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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 / April 14, 2008

Threatened by pollution: Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest, deepest, and largest freshwater body.

Boyd Norton/The Goldman Environmental Prize



In a land where oil dominates politics and environmental issues barely make the agenda, it was a veritable coup.

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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.

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.