Inspiration a long way from here

After travelling through Siberia, feeling quite far away, it was fantastic to find a hub of activity going on around environmental action in Irkutsk. Two of the people leading in this area are Svetlana and Lubov who have so much positive energy running through their veins. Unsurprisingly they have been making lots happen. You can read a brief summary of their initiatives here: http://www.seekthechange.org/profiles/russia/eco-idea/

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Maple trees, falling leaves and temples galore

I met with a wonderful group of people involved in bottom up environnental action in Tokyo the other day. I could have talked with them for hours! More on that soon but I do seem to be rather busy at the moment making the most of the incredible autumn colours in Tokyo and Kyoto and seeing the sights of the temples and shrines. It is a feast for the eyes! (See www.facebook.com/seekthechange for a couple of photos – I still haven’t fixed the problem of putting up photos on here unfortunately!)

Hong Kong, microcosm of the world

There is so much going on here around taking action on environmental issues. Like the city itself, the green scene is diverse, contrasting, varied and FULL of activity and buzz. But the passion of the people I have met and the great things they are doing are happening against a backdrop of extreme wealth inequality, huge pressure on land, a very high environmental footprint and a lot of unsettled and dissatisfied groups of people within Hong Kong (note the protests going on here at the moment).

 

It feels like Hong Kong is a microcosm of the rest of the world – I can see so much natural beauty, cultural diversity and human achievement as well as the many issues and problems there are. It definitely describes itself well as a ‘world city’. For that reason, I think it is an important place to watch, to see where all of these fantastic efforts to sustainability go.

 

Will the hopes of many here to see Hong Kong become a ‘green’ society be realised? Based on the passion, knowledge, expertise and drive of the people I have met here, I would say those hopes can be made reality. They have started – here’s hoping they can make it grow to the scale that it needs to. And if Hong Kong can do it, the rest of the world can do it too.

 

 

Shanghai connections

I am looking forward to dinner with Selma later, a contact of one of my friends and colleagues back in the UK, to learn more about the environmental and social enterprise landscape here in Shanghai on my last full day here. I am sad to say I didn’t hear back from other organisations based here despite multiple emails – it makes me realise how important the personal connection can be! I have been told there isn’t as much going on in the environmental sphere here but I think I will have more to say on that after our dinner later…

 

Back to Irkutsk…

The profile of Baikal Environmental Wave is up, from back in Irkutsk. Others from that meeting still to come… http://www.seekthechange.org/profiles/baikal-environmental-wave/ Currently in Datong, getting on an overnight train to Pingyao in 2 hours – haven’t been able to find out about environmental organisations here – these two places don’t feature amongst the areas where environmental action is more prevalent unfortunately.

Beijing bonanza of organisations

The overlap of our week-long stay in Beijing with the national holiday that kicked off on Oct 1st was not the best way to start my environmental explorations in China! I have not been able to meet up with very many of the plethora of environmental organisations there are in Beijing. I have done a LOT of sightseeing though! (The highlight was the Great Wall, of course, and finally experiencing real Chinese food!)

 

Not all was lost – I met a wonderful organisastion called Thirst on Wednesday (profile coming soon). I was also due to meet two more, China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN) and Global Environmental Institute (www.geichina.org) yesterday. Unfortunately, due to not having a working Chinese phone, both meetings failed to materialise – the first due to timings and the second due to my inability to find the office – SO frustrating! I am hoping to connect through Skype or with their colleagues in Shanghai – we will see.

 

I contacted many more but I think the holidays, language and difficulties with internet restrictions (WordPress is also not allowed apparently) has reduced potential responses. Still, I thought it would be worth mentioning some of the sorts of organisations I came across from the research I did:

– Friends of Nature China

– China Energy Trip

– Shangri La Institute for Sustainable Communities

– World Young Leaders

– China Association for Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO)

– G:Hub

 

All doing interesting and varied things by the sounds of their websites!

 

 

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.

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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

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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.

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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!

 

 

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!

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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.

 

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