Fighting for the world’s oldest freshwater reserve

Fighting for the world’s oldest freshwater reserve

Ecologist Marina Rikhvanova is taking on the Russian government to help protect Lake Baikal,a UNESCO World Heritage Site,from exploitation

Ecologist Marina Rikhvanova is taking on the Russian government to help protect Lake Baikal,a UNESCO World Heritage Site,from exploitation
There are days when Russian ecological crusader Marina Rikhvanova feels like an endangered species. She has grown used to a certain amount of ambient harassment—the intelligence agents rifling through her files,the bank accounts abruptly blocked,the phone she believes is bugged.

Russia’s efforts to reclaim lost superpower status are staked on the exploitation of vast natural resources,from oil and natural gas to timbre and diamonds. Against this backdrop of runaway capitalism,independent ecologists such as Rikhvanova are voices in the wilderness.

Rikhvanova came to her love of nature early in life and still recalls the smell of spring in the Siberian village where her parents taught school. Her father took her to explore forests and to gaze over the vast Lake Baikal.

The world’s deepest and oldest freshwater reserve is treasured by evolutionary biologists as a liquid cornucopia of rare species. The lake holds an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site,but it repeatedly has been put at risk by the march of Russian industry.


“It’s huge,tremendous,mysterious,beautiful,” Rikhvanova says,from her office at the Baikal Ecological Wave organisation in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. “It’s 25 million years old,and every organism,every being,in Lake Baikal is a witness to this history.”

Rikhvanova’s first major clash with the Russian government erupted in 2005 when a pipeline to transport oil from the Siberian fields to the Pacific coast was slated to skim within half a mile of the lake. Scientists,including Rikhvanova,warned that the area is prone to earthquakes and an oil spill could prove catastrophic for the lake.

Transneft,the state pipeline company,did not respond to the warnings,and the government’s own environmental experts backed the pipeline company. Only after Rikhvanova’s organisation and other environmental groups drummed up street protests in Siberia and Moscow did the government blink: Putin produced a red pen during a televised meeting,gestured at a map and ordered the pipeline rerouted.

But for Rikhvanova,it was a wan victory. Her next battle was already on the horizon. In January 2006,Vladimir Putin announced Russian plans to create an international uranium enrichment centre,a factory that would provide enriched uranium to any country within international law. Soon,state nuclear giant Rosatom had unveiled plans to open the centre on the grounds of a former chemical plant in Angarsk,just a few hours from Lake Baikal. The project has steamed ahead,despite protests from Rikhvanova and other local ecologists.

Alarmed that the uranium enrichment center would be operating soon,Rikhvanova helped set up a protest camp of dozens of radical anti-nuclear protesters in Angarsk. Before dawn one day in July 2007,young men armed with rods and knives attacked the camp and beat the protesters. One of the ecologists died; others were hospitalised. The government described the attackers as ultranationalist skinheads. They also announced that Rikhvanova’s son,Pavel,then 19,was among them. The winner of the prestigious 2008 Goldman Prize for grass-roots environmentalism found herself tangled in controversy. She and her husband,Yevgeny Rikhvanov,forbid Pavel to speak with reporters,because his case still hasn’t gone to court. But they say he was lured into the attack by a mysterious young man he had met at a soccer game.
_Megan K. Stack,LATWP