Devoted to saving Lake Baikal, she won even Putin's ear

Marina Rikhvanova is one of seven grass-roots environmental activists who will receive the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco Monday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Threatened by pollution: Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest, deepest, and largest freshwater body.
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In a land where oil dominates politics and environmental issues barely make the agenda, it was a veritable coup.

Concerned with plans to route a major oil pipeline within 900 yards of pristine Lake Baikal, Marina Rikhvanova and her Baikal Environmental Wave advocacy group led thousands of people into the streets of nearby Irkutsk; collected over 20,000 petition signatures; and summoned "flash mobs," which used tactics such as handing bottles of murky "Baikal water" to embarrassed officials.

After two months of protests, President Vladimir Putin pointedly asked the chief of state-owned oil company Transneft on TV whether an alternative route was possible. "If you are hesitating, then there is such an opportunity," Putin told the quavering official. The pipeline was subsequently rerouted.

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In recognition of her work, Ms. Rikhvanova will on Monday receive the Goldman Environmental Prize at a ceremony in San Francisco. A biologist and veteran environmental crusader, she has spent her life battling to save Siberia's "sacred sea" – which holds over 20 percent of the world's fresh water reserves – from the depredations of Soviet industrial planners and unregulated Russian businessmen.

"Around here she is a major authority, in both public and scientific circles," says Yelena Tvorogova, president of the environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO) Revival of Siberian Land Foundation in Irkutsk. "[Rikhvanova] is one of the founders and is still a key leader of the movement to save Lake Baikal. She's always been persistent and uncompromising in her principles."

In addition to cofounding Baikal Environmental Wave, Rikhvanova is cochair of the International Socio-Environmental Union, a network of Russian NGOs, many of whom cooperate with her group on Baikal issues. Her organization has received support in the past from a wide variety of international sources, including the US Agency for International Development, Germany's Green Party, the Ford Foundation, the Moscow-based Vernadsky Foundation (an environmental NGO), and others. Its international collaborators include the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, The Heinrich Boll Foundation, the Pacific Environment Research Center.

Encouraged by the success of Baikal Environmental Wave in banning the pipeline from a sensitive seismic zone near Baikal's shores, Rikhvanova is now organizing to block the expansion of a state-run uranium enrichment facility at Angarsk, just 50 miles from Lake Baikal, where the Russian government is planning to import nuclear waste from around the world for reprocessing.

"It is extremely dangerous for people who live in Irkutsk and along the Angara River, because underground waters move in their direction," says Rikhvanova. "I don't think Rosatom has considered the danger to the region and to Lake Baikal. They do not provide information to the public about their plans, or the possible damage."

Rikhvanova still lives in her cramped Soviet-era flat in Irkutsk, trying to juggle motherhood, scientific work, and environmental activism. "I have studied Lake Baikal all my life and worked and protested," she says by phone. "It hasn't been easy, but it has been interesting."

Rikhvanova has endured frequent harassment from the FSB security service, including several search and seizure raids of her home and office. Last year her adult son Pavel was one of 20 people arrested after a still-unexplained attack on her group's environmental encampment, apparently staged by nationalist thugs, in which one activist was killed and several injured.

She describes it as an attempt to intimidate her. "Pavel is still in prison, although I believe the authorities know everything that happened," she says. "My son never belonged to any nationalist groups."

Environmental activism is growing increasingly hazardous in Putin's Russia, say other ecologists. "If you oppose Transneft or any other state company, you can expect to come to the attention of the state security services," says Roman Vazhenkov, Baikal campaign coordinator for Greenpeace-Russia. "We have growing limitations on freedom of speech in Russia. I know that Marina has had a lot of that kind of trouble. She's been heavily involved in opposing reckless development near the lake, and I fear her troubles are just beginning."

Such determination, evidenced throughout her decades of work, made Rikhvanova one of seven recipients of this year's Goldman Environmental Award, given in recognition of "sustained and significant efforts to preserve the natural environment." The world's largest prize for grass-roots environmentalists, it is sometimes dubbed the environmental "Nobel Prize" and comes with $150,000.

Sometimes called "Russia's Galapagos," Lake Baikal is a unique ecosystem with almost 2,000 endemic plant and animal species. Nearly 400 miles long and more than a mile deep, it is a vast reservoir of pure water – the world's largest – collected in an ancient rift valley at Asia's heart. Rikhvanova, a native of the region, was profoundly influenced as a young girl in the late '60s, when the Soviet Union's first environmental protest movement erupted over a plan to build a pulp and paper mill to take advantage of the lake's unlimited supply of clean water. The factory, which still operates at Baikalsk on the lake's southern shore, has remained a potent symbol of economic abuse for generations of Russians.

"Any biologist dreams of working at Lake Baikal, it's one of the most special places in the world," says Irina Pokrovskaya, a biogeographer at the official Institute of Geography in Moscow. "It's a crime that there's a pulp and paper mill operating there."

Rikhvanova recalls being taken by her father in the 1970s to visit Valentin Rasputin, the traditionalist writer who did much to publicize Lake Baikal's plight within the tough literary controls of the Soviet system. At university, she made friends with Jennifer Sutton, a British woman who'd lived and taught English in Irkutsk for many years.

"Jennifer was interested in ecology, and she would discuss it in class," Rikhvanova says. "At one point she brought in a lot of [Western] literature about the environment and, gradually, our English-language club became an ecological organization."

After graduating, Rikhvanova worked as a biologist at the famous Limnologicial Center on Lake Baikal's shore, classifying the lake's unique fish species. But she turned to activism in the early 1990s after growing disappointed with local politicians' lack of commitment to ecological priorities. "We saw it was no use to work with them, so we decided to do it ourselves," she says. Members of the Baikal Environmental Wave, which Rikhvanova cofounded with Ms. Sutton about 16 years ago, started out lecturing in schools, collecting books for the local library, and producing a monthly magazine about the struggle to save Lake Baikal.

"Rikhvanova and her group never let public opinion in this region fall asleep," says Vadim Takhteyev, chair of biology at Irkutsk University. "One might criticize their actions at times, but on the whole it's positive. Their magazine has done a lot to improve ecological education around here."

Since Putin came to power, an increasingly authoritarian, economically-interventionist Kremlin has clashed repeatedly with local environmentalists. The Baikal Environmental Wave's protests in 2006 and the subsequent rerouting of the pipeline was the first big victory for environmentalists in Russia. Despite the official harassment she's suffered, Rikhvanova says there's hope that Russian authorities will learn to respect the environment. "The authorities are watchful toward us, but at least they are paying attentionk," she says.

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