Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Paper Mill On Lake Baikal Raises Questions

Air, water and ground pollution under communism was endemic. From burning soft coal to flooding rivers with toxic waste, governments from the Soviet Union to Romania polluted the lands they ruled with no fear of an uprising of angry citizens. Now that communism has fallen in much of the world, it is clear that the land, air and water are recovering as much as the people

Lake Baikal in Siberia is the largest fresh water lake in the world. It contains 20% of the fresh water on the planet. It contains about 1500 of wildlife, including the only species of fresh water seals in the world.

Along with native tribes that consider lake Baikal to be sacred are ethnic Russians who were drawn to the Soviet far east by petroleum and other industries. Under communism, the pay was spectacular. When communism fell, those who invested their lives in sacrificing comfort for prosperity found their savings wiped out and their jobs endangered by the profound displacement in the economy. Today, there is poverty, unemployment and uncertainty in the Russian far east.

It is against this backdrop of endangered humans that the future of Lake Baikal's wild life is being discussed.

Industries located on the shores of Baikal polluted parts of the lake under Soviet rule. Under the post communist government, some industries closed down for reasons of environmental impact and economic inefficiency.

Last week, the reopening of the Baikalsk Pulp & Paper Mill was greeted with protests by environmental activists. It was also greeted with enthusiasm by residents of Baikalsk, who considered the reopening of the paper mill as a new lease on life for the one industry town and a second chance for the 2000 families that would now have a bread winner.

Reuters News reports as follows on the controversy surrounding the reopening of the paper mill.

"The loss-making plant, which is the main employer for the 17,000 inhabitants of nearby town of Baikalsk, was shut in October 2008 after the government ordered it to install a system for drainage away from the world's largest freshwater lake. Environmentalists say the waste from the plant, situated on the shoreline, contains harmful substances that destroy the lake's wildlife -- 1,500 species of animals and plants, including a unique type of freshwater seal. "We came here to show that people are against [the reopening]," Marina Rikhanova, head of Baikal Ecological Wave, which organised the protest, told Reuters by telephone."

Everyone agrees that Lake Baikal is a national treasure. Vladimir Putin conducted a personal fact finding dive into its waters and consulted with scientists to assuage concerns that the wildlife in the lake was in danger. Russian policy makers are faced not only with saving wild life and protecting the citizenry from pollution borne sickness. They are also faced with the heart rending, bone chilling poverty of thousands and thousands of citizens whose loss of livelihood blights their future.

Could economic diversification among the human population of Siberia create a more hospitable natural environment? Is there technology available in the west that could make a difference in the Russian Far East? Helping create peace between the fresh water seals and other wild life and the human population would not involve sending in soldiers. It would involve investment. It would involve bringing technical knowledge to bear on the problems on the shores of Baikal and elsewhere in Siberia.

Making the Russian Far East thrive economically will lay stable ground for the development of democratic government in the former USSR. Partnership between east and west in facing technical and scientific challenges could create friendship that could be the basis for lasting friendship across the Bering Straits. The beauty of involvement in this area is that the challenge is not military but environmental and economic.

The USA is only half a mile from Russia. The Russian Far East is an untapped zone of economic and scientific opportunity. From their fresh water seals to their hardy citizens, the region deserves our concern and our involvement. Saving wildlife and enhancing human life can be done together. If successful, solving problems in the Lake Baikal region could be a prototype for resolving similar conflicts elsewhere.

One of the most widespread conflicts on our planet is the competing yet reconcilable needs of the human race with the plant and animal kingdoms. Peace in this conflict could unfold on the shores of Lake Baikal. We have to work to make it happen.

Journeyman video about Lake Baikal

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