Environmental degradation and efforts to reverse it on Olkhon Island

We have just returned from 2 nights on Olkhon Island, the biggest island on Lake Baikal. Now I understand how the lake can be seen on a world map!! According to the guidebook, it is the world’s deepest (1637m) and oldest (50 million years) lake, has hundreds of endemic species (found nowhere else on earth) and holds 20% of the world’s fresh water supplies – which means that if the rest of the world’s drinking water ran out tomorrow, it could supply the global population with water for the next 40 years.


There are a few settlements on Olkhon, the biggest being Kuzhir, halfway up the western side of the island, which has around 1000 inhabitants. It is a popular place for tourists to go who are travelling through, if they can bear the 7 hour bone rattling minibus ride from the nearest city, Irkutsk! However, to give an idea of its remoteness, they only got electricity on the island in 2005 and during the winter when the lake is freezing over, the only way to reach the mainland is by plane or helicopter.


On going there I was struck by a number of things:

– the dramatic scenery and the deep blue of the lake first and foremost

– the aridity of the landscape

– the seeming lack of birdlife

– the lack of rules about where people can camp, picnic and drive (though they do have signs about not chopping down trees, hunting, and leaving hazardous substances)

– the amount of rubbish left behind, presumably (though maybe it is an unfair assumotion on my part!) by tourists who have just been enjoying those same natural surroundings


When we got chatting with our hostess Gala, and I commented about the need for a clean up day like Musora Bolshe Net organise, it turns out she is the main coordinator for the network on the island!! She explained how she organised an event a couple of years ago when children from Irkutsk came and stayed at her guesthouse and did a big clean up.


We learnt that she moved to the island 7 years ago, whilst her husband has lived here all his life. She said they did not intend to set up home here permanently, but now she couldn’t imagine going back to the city. She is quite involved in environmental action, e.g. playing host to scientists who assess the island’s UNESCO World Heritage status (who were there while we were, although I didn’t realise until after they had left!), coordinating clean ups and working with environmental activists in Irkutsk.


Most environmental activism is actually amongst people in Irkutsk whilst those on the island just get on with their lives. A few years ago, Putin’s government tried to establish a project with China to run an oil pipeline along the shore of Lake Baikal. She said the local population on the island had a lot of pressure put on them but thanks to Irkutsk activists and international campaigners getting involved and raising awareness it did not go ahead.


However, according to my guidebook (fount of all knowledge for me while internet is limited!), some oil and gas pipelines are already present – which seems beyond stupid when it is an earthquake prone zone, meaning there is a reasonable risk that the pipes may rupture, releasing their contents into the lake. It also says how despite Baikal’s UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, and having many nature reserves/national parks around it and on Olkhon Island, its environmental threats are many – industrial waste from nearby settlements and factories, over-hunting and fishing of species, not to mention the pipelines.


It feels a bit depressing knowing about so many small and large scale threats, having seen the natural beauty of the place and learnt of its global importance for water and biodiversity. Gala seems reasonably positive though – there are more elk here than there were a few years ago thanks to media attention shaming the hunters, they stopped the recent pipeline development project from going ahead, and laws have been passed to prevent the development of houses and buildings close to the beach.


Fingers crossed I can make contact with those UNESCO assessors who we crossed over with – they also happen to work for Greenpeace!



Olkhon Island

DSCN0833Absolutely beautiful. Therewill be a proper blog about it soon, just as soon as I have chance to write it up (probably on the train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbataar tomorrow!) Phew, it’s pretty intense travel at the moment!

Meeting up with lots of organisations this evening in Irkutsk – ¬†AND it turns out there is an environmental film festival going on right now here too! AND the hostess of the guesthouse we stayed at on Olkhon Island is part of the Musora Bolshe Net network as the coordinator, AND there were three guys from Greenpeace staying there!! (Though we annoyinglyn didn’t realise until after they had left! Email saves the day so hopefully I can still get the lowdown!).


Tomsk tour!

Had the most amazing day yesterday being shown around Tomsk by Valeriy, a social entrepreneur who lives there (the most wonderful host!). We were filmed for regional TV(!), met with Sergey from the Siberian Ecological Agency (green.Tomsk.ru), visited an ecovillage outside Tomsk and were treated to homemade tea, honey and cake there, then came back for an incredible puppet show which felt like stepping into a fairytale (www.2ky.Tomsk.ru). Back onto another train now for 31 hours!

The joys of travelling, and travelling with a purpose

It is not so in keeping with most of my blog posts which focus on people, organisations and initiatives tackling environmental issues, but I wanted to write on this topic because it is so important – one of the reasons I enjoy travelling so much is experiencing the support provided and friendliness shown by so many strangers along the way. It restores my faith in humanity and reiterates how differences between nationalities are only really superficial – human emotions are the same the world over in my experience, and stereotypes usually just that.


As a case in point, I have been struck by the helping hand of so many of the Russian people we have met on our journey so far. The UK stereotype of Russia and Russian people is often one of cold, unfriendly faces, corruption and hidden dangers, sometimes one of ‘other’, perpetrated by the media – it is definitely not seen as a place or people conducive to “can I help you?”s and friendly smiles, which has been my experience in innumerable cases now.


Right from the offset Russian helpfulness has made my journey what it is – I met Elena at the Judge Business School back in June, who is from Moscow but lives with her family in Cambridge while she studies for her Masters. She connected me with lots of her colleagues, who then in turn went out of their way to introduce me to people involved in environmental initiatives in different places I would be stopping.


When we got on the train from Vilnius to St Petersburg, the lady sat opposite us was so smily, warm and friendly and we managed to chat quite a lot despite not speaking each others’ languages. On our way back from Peterhof, the bus driver got out specially to show us where to go to the train station; and then as we got off the train in St Petersburg a young woman smiled as we got out our map, asked us where we were from and proceeded to show us exactly how the metro system works and gave us her number to call if we had any problems during the rest of the trip through Russia. The examples do not stop there…


On the train to Moscow, the man opposite me didn’t return my smile…until two hours in when he produced food out of his bag to share with us and then we chatted (with the help of my phrase book and google translate!) for a good couple of hours. The check out man in the supermarket started talking to us about English football clubs when he found out where we were from, and on three different occasions using the Moscow metro people asked us if we needed any help. The couple we were in a carriage with to Novosibirsk gave us a lift to the bus station. That still doesn’t cover the number of instances of help but you get the picture! Yes there are still some rather strict, unsmiling people around, like anywhere, but the help offered to us and the positive interactions we have had so far has blown me away.


Visiting a place, and going beyond that to meet the people who live and work there, does so much to help alter pre-conceived ideas and realise that people really are not so different, no matter where they are from or what their context. Especially now with the news of political relations between Russia and certain other countries, it has done wonders for reminding me that media and reporting of politics hides so much warmth, friendliness and common ground that becomes even more important to remember.


A couple on holiday from Moscow who shared their meal with us the first night in Suzdal

3605km, 49 hours and 3 time zones later…we’re in Tomsk!

- For some insight into Russia’s protected areas, which cover 11% of the land mass see http://www.seekthechange.org/profiles/centre-zapovedniks/

– Being given atour tomorrow by Valeriy involved with Musora Bolshe Net, runs his own social enterprise, and apparently we are going to be on regional TV!

So much inspiration!

The profile of Musora Bolshe Net is up: http://www.seekthechange.org/profiles/musora-bolshe-net/ – an organisation I met in St Petersburg

Tatyana, an environmental activist in Moscow, told me so many inspiring stories yesterday – more on that soon, probably after our long train journey that we start on Thursday!

Amazing meeting just now with Zapovedniki – such incredible people doing such important things to protect protected areas, promote environmental education and get people involved.


Absolutely buzzing!


St Petersburg reflections – environmental action in Russia

I’ve been trying to find out a bit about environmental behaviour, legislation and culture in Russia through my conversations with Denis from Musora Bolshe Net (an organisation encouraging waste free living, more info here) and Angelina Davydova, an environmental journalist and lecturer at St Petersburg State University. Here are a few of my insights and reflections to date:


– If someone wants to take action on environmental issues in Russia they often just go ahead and do it within their own lives since politics and lobbying isn’t really an option for creating change like in other countries due to the political system in Russia. A case in point is Musora Bolshe Net.

– Angelina argues legislation is still important and can achieve a lot though. For example, WWF were recently successful in lobbying to stop amendments for commercial activities within national parks, which could have meant extractive industries being allowed in. That means potential damage to ‘protected areas’ in the country has been averted, at least for now.


– Interest in environmental issues is growing. Denis puts it down to a mix of things: more people travelling, working or studying abroad and seeing how things work in other countries; a general feeling of people doing things for themselves and more sense of wanting to make positive changes; more young ambitious people, with increased quality of life compared to previous generations, so people have more time to care about other things beyond economic survival, and in general just more spare time; greater interest in personal fitness and health, meaning more thought about food and where it comes from, which leads to greater care for nature.

– Many people Angelina’s age (in their 30s) support their parents, around 80%, which is quite different to the situation in the UK, for example, where it is more likely to be the other way round.


– There is growing interest in collaborative consumption and initiatives linked to a sharing economy (like couch surfing, Air B&B, Frents) and a government fund to support social enterprise.

– There is growth in cycling initiatives, ecotourism (e.g. in a state north of St Petersburg a recent conference was investigating alternatives to forestry to derive economic benefit from the landscape in a more benign way), environmental film festivals, vegetarian restaurants, organic food in supermarkets… this all points to a changing mindset/culture, at least in some parts of ‘European Russia’ where two thirds of the Russian population live.


– On the flip side, lots of things are being called ‘eco’ now, even when they’re not, which means the term is being diluted.

– 2012 was the year of environmental care in Russia, with lots of government projects set up, many of which did not reap results. Some people react negatively to environmental projects as a result, thinking it may be wasting money.


– Climate change is not much talked about in Russia – many people are a bit sceptical, mostly because they do not see the direct effects. There are many other environmental problems felt more acutely, such as water quality, air pollution and waste disposal. People need to be able to see the direct impacts to feel the benefit of making changes. If anything, climate change is looked on favourably because of warmer weather e.g. last year in St Petersburg they had only 2 weeks of snow which is unheard of – everyone was happy about it!


– All of these insights come from having only been to St Petersburg so far. Given it is meant to be the most European city in Russia (“It is in Russia – but it is not Russian!” exclaimed Tsar Nicholas I), I wonder how these insights may change as we head south to Moscow and then into Siberia.