It is was an honour to receive a World Heritage Hero Award from the World Heritage Committee. It was an acknowledgement by them for the more than 20 years of hard work Greenpeace Russia has done towards saving world heritage sites.
I’ve been on the frontlines since nearly the start; working hard to establish and protect UNESCO sites in Russia since the 90s.
The work has been incredibly challenging. During Soviet times, Russia was almost entirely closed to international cooperation. My colleagues had to become pioneers. This meant years of field research; preparing piles of documents and leading negotiations with state officials and businesses that have never been easy to deal with.
We have been counting seal pups in Baikal Lake and releasing them from fishermen nets, building eco-trails in nature reserves and trying hard to save the wild Caucasus mountains from expansive Olympic construction in Sochi.
We had amazing victories. Like creating the first UNESCO site in Russia: the Virgin Komi Forests, in 1995. Protests by Greenpeace and many other NGOs made President Putin move Transneft’s pipeline away from Baikal. Our biggest celebration was recent, though. It was when the disastrous Baikal paper mill, that had been polluting the ancient lake for decades, was finally shut down last year!
And we endured incredible hardships, too. Like when the fight for our natural heritage brought the outrage of oil giants and military officials down on our heads.
Still, there is so much to be done. Russia is a country famous for its gorgeous nature and rich mineral resources, and it is too often ready to sacrifice the first for second.
UNESCO sites have the highest protective status in the world but even this is not enough to save them from corporate greed.
Out of 11 Russia’s UNESCO natural heritage objects, six face serious threats from industrial activities. With three of them, the threats are so urgent that we insist that they be included in the “World Heritage In Danger” list. A list of shame for any country.
Take, for example, the Arctic reserve, Wrangel Island. It is so far to the north — away from any civilization — that a decade ago, when we prepared materials to declare it a world heritage site, we did not imagine that there could possibly be any threats to it.
Now this home to polar bears and whales is surrounded with industrial activity: seismic testing, oil-drilling and military construction. To find allies to oppose this we recently travelled to the end of the world, Chukotka Peninsula, to cooperate with indigenous fishermen and hunters.
Our work becomes a real challenge when mining, drilling and tourist companies, with the oiled palms of of state corruption, threaten many remaining wildlife sites at the same time.
We have powerful enemies, like the infamous Gazprom, the company that is enrcroaching onto three UNESCO sites simultaneously. We face international megaprojects, like a pipeline from Siberia to China that goes straight through the Golden Mountains of Altai, despite the fact that there are many alternative routes.
We still have to prove that intact nature is more precious than gold. For years a Cyprus-registered firm has been trying to mine gold in the Virgin Komi Forests, the largest intact massif in the world. And Russian authorities not only did nothing to stop it, but proposed to deem this gold field as not part of the nature reserve to legalize its mining.
We will continue to meet the challenges that face us. My team is courageous, tireless and ready because we know exactly what we will lose if we give up.
Andrey Petrov is a Natural Heritage Campaigner with Greenpeace Russia.
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