Which Way For the Amur River Basin?

With developmental pressures increasing on the Russian and Chinese sides of the river, a Russian naturalist is leading an environmental charge to protect the watershed home of numerous endangered plants and animals

SERGEI SMIRENSKI leans on the railing of our boat traveling up the Amur River and looks out longingly at the forests of the Siberian taiga that crowd down to the river's rocky shores. For 23 years, the Russian naturalist has wandered the Siberian wilderness from Lake Baikal in the west to the Kurile islands in the far east, studying the rich flora and fauna of this sparsely populated region.

"I spent five months here, alone with my dog," Dr. Smirenski recalls, pointing to the ridges of the Khingan gorge. "Every day, sometimes three times a day, I would meet bears in the forests," he continues. Once a bear attacked him on a trail. Smirenski was injured when the recoil from his rifle sent him sprawling down a rocky slope. For a month, the tall, wiry biologist nursed his wound alone in a forest tent, discovering only later that he had broken several ribs.

With the same passion and determination, Smirenski is fighting to preserve the Siberian wilds, its dense forests, the giant sturgeon swimming up its rivers, and his beloved elegant and endangered cranes.

At the center of this struggle is the Amur River Basin, an area of more than 700,000 square miles spreading out along the length of this great river and its tributaries, from the convergence of China, Mongolia, and Russia in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east. The Amur River, one of the world's 10 longest rivers, runs untamed and unaltered by man for 2,700 miles.

The wetlands along the river in north China and southeast Siberia are similar to the great prairies of North America, most of which are now gone. They account for a richness of wildlife famous among naturalists. The Amur watershed is home to numerous endangered plants and animals, including seven species of mammals, 44 of birds, three of fish, and 17 of insects. Rare cranes breed in the Amur basin, wintering in southern China, Japan, and South Korea.

But these precious resources are threatened by industrial and development plans. China is pushing for a huge international dam project to provide its spreading population with electricity. Russia is desperate for the cash that foreign loggers could bring. Environmentalists on both sides shudder.

Ironically, the Amur basin owes its pristine state largely to the cold - and sometimes hot - war that has prevailed between China and the Soviet Union since the mid-1960s, when the two communist giants experienced their bitter split. The Amur forms the border between the two neighbors for most of its course, and the military buildup on its banks halted all development plans. Political thaw impact felt

But with the easing of tensions between Russia and China, especially since former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to China in 1989, have come renewed threats to the Amur ecosystem.

"This area is on the threshold of developing," says George Archibald, director of the International Crane Foundation, a United States-based organization that has worked extensively with naturalists on both sides of the border to save the four endangered species of cranes and two similarly rare varieties of storks that breed in this basin.

On the Russian side, the hunger for funds at a time of economic collapse is opening the door to uncontrolled exploitation of the rich natural resources of the Far Eastern region. Local environmental officials and activists accuse foreign firms of seeking access with the lure of dollars and yen, even in the form of bribes to local officials. The most immediate danger they say is from plans to log the coniferous forest steppe and mixed forests, including remaining stands of virgin timber. The main promoter s are the American lumber giant Weyerhauser and the South Korean Hyundai conglomerate.

"Companies like Weyerhauser know they won't be able to get timber from the US at the same rate as in the past," says David Gordon of the Pacific Energy and Resources Center in Sausalito, Calif., which is working with Russians to save the Siberian forests from unregulated development. "They're looking to Siberia to get the timber they got from clear-cutting the US." Chinese see cropland

From the Chinese side, the pressures come from the relentless march of population northward into what is still a "frontier" area. Han Chinese have poured into northern China, an area previously avoided because of its cold weather and poor conditions for farming. "Now they are planning to drain the wetlands in north China to make farmland," Dr. Archibald explains.

With people comes a demand for energy. At Chinese urging, a moribund hydroelectric power plan dating back to the days of Sino-Soviet friendship in the 1950s has been revived. The gargantuan scheme calls for the construction of 12 dams, seven huge ones on the Amur itself beginning from the Khingan gorge and moving upriver, and five more on its tributaries. Most of the power would be sold to China.

"When engineers say they will tame this wild river, we think they will kill the river," says Smirenski, who is leading the fight to stop the dam project. "We believe that if we are willing to spend enough time and money, we could find alternative sources of energy and stop the dams that will impact nature so badly."

The Russian scientist predicts that the dams will cause climatic changes, wipe out the salmon and other important fish populations that migrate up the river, and threaten many endangered species of birds by damaging the wetlands.

Last summer, Smirenski joined the chief Russian engineer and various Russian officials on what was supposed to be a month-long joint survey of the river ecology, sponsored by the Chinese on a boat supplied by them. He dismisses the trip as a Chinese effort to bribe their Russian counterparts.

"There were lots of parties," he reports. "The boat was filled with boxes of beer and vodka." The Russian officials spent most of their time in China shopping. During seven days spent on the Chinese side, Smirenski was able to do only 10 hours of field study.

Smirenski, who organized the Khinganski Nature Reserve on the Russian side, is one of the top ornithologists in Russia and an expert on cranes and storks. The Chinese repeatedly sought to mollify him by telling him the reservoir's waters would not reach the reserve.

With the support of the International Crane Foundation, Smirenski organized this boat trip in early July, a floating international seminar and expedition attended by about 100 naturalists, nature reserve managers, and ecology officials from Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and the US. The conference was dedicated to the endangered cranes and storks.

In between peaceful trips to band birds in Russian wetland reserves, a tense drama played out between the Russians and Chinese. As the boat sailed down river, key figures, including the Americans as mediators, gathered to talk in a glass-enclosed salon at the stern of our boat. The final joint communique calling for further study before any new development is undertaken was a hard-won compromise that still guarantees little. Anti-dam efforts

Smirenski tries a combination of shame and threat to persuade his Chinese colleagues to join the Russians in opposing the dam. "Our names will be recorded in infamy if we biologists, ecologists, and specialists give permission to construct this dam," he says.

Privately, Smirenski expresses sympathy for Chinese scientists who are compelled by their repressive bureaucracy to support dams they know are bad. "Nothing will happen until there are political changes [in China] like we had," he says with a sigh. Archibald agrees. "The only way to stop this [dam] is for Russia to say, `We don't want it,' " he says.

That may well happen. Yuri Darmon, a biologist and member of the Amur regional parliament, tells the Chinese that "our voters demand us to stop this project."

Viktor Sankov, the vice chairman of the Khabarovsk regional committee on nature protection, chimes in with a vow that a "green grass-roots movement will resist and fight the project." But Smirensky is still apprehensive that a cash-hungry Russian government might give the go-ahead to the project.

* `Amur River Diary,' a two-part Odyssey series about Daniel Sneider's journey from Khabarovsk to Poyarkovo in July, ran on Monday, August 24, and Tuesday, August 25.

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