Published on Wednesday, September 6, 2000 by InterPress Service
World Bank Slammed For Eco-Destruction Of Russia
by Danielle Knight
WASHINGTON - The World Bank's funding of projects in Russia is undermining environmental protection and the rule of law, charge environmental organisations.

Environmental activists have been protesting the Bank's lending to Russia since President Vladimir Putin acted by decree last May and abolished two federal environmental protection bodies.

Putin placed the responsibilities of the Committee on Ecology and the Forest Service under the Ministry of Natural Resources, an agency in charge of resource extraction, not protection.

Environmentalists warned that without independent environmental enforcement agencies, the World Bank cannot guarantee that its projects will comply with Russia's environmental law.

The financial institution angered environmentalists when just five days after Putin's decree the World Bank approved a 60 million dollar loan to Russia's Forest Service, which had just been abolished.

''If the World Bank does not have the sense not to lend money to abolished agencies, the overall veracity of its overall portfolio in Russia must be questioned,'' said Doug Norlen, policy director of the California-based Pacific Environment and Resources Center.

Following protests from Russian and international environmental groups, the institution subsequently halted disbursement of the loan.

Environmentalists are increasing their call against lending to Russia this week since the Bank is expected to discuss loans and guarantees for Russia's forestry and mining sectors at a board meeting Sep. 12.

Russia's only public interest law organisation, Ecojuris, says Putin's move is illegal and is suing the government for abolishing the two agencies.

''By approving these projects in the face of, and even in defence of the illegal abolition of the environmental protection agency, the World Bank is undermining the rule of law in Russia,'' added Norlen.

On Friday, James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank again defended the institution's position with Russia.

''We said (to Russia) ... Look, you've collapsed the environment ministry ... and we're prepared to make a loan, but only, only pay you when you have re-established conditions under which the environmental conditions can be monitored and supervised and supported,'' he told reporters.

These conditions for receiving the loan, said Wolfensohn, include public debate. He said this would involve establishing a way that the public could comment on projects in Russia via the Internet.

The forestry loan, added Wolfensohn, is ''subject to the Russians doing all these things, and that is a function that the Bank can perform far more effectively than anybody else because we've tied it to lending.''

Bank officials are bracing for expected protests later this month against the institution's overall lending policies when the institution meets in Prague for its annual meetings.

''Approval of projects that harm the environment and undermine the rule of law just fuels the sort of folly the World Bank is famous for,'' said Norlen.

Outrage over Putin's decree among Russian citizens is growing, he added. In a recent poll, 87 percent of Russian citizens condemned Putin's decision.

Groups in Russia are currently organising a citizen's referendum that would allow the entire nation to vote on whether the two protection bodies should remain. Russian environmentalists said they have already noticed a negative impact on environmental protection as a result of Putin's decree.

In one case, a regional head of the State Committee on Ecology in the Russian Far East region of Kamchatka recently abandoned his support for a UN programme protecting two key salmon watersheds that are also coveted by the Ministry of Natural Resources for their gold and gas deposits.

Environmentalists with Baikal Wave, a group that aims to protect Lake Baikal - the world's oldest and deepest lake - said that since the termination of the agencies, they are not sure how to go about their previous efforts to monitor the ecology of the lake.

Before Putin's decree they received certification from the State Committee on Ecology that would allow them to monitor pollution, hunting and fishing near the lake.

''Maybe (because of the decree), these certificates will be just a piece of paper and nothing more,'' says Vyacheslav Kudryavtsev, who works with Baikal Wave.

Putin's decree amounts to more than just another restructuring of Russian bureaucracy, according to Dmitry Lisitsyn of Sakhalin Environment Watch, an advocacy group on Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East.

''The abolished committee on environmental protection was one of the major achievements of the democratic movement in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union,'' said Lisitsyn.

Putin's decree, he said, amounts to a ''wholesale attempt by the government to turn Russia into a natural resource colony.''

Copyright 2000 IPS