French president Sarkozy pushing the destruction of protected nature areas in the Russian Caucasus

Feature story - 27 May, 2011
According to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, the Russian and French presidents, Dmitry Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy, agreed on the 26th of May that France will fully assist in the development of ski and holiday resorts in the North Caucasus. "The two Presidents decided to include a project for the tourism cluster in the North Caucasus amongst the priorities of the strategic partnership between the two countries" - says a joint statement by Medvedev and Sarkozy, following their talks at the G8 in Deauville.

The two leaders discussed a co-operation on the implementation of a so-called socio-economic development of the North Caucasus. This strategy includes, inter alia, the establishment of a tourism cluster project called “Peak 5642”, aiming to develop winter ski resorts in the Lago-Naki (Adygea), Arkhyz (Karachay-Cherkessia), Elbrus (Kabardino-Balkaria), Mamison (North Ossetia) and Matlas (Dagestan), as well as the creation and development of spa resorts on the Black and Caspian sea coasts“, according to the statement.

In the statement President Sarkozy also stressed that „France is ready to share with Russia its unique and diverse experience and expertise in integrated mountain development and implementation of major projects in the tourism sector.” „This especially concerns the establishment and operation of ski and spa resorts”. According to the statement, Russia's state company in charge of the project, The North Caucasus Resorts, will team up with French bank „Caisse des Depots et Consignations” in a bid to attract investors.

What is at stake?

The Western Caucasus, mounting form the Black Sea up to Mount Elbrus (Europes highest peak with an altitude of 5642 meters), represents one of the world’s hotspots in terms of biodiversity because of its unique conjunction of different climes and altitudinal belts. Its Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) area represents Europe’s and Western Asia’s largest uninterrupted conglomerate of high conservation value areas, including a UNESCO World Heritage site, two National Parks and four Nature Reserves.

French-Russian agreement on the destruction of Caucasus nature reserves could move forward already in June 2011

According to the Russian newspaper “Vedomosti”, the joint venture agreement (and as an alternative option a concession agreement) will be prepared either by June 2011- at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum — or by September at the meeting of the intergovernmental commission.

However, the project apparently does not say anything about the fact that four out of the five planned resorts will be located in nature reserves areas, where such construction activities are prohibited according to Russian law. The resort called Lagonaki, worth about 50 billion roubles (around EUR 1,2 billion) with a capacity for 18 000 people, is planned to be built on the territory of the Caucasian State Nature Reserve, situated in the boundaries of the World UNESCO Natural Heritage site of the Western Caucasus.

In addition to the construction activities in protected areas of the Lagonaki mountain massif, the project demands the destruction of a unique forest and  natural monument called "headwater Tsitse”, as well as felling in the protection zone of the reserve.

France and Russia violating UNESCO obligations

Back in 2008, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre encouraged Russia to stop construction developments in the Lagonaki mountain massif. Diplomatic “recommendations” which actually should be seen as a direct ban, are completely being ignored, with the project being pushed forward at the highest level.
According to article 6 of the Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, each member state of the convention is committed not to take any deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage, situated in the territory of other states. Thus, France, by supporting Russia to destroy its World Heritage site, is violating its international committment.

Project “Peak 5642” demands to change the Russian federal law
For the sake of the project  “Peak 5642”, Russian authorities are ready to overturn and change the law. Last September, the government adopted a development strategy of the North Caucasus Federal District through 2025, in which “Peak 5642” plays a prominent role. In order to back up the construction of ski resorts in the Caucasus nature reserves despite violation of federal law, a governmental decree was issued on the 14th of October 2010.

In a next immediate step, the State Duma Committee on Ecology and the Ministry of Environment prepared fundamental changes in the federal law "on specially protected natural territories". Proposed amendments include the legalization of the construction of tourist facilities (including hotels and roads) in Biosphere Reserves, as well as the ability to legally withdraw by governmental decision land from any nature reserves and national parks in order to build almost any construction objects in all areas of national parks on the vast territory of Russia, which is harsh backlash for the environmental protection efforts in the country.

Analogies to the ongoing conflict on Moscows Khimki forest

„After the ongoing scandal of the toll motorway construction through the protected Khimki forest close to Moscow, where France with Sarkozy have already been playing a dubious role. Due to the involvement of French construction company Vinci, we are facing now another outrageous case in which Sarkozy helps Russian authorities to destroy its valuable longterm protected nature areas”, says Mikhail Kreindlin, program head of protected areas, Greenpeace Russia. Like in the Khimki situation, French stakeholders are now advocating for the implementation of dubious concession-based commercial projects in the Caucasus mountains, undermining both Russian federal law as well as violating international obligations.

Important to know, the state of the World Heritage Site of the “Western Caucasus” and plans of the “Peak 5642” project constructions the World Heritage site will be considered at the upcoming session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Paris, 19th-29th of June. “As project  “Peak 5642” does interfere with the UNESCO World Heritage Site protection, we do expect the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to live its responsibility and issue a strong statement demanding the Russian and French government to stop construction plans in the World Heritage Site”, says Mikhail Kreindlin.

Instead of supporting corruption, nature destruction and undermining of nature protection law in Russia, France should support Russian authorities to find a way to develop sustainable tourism in the Caucasus outside of protected areas. In a time during which the international community learns of the global importance for the protection of biodiversity, water regulation and climate impacts” of such areas.  “Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations in Russia are ready to oppose the outrageous project “Peak 5642” and hope the French citizens and authorities understand this precarious situation and stop the destruction of Russian nature reserves, says Mikhail Kreindlin.

Additional Information

Official site of project “Peak 5642”
Maps of the resorts planning
Information on the Russian Presidents site about the meeting betewen Sarkozy and Medvedev
AFP news, 26th of may
Information on amendments in the Federal Law “On specially protected natural territories” (in Russian only)
Article of Russian news agency RIA Novosti (in Russian only)
Article of Russian newspaper “Vedomosti”