Environmental Activism in Russia: Mixing Work and Play in Southern Siberia

This blog was originally posted on Pacific Environment.

In late April, Pacific Environment invited me to attend a conference in Novosibirsk dealing with the impacts of placer (stream bed) gold mining in various regions throughout Siberia.  The conference — consisting of about 20 civic leaders and scientists from throughout Russia — intended to share new information and build a more unified national strategy to minimize the incredible damage being done by this industry. I was invited to share my experience with mining-related campaigns, coalitions and networks in the United States, and to investigate ways that some of these experiences might help the Russians as they build their power and influence to take their campaigns to the next level.

I prepared presentations on two main topics; network communication and coalition building.  The former drew upon my role as a Steering Committee member of the Western Mining Action Network — a North American network of mining activists and technical experts that share experiences and information through a well-utilized listserv, periodic webinars and conference calls, and a biennial conference with workshops and presentations.  The second presentation focused on coalition building, branding, communication, and management. I provided a few case studies on coalitions I helped to develop and manage, showing websites we built, facebook pages, and gave pointers on issues such as inter-organizational dynamics (turf issues), fiscal sponsorship, and internal and external coalition communications. Feedback I later received suggested that this was a particularly valuable presentation which offered some a new perspective regarding ad-hoc campaign tactics.

It is difficult for me to truly comprehend the challenges facing Russians impacted by mining.  The industry is not regulated as closely as it is here in the US, and civic engagement among broad constituencies before a project is permitted is much less common and under close watch by the Russian government. But this does not suggest that people are generally accepting of these impacts; hundreds of miles of streams are being dredged, fisheries lost, new roads punched into remote areas, and forests above gold-bearing sediments cut down to mine underneath. Government and industry are not likely to curtail these operations under their own volition.  I believe change will come from the bottom up, through strategic campaigning using the complete grassroots toolkit.  I hope that in some tiny way, what I shared might help the Russian front-line communities in their battles moving ahead. 

After the conference ended, I decided to spend some time exploring the mountains of southern Siberia where Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and Russian all come together, and boarded a train to Biysk, the last stop on that rail line.  My goal was to continue on by road to reach the remote village of Beltir, from where I would begin a 65 mile solo trek into the Altai Mountains with hopes of climbing a mountain somewhere in the range. I trekked up Taldura Valley, passing through herder's cabins and pasturelands of camels, cows, and sheep, until arriving at a basecamp location underneath impressive glaciated peaks two days later. I climbed the highest mountain in the valley, then rested and explored another area of the valley before heading back via a scenic detour, returning to Beltir eights days later. (full trip report is here, at the top of the page)

This beautiful area has likely been inhabited for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But there is no guarantee things will stay the same for herding families here, just like many other families and communities throughout Russia facing the pressure of resource extraction. While some may decide that is the future they want, the ultimate decision belongs to them, not industry, and not government.  While I will continue working towards social and environmental justice here in the US, I'm confident that the Russians will do the same to protect their heritage and environment, until either the threat is gone, or they win the fight.