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Analysis & Opinion
14.10.09 Olympic Victims
By Svetlana Kononova

Winning the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was a triumph for Russia, and in preparation the authorities are pushing ahead with large-scale building projects to create the crown jewel of Russia’s sports complexes. But ecologists and local residents are unhappy with the construction of the Olympic transport infrastructure.

Four activists from Environmental Watch for Northern Caucasus (EWNC), an NGO, and a German journalist, were arrested in Sochi National Park on October 12, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Russia reported. They were protesting against “Save Nature for Future Generations,” a tree-planting project sponsored by Russian Railways.

Andrew Rudomacha, a coordinator of EWNC, three other EWNC members (Valery Akatov, Suren Gasaryan, Alik Le) and German journalist Jutta Blume were detained by the FSB border guards for “violating the border regime,” according to the WWF. Despite a large number of people supporting the public protest, only EWNC activists were arrested. “This incident opened a new page in the Olympic preparations,” said Igor Chestin, the director of WWF Russia. “The power-wielding structures have to be used against the scientists and public trying to protect the unique Caucasian nature. But these same power-wielding structures sit on their hands when environmental crimes happen during the Olympic preparations,” he added.

“Save Nature for Future Generations” was announced by Russian Railways to compensate for environmental damage caused by the combined rail and highway being built between Adler and the Krasnaya Polyana construction site, where the games will take place. About 400 nurslings of Georgian Boxwood (Buxus Colchica), an indigenous Caucasian tree which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists as “lower risk or near-threatened,” have been planted. About 7,000 other rare and endangered species are to be planted in future.

However, environmentalists allege that the young plants were taken not from a nursery, but from the woodlands near the Glubokiy Jar ravine. Simply replanting the IUCN Red Listed species, argues the EWNC, will not stop the destruction of the Buxus Colchica forest ecosystem, but could make the existing problems worse.

Activists of EWNC believe that the construction of a combined railway and highway between Adler and Krasnaya Polyana is causing serious environmental damage. “This project did not undergo any environmental expert review,” Rudomacha said on Monday morning before his arrest. “The construction is in violation of environmental regulation.”

The EWNC argues that the combined rail and highway is unnecessary, saying that the road-link alone would be sufficient. But the EWNC experts also insist on altering the highway’s route to decrease environmental damage.

Their colleagues from Greenpeace Russia agree that the combined rail and road link between Adler and Krasnaya Polyana is the most controversial and potentially damaging project in the Sochi area. “The rare species of the IUCN Red List, including Buxus Colchica, and others, are already in danger,” Greenpeace Russia spokesman Mikhail Kreindlin said. “Moreover, the railway construction changes the migration routes of wild animals such as bears and deer,” he added. “It might lead to the extinction of the rare animal species in the area in the future.”

However, Greenpeace Russia experts believe that a solution could be found which takes into account all sides’ points of view. For example, a railway between Adler and Krasnaya Polyana could be build as a modern monorail, which is much more environmental friendly than conventional designs.

Both EWNC and Greenpeace Russia also point to the environmental threat from another Olympic project. A road to the existing ski facilities and a new VIP ski complex on the Psekhako crest are supposed to be built on the territory of the Sochi national park, near the borders of the Caucasus State Nature Biosphere Reserve, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999.

And not just animals started to leave the Sochi area when Olympic preparations began. Irina Yuriychuck, a resident of the Mirny village, near Adler, has been trying to sell her house since a goods shed was build opposite her plot. “I can’t stand it anymore,” she said. “Trains unload near my windows everyday, and a crusher works everyday from early morning. It is very noisy and dusty.”

Irina moved to the Sochi area 26 years ago and lived there very happily, but now she feels forced to move again. Many of the fruit trees in her garden have died because of the proximity to the goods shed, and she herself suffers from an allergy caused by cement dust. However, finding someone who wants to buy a house so close to the goods shed is proving difficult. “The local authorities said the goods shed would be there temporarily during the Olympic preparations,” Irina said, “but I cannot survive here until 2014.” She wonders why her rights as a homeowner are apparently not being protected.

From her point of view, life in the Sochi area has deteriorated since the Olympic preparations began. Fifteen percent of respondents of a poll conducted by the All Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) in April 2009 agree.
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