people in the surroundings, and the local population pay for the profit of oil companies by polluted rivers and toxic soil. As I hear again and again from people in the villages, the oil production puts an end to traditional ways of life. Livelihood by fishing and herding reindeer becomes impossible, and even the villagers health is troubled by the pollution. “We have gas in the air, but in our kitchens we still have to heat with firewood”, as an old woman tells in her story of the sicknesses that plagues the area.
Even if I knew that it was so before I came, it is only when actually seeing the effects of oil pollution around me that I realize what destruction it brings, not only to the natural surroundings but also to societies and cultures that before lived with the forest.
I have vivid memories of seeing oil spills on the news as a child, and remember the emergency situation that arose where everything was put in to stop this destructive force. Before I came to Komi, I still had this idea that oil spills are unforeseen catastrophes that it so obviously breaks the limits of how humans can act to our surroundings.
To face the negligence here is terrifying. This really is a system full of leaks, and I see with my own eyes exactly why we must act to replace the negligence with respect and consideration. With determination I go to work.
My days in Komi are spend either patrolling the forests for new oil spills, or at our oil recovery site.
On patrol we prepare with satellite pictures to mark the black spots of oil spills on a map. Between them we make a route, and the rest of the day we go around in the forest to check and describe the spills we find. Going back I realize that we actually might be the first people to ever record the oil spills I have seen, there is no official registration of them anywhere – and that day we found more than twenty!
Later we will give the information we collect to the Russian authorities with a demand to change the procedure and legislation to fill the holes and give the responsibility back to the companies behind the spills.
In the meantime, though, none of us can leave the oil alone, and therefore we begin to clean a big spill that has been abandoned in the forest. When we arrive there is actually still dripping oil from one of the assemblings, no one has been here to stop the leaking, and that despite locals tell us that the spill has been here for the last fifteen years!
Dressed up in silver colored protective suit, goggles and face masks, I feel like an astronaut, and the oil spill could easily be a strange barren planet, it is so misplaced between the trees. We pump up as much of the liquid as possible, and from there the primary technique is to move in with shovels and simply dig the asphalt-like soil away. I am surprised at how heavy work it is! Even here far north we get steaming how, and the more I dig, the more I realize what an immense job it is to clean up an oil spill. With the images of all the many spills I have seen here, it is easy to lose hope – we can even see the oil dripping around us!
But then again. All the catastrophes arise an incredible motivation in me – here I see so clearly what it means to let profit decide our relationship with nature, and every oil spill shows exactly why we cannot let it continue that way. The forest in Komi has been polluted, pillaged and plundered, but we have come so that they can flourish again. And it is not always an easy work, but if I am not the one to dig in, then who?
After the day’s work we are all dripping with sweat and take off the oil covered gloves to get a fresh breath. I take a short walk in between the trees. Here the stank from the oil gives way to a fresh forest breeze, and I look back at our progress – the oil is still here in the middle of the forest, but it has been pushed back, the traces from our shovels are visible in the soil. On the side are piles of the contaminated soil bagged up and ready to be picked up.
And I am happy about what we do. Because even though Komi has shown me the terrifying extent of pollution and subjection, I have also encountered a strength and respect that goes deeper and further than any oil drilling. From all over the world we have come to get dirty for change and join the local struggle for a green planet. And the determination and respect I have met makes me believe that our trip here is not only about cleaning up, but also building up and dig the fundament of a sustainable future.
Komi women singing in the field in Kolva village