Russia's Public Conservation Lands Under Threat

Three Aprils ago, in early 2007, a Russian regional
governor announced plans to construct a new road connecting Moscow and
Petersburg. Though everyone agreed on the need for the road, no one in
north Moscow suburb of Khimki could understand why part of it needed to
routed through their beloved Khimki Forest Park.

Khimki is a Moscow suburb that suffers major pollution from
heavy industry and cramped highways, so this massive park (2,470 acres)
is an
oasis widely enjoyed by residents who walk paths by glades of 100 year
oaks, collect drinking water from a natural spring, and watch abundant
including elk, boar, birds, and at least one critter on the Red List of
endangered species, the peat copper butterfly. There is also a cranberry
bog and the forest is
widely believed to contain an undiscovered mass grave of Stalin-era

The cultural, historic, and ecological importance
of Khimki Forest Park is clear, then, yet the proposed road would
Moscow to Sheremetyevo airport north of town, cutting the forest into
two small and sickly halves. The road would itself be somewhere between
400 and 600
meters wide plus it would also take substantial land on each side for
construction and transportation infrastructure, requiring extensive
logging and nearly total development.

Beside the sad and shocking ecological and
cultural loss, additional controversy stems from the fact that Russian
law forbids conversion of parks to uses like roads or industry. This law
would have ultimately been sufficient to block the project, but it was
in early 2009 by an amendment to federal legislation. But there was
other hope
for Khimki residents: a separate law forbids a change of use for public
forestland if alternative sites or routes can be found. Since the
Minister disclosed unwittingly in 2008 the existence of such alternative
routes, the government was clearly acting illegally.

So why was this happening, people wanted to know,
when there are other options? And why did the mayor of Khimki choose the
destructive of the three options for putting the road through the
forest? These
questions were not answered satisfactorily by local or federal
officials, and
in the vacuum a lot of well-founded speculation on political corruption
and enormous profit has festered.

The construction industry is believed to be the
most profitable one in Russia, even more than oil, but has suffered like
everywhere else during the global recession. Yet major capital
projects are recession-proof and among the most profitable construction
projects normally undertaken (in part due to the rarity of open land
converted to new use and also the value of the timber that can be
In addition to the huge profits in highway construction (new roads in
cost $237 million per kilometer compared with $6 million per km in the
according to a watchdog group), it is almost certain that commercial and
residential building would be another lucrative activity sanctioned
within most
of the current boundaries of the forest.

Taking a broader view, though, similar proposals
that would convert conservation lands for profit exist in 26
in the country, and adding the fact that the
construction industry
has a very direct relationship with the government officials that
regulate it,
it starts to bring an overall plan for bailing out a suffering industry
by a few very wealthy firms) into focus.

The editor of Khimki-area newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda
Mikhail Beketov
editorialized freely on these issues as they related to the Khimki
project until he was brutally
in 2008. As he lay in a coma, his baseball
bat-wielding assailant even phoned the hospital and threatened to finish
off. Beketov was looking into the mayor's financial holdings
for evidence of graft, but he'll never finish that in his current poor
state of
health, another example of why Russia is rated as
one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist.

The grassroots response to
the Khimki road proposal centers on the group Defense of Khimki Forest
(Ekooborona, in Russian),
which got started with a rally in front of the Park in early June 2007
to raise
awareness in advance of a public meeting a few days later that hundreds
people attended. What followed has been an extremely fierce grassroots
including mass protests, a petition
addressed to the Russian President (totaling
over 20,000 signatures to date), letter writing to government officials,
and public rock concerts that raise awareness and generate many
more signatures. Their campaign has received coverage in major
papers like Izvestia and on television, in Russia and abroad.

Court challenges to the
legality of the proposal have all failed, though, and a corresponding
lack of
substantive response from elected officials to grassroots pressure
didn't change the story, so Ekooborona
did the next sensible thing and took aim at the foreign companies and
providing the project with expertise and financing. Vinci, a French
construction firm, saw a procession of activists symbolically pile
firewood' outside the front doors of its Moscow office, for instance,
and activists also began
putting pressure on the main funder of the project, the European Bank
Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

When Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund began calling on all banks to
avoid the project, watchdog groups like Bankwatch took notice as well
as Greens in the European Parliament, who proposed a resolution warning
investors away from Khimki. After that resolution passed, the EBRD
its headlong rush into funding the road, pending a new series of
reviews, which is a
clear victory for the activists.

Reacting in the most flagrant
of manners, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin then signed an
order in November 2009 that allowed a variance for the road to go
Khimki forest regardless of the law. Brave Ekooborona activists
immediately filed suit and
began publicly calling on President Medvedev to dismiss Putin.

In the most recent lawsuit in
March of this year, Ekooborona argued that since official alternative
routes for the road
existed, this proved that the transfer of Khimki Forest lands to the
status of 'developable lands' had been unlawful. Despite a lack of
substantive argument
by the defendants, the court dismissed the suit. The government's own
Commissioner for Human Rights intervened, questioning the legality of
the project, but the appeal was rebuffed in April.

So the battle for Khimki Forest has been largely painful defeats and
casualties for the last 3 years. Yet each
loss shines light on a very dim proposal that can't
stand the light of day. The resulting new caution
shown by EBRD has sent project proponents into a frenzy of doubt, as the
capital expense is major and difficult to justify in the current

road building is on the rise, as most existing roads are either in bad
shape or
very bad shape, but plans that squander huge sums of money while harming
public good, as projects like the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway
well, seem far from serving the national interest. The fact that the new
are likely to come at the expense of Russia's increasingly dear urban
lands seems intolerable and also inevitable without some serious

As Evgenia Chirikova, leader of Ekooborona, wrote
, "It's clear
that the problem is not restricted to the Khimki forest alone. (Khimki)
is only
a testing ground for the fine-tuning of methods for the commercial
of conservation areas."

Such development may be claimed to be for
the public good, but unless citizens have input and are consulted
properly, projects like this are unlikely to have popular support, and
Russia's ecological and cultural heritage may suffer.

To learn more, support the campaign for Khimki
Forest, or sign the petition, visit this translation of


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