The Story of the Raven

Posted by Sibyl Diver
Sasha telling the story of the raven
Sasha telling the story of the raven

KATUN RIVER, Republic of Altai, Russia.

A raft of Russian environmental leaders floats down the mighty Katun River. Sasha, with the environmental organization Taiga Rangers, is standing in the middle of the raft and performing a splendid theatrical version of the “The Raven and the Geese.” I am gasping for air between bouts of intense laughter.

The story goes something like this.  A flock of geese is preparing to migrate across the Pacific Ocean.  “Let me come with you!” cries the raven.  “I’m brave! I’m strong!”  The geese scoffed, “Your wings are too short.  You won’t make it!”  Nonetheless, the geese give in and embark on the transoceanic flight with the raven.  Sasha stands tall with arms outstretched, almost soaring above the water.

After several days, the geese finally arrive and wait for the raven, and they wait, and wait.  Just as they are mourning the memory of the brave, strong raven who perished at sea, they spot a dark shape on the horizon.  The raven!  “Go! Go! Go!” shout the geese.  Sasha is wildly jumping up and down, pointing at the horizon, and almost falling out of the raft.  The exhausted raven finally limps up to the flock.  He can barely whispers, “Yes…” gasps the raven. “I’m brave, and I’m strong, and I’m a bit crazy in the head.”

Perhaps the story comes off so well because both Sasha and the other Sosnovka Coalition members present, who have dedicated their lives to Russia’s environmental movement, can personally relate to this crazy, lone raven.  It seems quite fitting that we are all sandwiched together in a small, rubber raft on a fast flowing river.

Our coalition earned the name Sosnovka about seven years ago, after the location of our first such gathering.  The name literally means “little pine tree”.  This first meeting took place almost as an experiment, bringing a group of Russian environmental groups together and see what happened.

Anyone attending this year’s meeting could tell that this little pine tree has grown.  The Sosnovka strategy session is no longer a matter of convenience, but rather an event of necessity for Russia’s environmental movement.  This year, the meeting was characterized by a greater sense of maturity and professionalism, the ability to share skills and resources, and the conviction that we are making a difference.

On maturity…

As with any diverse, passionate interest group, the Russian environmental community is capable of getting distracted by small points of disagreement.  However, this year’s meeting indicates our movement is able to see the forest through the trees.  We are now moving forward on common goals.  The Siberia-Pacific Pipeline campaign’s success moving an oil pipeline’s route away from Lake Baikal and sensitive marine environments in Primorye clearly demonstrated our movement’s strength.

Sergei Shapaev, director of the Buryat Regional Union for Baikal, led our Sosnovka discussion on this pipeline campaign.  Sergei has been a key organizer for multi-stakeholder opposition to building the oil pipeline route along Lake Baikal and has the right personality for the job.  Sergei has sharp facial features and a focused gaze that reminds me of an eagle.  His orations are just as focused, clear and reasonable.  He always stands up to make his point, but rarely raises his voice.  Along with collaborators at Baikal Environmental Wave and Phoenix Fund, Sergei has succeeded in maintaining common goals for corporate responsibility for the Siberia Pacific Pipeline campaign, despite a wide range of perspectives from supporting pipeline construction to opposing it altogether.

On sharing resources…

The growth of Russia’s environmental movement is also evident from the level of strategy and technical skills that many organizations are now able to contribute.  Groups are no longer looking solely to international experiences for new campaign ideas, but are instead working to leverage resources for region-to-region collaboration.

At this year’s meeting, Irina Fotieva and Misha Shishin of the Fund for 21st Century Altai offered a key example of collaborating with other environmental leaders in the movement.  Misha and Irina are looking to apply Sergei Shaphaev’s work developing economic evaluations of natural resource extraction projects to their campaign to protect the Ukok Plateau.  A new gas pipeline from Russia to China is planned to cross the Altai’s Ukok Plateau, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its high biodiversity and status as a sacred site for Altai indigenous peoples.  Working with Sergei to apply an economic analysis to the problem would be an important opportunity to make the case for shifting the pipeline route.

Misha and Irina are both passionate about protecting the natural wonders of the Ukok and ensuring that regional development projects benefit local people.  Misha, originally an art history professor, is always ready with a wry smile and a joke to bring forth a room full of laughs, a skill he employs with colleagues and government officials alike.  He took up the cause of preventing construction of a large dam project on the Katun River and created his own television station in order to do so.  Irina carries a soft, welcoming expression, yet manages the daily operations of the organization with intense conviction.  She is now in conversation with indigenous leaders in the southern Altai about conducting the economic evaluation.

On making a difference…

Coming to a meeting that evaluates our movement’s performance with successes on hand offers an added incentive to push forward.  This year has brought more than one success to Russia’s environmental movement.  In addition to protecting Lake Baikal from potential oil pipeline spills, we received positive news during our meeting regarding efforts to protect Sakhalin Island from oil and gas developments.

Dimitry Lisitsyn, director of Sakhalin Environment Watch, spent free time between conference sessions glued to his cell phone with reporters asking about the Russian government’s decision to revoke permits for oil pipeline construction based on negative environmental impacts.  Dimitry’s phone conversations were enlivened by lively hand gestures, emphasizing his points to his invisible audience.  This level of energy is consistent with Dimitry’s commitment to the campaign and his tireless work photographing the Sakhalin oil pipeline construction documenting engineering problems which compromises pipeline safety and allows for extreme erosion, impacting salmon streams.

The list of accomplishments from the meeting goes on, with poignant moments ranging from the recognition of long-term partnerships between indigenous community activists and environmental advocates, to a new level of excitement around Russia-China relations and policy opportunities for sustainable natural resource management at the international level.

In most countries, the odds are stacked against citizens’ environmental protection efforts.  Russia is no different.  Yet our Sosnovka Coalition is a small group of people, who are able to maintain a sense of optimism (and a sense of humor), despite the challenges we face.  And for several days, the strength of our network was palpable.  The ravens of the Russian environmental movement have taken flight.

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