Struggle at Shiyes: Will the Arkhangelsk Forest Turn Into a Dumpsite?
The whole of Russia is now keeping its eyes on Arkhangelsk Oblast, where local residents continue their struggle against large businesses planning to dump household waste from Moscow into the Arkhangelsk wetlands. If not for the active opposition by local residents, the absurd project would have already passed unnoticed. Now, lobbyists for the waste dumping project are in a much weaker position, and the project outcome is now far from clear.
The remote station
Shiyes is a tiny station on the railway line connecting Moscow to Vorkuta. Located on the farthermost edge of Arkhangelsk Oblast, just 4 km from the border of Komi Republic and 90 km from its capital city of Syktyvkar, Shiyes lies over 500 km in a straight line from its own regional centre, Arkhangelsk. The area is now uninhabited (a tiny station settlement was abandoned in the 1970s), and today there is nothing more than a few cabins and a brick station building. The surrounding wetlands prevent any road access to the area, except during winter when the wetlands freeze over. Trains headed for Moscow make just a short two-minute stop at Shiyes.
Such remote places are usually called “bear’s corners” in Russian. However, this tiny station drew nationwide attention a year ago when a decision was made to turn it into a huge dumpsite for Moscow household waste.
In late July 2018, local residents from Urdoma, a village about 30 km away, were on a hunt near Shiyes. To their surprise, they saw large-scale works in progress at the station: loggers were cutting trees and expanding open areas around the railway line. Workers informed the locals about plans to build some kind of waste recycling or dumping facility. The waste was to be shipped from Moscow. For some time, local authorities pretended that they had no information about the Moscow-funded project. Meanwhile, the forest around the station was cleared to fully expose a large open area of about 300 hectares.
Any new information about the project that came to light was repeatedly refuted. First it was promised that a Swiss company would build a modern facility to recycle waste into heat and electric energy (in simple terms, a waste incinerator). Later, it was revealed that no recycling had ever been planned, and the site was chosen only to bury pelletized waste from the Moscow region. The facility was pompously named Shiyes Eco-Technopark and presumably planned to bury some 10 million tons of waste over 20 years and then reclaim the land. Waste pelletizing (pressing the waste with continuous multilayer folding) was presented as a modern Western technology, allowing for the safe storage of waste in the Arkhangelsk forest for dozens of years. The enveloping film of the pellets allegedly blocks air influx, thus preventing the waste from rotting and safely sealing it from the soil. However, in spite of all assurances of environmental safety, the project quickly raised an outbreak of protests in Arkhangelsk Oblast and Komi Republic as well as other regions, including Moscow and Moscow Oblast where the waste comes from.
“They didn’t take us into account”
Large-scale protests against the plans for the waste burial started in Arkhangelsk Oblast in autumn 2018, although the first rally in Urdoma had already taken place in late August. Local authorities often refused official approval of the rallies or offered inconvenient locations on the outskirts of cities and towns.
“Almost all local authorities delay their approval for the rallies. Authorities in many places do not approve the rallies in central parts of cities and towns. Many local residents don’t even realise the consequences of the project planned. We must struggle for a statutory ban on waste imports. We must put constant pressure on the authorities; they must tell us that nothing will be shipped here”, says Aleksandr Peskov, an organiser of the Arkhangelsk rallies.
In spite of official resistance, the protests grew wider and larger. In some cities and towns, they attracted significant numbers of the local population (the Severodvinsk rally in February 2019 numbered over 10,000). Rallies across the region were often planned for the same day, called “Single Day of Protest”. Such “Single Days” on December 2, February 3 and April 7 gathered hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of localities. Environmental concerns soon intertwined with politics, and citizens called for the resignation of the governor of Arkhangelsk Oblast, Igor Orlov, as well as local mayors who tried to prevent the rallies. Photographs and sketches of their faces appeared on posters at the rallies, marked as “Waste Regiment”.
“Our region used to be the national sawmill. Now it can turn into the national dumpsite. We ship diamonds to Moscow and get their garbage in return. Moscow garbage is their own business. Let them build recycling plants. The entire world successfully solves this problem. If we call Russia a 21st century superpower, we must have 21st century technologies. And here they are dumping garbage into a wetland!” angrily claims Andrey Borovikov, a local activist, during a rally in Arkhangelsk.
“Our region ships wood, gas, oil, diamonds! Let’s all vote against this disgrace! If our governor doesn’t care about the people here in the North, he has no business being in his position. Let’s all rise against Orlov, against these authorities”, cries another speaker.
A protest camp at Shiyes
In December of last year, activists from the neighbouring villages of Urdoma and Madmas installed an observation post next to the Shiyes station to keep track of the ongoing progress. The outpost gradually developed into a protest camp. The news coming from Shiyes since spring 2019 has increasingly looked like battlefield reports, with protesters often engaged in clashes with workers and guards. The tension has come close to bloodshed, although for now the protests remain peaceful. Still, many people in the North own guns and may resort to using them in a desperate situation.
Antonina Obednina is one of the protesters. She came to the Shiyes camp from Moscow but was born and grew up in Arkhangelsk. Even though she has now been a Moscow resident for the last 16 years, she stays in touch with her hometown where her parents still reside. In the summer of last year, she learned about Shiyes from social media and started monitoring the situation.
“When I learned about the project, I was literally shocked. I developed arrhythmia; I couldn’t sleep well. But I was happy that people didn’t stay indifferent; numerous thematic groups on social media soon appeared. What’s essential about the Northerners? We can survive unemployment, we have survived famines, but here they encroached on what’s sacred for us–our forests where we take our relaxation. When a person is feeling down–no job, no money –they still can go to a forest for fishing or gathering mushrooms. Now this fundamental right is under threat. Northerners are very patient, but here they ran out of patience and started opposing the lawless action. The Russian North is still perceived as an unspoiled virgin place”, Antonina states.
In November 2018, Antonina realised that she could no longer stay idle; she made a banner saying “Russian North is not a dumpsite!” and stood next to the State Duma building. She recalls: “I was not afraid. I knew what’s permitted and what’s banned. I spent about two hours there. People passing by came to ask me about the banner; they were interested. At that time, I didn’t even know any activists; I came on my own. After that protest, I started receiving emails; people wrote that my protest inspired them to participate as well. And then I got acquainted with Arkhangelsk activists.” In early February, she came to participate in an Arkhangelsk rally, and that’s where we met her. In mid-March, when activists first invited people to support their protest camp, she bought a train ticket to Shiyes.
Antonia recalls the trip in detail. “I was driven there by the feeling of involvement and the wish to support those who fight on the front line. There is a shortage of people, so activists called everybody to join them in Shiyes. They asked for help, and people started sending packages with food and clothes. Some sent sheepskin mittens, some sent knitted woolen socks, some sent snacks and dried fruit–any help people could offer. Food was distributed around the observation posts.”
Activists showed her the posts they had installed, each with its own name: The Campfire, The Watch, The Station. On the construction site, she saw multiple trucks– some switched off, some working. A worker came by and said that the trucks were leaving as they were short of fuel. Activists walked towards the road to Madmas, where they had a trailer blocking traffic from Komi Republic. Suddenly, the caravan started moving, headed by an excavator with a dozen Scania trucks following it.
“At that moment I was already beyond the gate. I turned around and saw an excavator followed by a line of trucks. And the excavator was driving right towards the people. We had nowhere to hide; the road was flanked by deep snow on both sides. People stood on the road thinking that the excavator would stop; but it didn’t. And then the excavator started waving its bucket all around. We could barely jump away from the excavator’s rolling tracks, waving bucket, and rotating cabin–we were nearly crushed. We had to jump into the waste-deep snow to save themselves from the sweeping bucket.” Antonina looks visibly nervous as she recollects the events of that night.
At one point, the bucket tilted towards a trailer into which one of the activists had just jumped to collect his phone and documents. When he was at the doorway, the bucket started to come down on him. Everybody cried out, and the guy quickly jumped away from the trailer and fell on the snow. But the excavator driver did not stop; he started crushing the trailer angrily and purposefully with the bucket. Then, the activists saw him fall out of the excavator, looking drunk or highly stressed. Later, the police decided that the activists were to blame for the injuries he sustained from his fall, claiming that they had beaten him up. The driver did not even stay at the hospital he was taken to, instead sneaking out after being transferred via ambulance.
Since last autumn, protesters have been calling for a regional referendum against the import of waste from other regions. Possible questions for such a referendum are being discussed on social media. However, the regional parliament didn’t even register the action group necessary to initiate the referendum–only a court decision in late April forced them to do so. Ekaterina Shulman, a well-known political analyst who closely monitors the situation in Arkhangelsk Oblast, had this to say: “A referendum is a remarkable instrument of direct democracy. People would surely like it; and it would be best not to create new sources for annoyance. I can even acknowledge that the annoying technopark must be built; Moscow waste must be processed somewhere. This problem has no quick solution that would please everyone. We must start sorting and recycling our waste instead of just burying it.”
What to do with household waste?
Not only Northerners express their readiness for waste sorting. Moscow residents also do not wish that their waste to be dumped in Arkhangelsk forests and support sorting. This would not solve the problem but would at least postpone it. Waste sorting and recycling projects have been discussed since the 1990s, but very little has been done to in fact realise any plans. People are ready to sort their waste even now without the necessary infrastructure. But businesses apparently gain more profits from unsorted waste dumping. Any radical changes would require political willpower, something currently lacking in the government.
“We repeatedly say: Let’s sort our waste together! Authorities don’t hear us; they are deaf and dumb”, states Obednina. Activists have already drowned themselves in the subject; they already know more than the authorities. A radical reform of waste collection is necessary. We need waste sorting, and manufacturers must reduce the amount of packaging.”
Will the authorities back down?
In mid-May, alongside the constant clashes at Shiyes, events started unfolding on a higher level. On May 16, the Shiyes dumpsite project suddenly appeared on the agenda of Sochi Media Forum in the presence of the Russian President. Vladimir Putin stated that such a decision cannot be made behind the scenes and that one should ask the opinion of local residents. It is not unlikely that such a development was indirectly related to the ongoing Yekaterinburg protest, though the real reason is different.
“Moscow cannot be overwhelmed with waste; it is a city of 10 million people. But we should not create problems in other regions as well. In any case, we must decide it together with the people who live there. I will speak to the (Arkhangelsk) Oblast governor as well as Sobyanin (Moscow mayor)”, promised Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Meanwhile, Urdoma’s village administration sued the technopark; they demanded everything built at Shiyes be declared illegal. The court has commissioned a group with the proper construction and technical expertise to make a decision; this should be done by June 17. No works can legally proceed at Shiyes until that date; however, local activists witnessed that work there did not in fact ever stop.
“As it always happens in such situations, various stakeholders are now covertly struggling against each other”, says Shulman. “For example, Rosprirodnadzor (State Service for Environmental Supervision) and Rostechnadzor (State Service for Engineering Supervision) are now asking: Where are the expert reports? Of course, it sounds like they haven’t gotten their shares, or the situation allows them to charge more for their approval. But these are the exact scenarios that bring success to such kind of protests. The stakeholders can analyse the whole picture and decide that construction in this particular place is not worth it.”
Meanwhile, Governor Igor Orlov claims that preparatory work at Shiyes will be completed by June 15. This will be followed by expert analyses and public hearings, and “only thereafter can we tell about the final decision to build Shiyes Eco-Technopark”. It is curious that the promises of expert analyses and public hearings were made almost a year after the work at Shiyes started. While covert struggle continues in government offices, Arkhangelsk is seeing more protest rallies, and Shiyes is on the edge of an armed conflict between local activists and private guards backed by police. By now, however, it is not impossible that the infamous project will be stopped. And if it does continue, the struggle will also continue; this is for sure.
The article was prepared under the project Quality Journalism for Environmental Activists in Russia and the EU and implemented by BlueLink and the Environmental Rights Centre BELLONA (www.bellona.ru) in 2018-2019. The project was supported by the EU– Russia Civil Society Forum (www.eu-russia-csf.org) and its donors. The content of the article is the responsibility of its author and may not reflect the donors’ point of view.
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