Babushkas' Big Battle Local activists try to stop logging in Sunsky forest. Photo: Igor Podgorny, Activatica.org

Babushkas’ Big Battle

Nina and Tatiana broke the peace of their retirement to prevent an extraction company from destroying nature near their village in Russia’s Karelia region. The outcome of the ordeal surprised and inspired many throughout Russia.

Nina Shalaeva had been living in the Suna settlement all her life until one day in 2012 she noticed strangers marking trees in the forest nearby. They told her that they would be mining right in that area. Nina and her neighbour, Tatiana Romakhina, thought they should do no such thing.

Nina Shalaeva, 70, activist in Sunsky forest. Photo: Forest portal of Karelia

The first thing that the two women did was enquire with local authorities to ask what exactly was going on. They received a variety of answers, but what was crystal clear to them was that a permit for mining had been issued without any local public hearings. But according to Karelia’s deputy minister for natural resources and environment Aleksey Pavlov, public hearings are not required for sand and gravel mining that does not involve explosives. At that point, few expected the two babushkas (a common word used in Russian for elderly women) to do anything further. Yet, they did, and what followed was an almost epic clash between locals and the mining industry.

What the investors had not taken into account was that in Russia’s poor regions people will fight for nature as they would their own life

What the investors had not taken into account was that in Russia’s poor regions people will fight for nature as they would their own life. And this was, in fact, a battle for life. For many of the 1,500 people living in Karelina’s tiny villages of Suna and Yanishpole, the nearby forest is the source of both food and income due to the wild mushrooms and berries that pensioners gather and sell to tourists.

Sunsky forest, contested by extractive industry. Photo: Igor Podgorny, Activatica.org

Already in 2011, the company Saturn Nordstroy, Ltd. had obtained a permit to cut down the forest and start mining for sand and gravel. The fierce struggle between locals and the company lasted for five years and finally finished with a victory for the local people. In March 2017, Saturn Nordstroy gave up on the idea of mining at that location once and for all.

Saturn Nordstroy was founded in 2011 by Igor Fedotov, who had had previous experience with sand and stone mines in Karelia. Another mining company, owned by the same Igor Fedotov, Inert, Ltd., had had a reputation for barbarian-style mining in Karelia. According to the local environmental organisation Open Coast, the company had turned the forest near the village of Kulikovo into a desert while mining sand and stone, ignoring both locals’ opinion and environmental concerns. Mining there had started from sand and gravel but then developed into a stone mine, which used explosives. From 2007 till 2014, local activists tried to prevent this mining but failed.

And yet, the newly born Saturn Nordstroy managed to get a permit for mining near Suna almost immediately after its registration. It was granted to develop sand and gravel mining on 34 hectares of land for a period of 20 years until 2031. The estimated volume of natural resources at the mining site was around 500 cubic meters. Later the concession was reduced to 9 hectares due to the historical importance of the area as a site populated by early humans was discovered on that territory.

Planned mining in Sunsky bor (black line – border of the mining site, yellow line – border of the 100-meter sanitary zone around), http://kareliyanews.ru/no-pasaran-po-sunski-kak-pensionery-vstali-stenoj-protiv-karera/

In 2015, the company decided to start logging in Sunsky forest, but activists, who were on average 70 to 80 years old, stopped the machinery, and the company paused its activity for a while. But Igor Fedotov was uncompromising in the beginning. He explained to Rambler news the importance of this project for the company – the planned mining site is situated near the big cities of Petrozavodsk and Kondopoga, and the company had already invested RUB 12-15 mln (around EUR 171-214 thousand) in the mining venture. According to Fedotov, each day of down-time of the machinery cost RUB 50 thousand (around EUR 715), and he simply would not give up so easily.

In June 2016, Saturn Nordstroy made another attempt to start logging, and clashes with the locals escalated once again. And this time, the activists decided to organise a permanent camp in the forest to keep an eye on the workers and to make sure not a single tree was allowed to fall. “When they came the first time to cut the forest, in June, we went out and stood against machinery. They said: ‘We will cut at night.’ We put a tent and stayed. The same night a brigade of fellers came. They wanted to cut everything in one night, but we stopped them. And then we were on duty in turns”, recounted Tatiana Romakhina for Radio Svoboda.

A rare species of lichen Lobaria pulmonaria in Sunsky forest. Photo: Igor Pogdorny, Activatica.org

Luckily for the forest, it was discovered that the area in question is a habitat of a rare lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria. Biologists and environmental NGOs joined the struggle, invited journalists and the story of ‘Sunsky guerrillas’ became known all over Russia. Activists appealed to the court and won at the very first step. Later on, however, the regional court and the Supreme court of Russia took the side of Saturn Nordstroy.

As the confrontation continued, activists declared to authorities that they would block the main road connecting St. Petersburg and Murmansk. They started petitions, opened groups in social media, filmed a video message to Putin and, most importantly, continued taking turns standing guard against the fellers in their forest tent camp. Police regularly checked in on activists in the camp and at their homes, asking them to stop this ‘extremism’. Nevertheless, the camp remained for more than half a year, standing strong even during the winter.

The forest camp of local activists stayed active for nine months from June 2016 until February 2017. Photo: Igor Podgorny, Activatica.org

For a couple of months, in August and September of 2016, the situation calmed down as local authorities did not want any scandals ahead of the parliamentary elections on 18 September. But as soon as the elections were over, harvesters appeared in the forest again and managed to cut 100 meters of forest before they were stopped by activists.

We had survived the Patriotic war, we will survive this one

Only then did the real discussion begin. Round tables were organised by local authorities and the ministry of environment, and experts, alongside the local people, participated and spoke on the problem at hand. Members of the Karelian parliament and representatives of the Presidential Human Rights Council visited the site as well. The issue received national attention.

In October 2016, Vasiliy Mikhailovich Diikov, a Suna resident since 1959 and 80 years old, was on duty to protect the forest. Photo: Igor Podgorny, Activatica.org

After several discussions on different levels, on 17 March, 2017, Artur Parfenhikov, temporarily assuming the responsibilities of the Head of Karelia, officially announced that the conflict was resolved in favour of the local people. Sarurn Nordstroy finally decided to give up its project and leave the place for good. The press release along with the announcement was sudden. A few days later on the 20 March, 2017 the Karelian commission for subsoil use terminated the permit to Saturn Nordstroy. Campers rejoiced and cried but did not leave the forest immediately. They decided to stay on duty until they could see and hold the official papers in their hands.

The story of ‘Sunsky guerrillas’ became a symbol of the devoted fight for a natural habitat and attracted attention and support from all over Russia. The example of these few retired citizens led by two local babushkas from a remote village showed the entire country and the authorities that people were ready to stand up to their local environment and would fight for their land no matter how long it took.

Evgenia Chirikova launched Activatica.org as a platform for local environmental activists in Russia. After several threats and constant intimidation because of her civic activism, Chirikova fled Russia in 2015. She now lives in Estonia and continues supporting Russian environmental movements from abroad. Photo: Mikhail Kovalev, mk.ru.

“We had survived the Patriotic war, we will survive this one”, stated Vasiliy Mikhailovich Diikov, a 80-year-old ‘guerrilla’ from Suna to the news-portal for environmental activists Activatica.org, whose founder, Evgenia Chirikova helped the local protesters spread the word about their problem. Chirikova had campaigned to save the Khimki Forest near Moscow from 2008 – 2010.  Today, there still remain far more battles than victories to be sure, Chirikova commented. But she remains optimistic about environmental activism in Russia and assures us that, despite perhaps needing a full 30 to 40 years to achieve real change, the country will most ultimately become more democratic and free.

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