Will Human Rights Prevail Again in Paris?

 

Arriving in Paris amid intensive security, over 40,000 people are anticipated to attend the international climate summit this week and next. The attendees include 10,000 delegates from 195 countries, in addition to thousands of journalists, NGOs, scientists, and activists.

This will be the biggest diplomatic event to be held in France since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was signed here in 1948.  Following the atrocities of World War II, the Declaration was the first global definition of the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (November 1949)

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (November 1949)

Dealing with climate change impacts also implicates human rights. That’s why a U.S. court in Washington State recently ruled in favor of a group of children who had sued the state for failing to protect them from climate emission-caused harms.

The judge agreed with the children’s assertion that the state has an obligation to protect natural resources—such as rivers and lakes and the atmosphere—because these resources are held for all in a “public trust.” The judge found that, “[the youths’] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.”

Pacific Environment will be in Paris to help make this connection between climate change and human rights. We’ll host a film festival that showcases the harm coal is causing to communities in several of the world’s most important coal-producing and consuming countries. These films, and the panel discussion following, will allow local leaders to bring their stories forward to the government delegates and the world.

Will the agreement reached in Paris this time make history, too?

Posted in Civil Society, Climate Change, Coal, Communities, Global, Grassroots Activism | Comments Off on Will Human Rights Prevail Again in Paris?

I’m Grateful Children Are Using Courts to Challenge Climate Change

 

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

There are days when I find myself doubting the truth of that wisdom, popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. But a distinguishing characteristic of environmentalists is our persistent optimism that we can overcome even the largest obstacles and persevere.

And there’s a lot I’m feeling grateful for right now:

 

  • As we head in to the world’s climate summit in Paris, this round of talks has been preceded by a slew of important steps by major nations to build momentum. The United Kingdom announced a complete phase-out of coal over the next decade. The United States put in place a nationwide Clean Power Plan; killed the XL Keystone pipeline; and signed a bilateral agreement with the world’s other largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, to cut carbon emissions. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an umbrella group of most of the world’s developed nations, agreed this month to restrict their financing of coal plants in other countries, which has been a major driver of wrongheaded coal plant construction in developing nations. And the government of Norway, owner of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, decided to sell of its coal-related investments.

 

 

None of these events I’m grateful for would have occurred without the optimism and activism of people like you.

In every instance, the national action described above followed years of steady, hard-driving, persistent, strategically applied pressure by non-governmental organizations and grassroots activists.

Thank you to all who stood with us and our allies and community partners in 2015.

 

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Communities Tell Their Stories at the Paris Climate Talks

With the Paris climate conference only a month away, the world is getting into gear to address many serious global issues on an international scale.

During the climate talks, Pacific Environment will be hosting The Cost of Coal, a film festival that highlights the negative environmental, health, and social impacts caused by the world’s ravenous appetite for fossil fuels.

From 2000 to 2012, coal provided nearly half the world’s energy. And, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility, “coal pollution damages human health at every stage.” It has been demonstrably linked to respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological defects. In The Cost of Coal, award-winning filmmakers examine this extremely harmful industry and its effects on our planet and our health.

If you are in Paris, join us on December 7 at 5PM at Galerie JOSEPH Braque, located at 4-6 rue de Braque, 75003 Paris, France.

We will be showing six films from five countries, produced by environmentalists and journalists working alongside communities and individuals from China, the Philippines, South Africa, Australia and Russia.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers and community activists featured in the films.

Wine, cheese, and popcorn will be served.

Smog Journeys: Produced by celebrated Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke and commissioned by Greenpeace East Asia, “Smog Journeys” documents the effects of air pollution on Chinese families. The film calls for drastic action to solve the Chinese air pollution crisis, since the Chinese government has utterly failed to limit the amount of pollution released in its cities.

Smog Journeys: “Clean air is a basic necessity for healthy living…Bringing back clean air needs to be a priority and it requires urgent action. Greenpeace calls on the government to take immediate steps to safeguard the health of its citizens, cut coal and shift towards cleaner renewable energy.” -Yan Li, Head of Climate and Energy at Greenpeace Asia

Coal: The True Culprit Behind Air Pollution: Also commissioned by Greenpeace East Asia, this documentary was part of a larger effort to quantify the pollution caused by the Chinese coal industry.

Condemned: Produced by Ecodefense, a Russian environmental group, “Condemned” is a documentary detailing the harmful impacts of the coal industry on indigenous communities in Siberia. The film will be accompanied by a presentation of Ecodefense’s latest study on the impacts of the Russian coal industry.

The Human Cost of Power: Directed by award-winning science journalist Alexandra de Blas and produced by the Fiona Armstrong, Executive Director of the Climate and Health Alliance, “The Human Cost of Power” examines the explosive growth of coal and gas extraction in Australia. This film was shown at the Global Climate and Health Summit alongside the Warsaw United Nations climate talks in November of 2014.

The Human Cost of Power: The mining and production of Australian coal and coal seam gas is expanding at an unprecedented rate and scale and with it the risk to human health.

The Bliss of Ignorance: Co-produced by Friends of the Earth, the largest environmental grassroots organization in the world, and groundwork, a South African environmental justice group, “The Bliss of Ignorance” investigates South Africa’s deep-rooted involvement with coal mining and energy production. This film has already won awards from the International Film Festival and the World Film Awards.

Co-hosted by:

Greenpeace East Asia

Health Care Without Harm 

Ecodefense 

groundWork

The Climate and Health Alliance

 

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Tightening the Environmental Standards of International Investment Banks

The past few years have been critical in the fight to establish sane, sustainable regulations on the impacts the coal industry has on our biosphere. Alongside our efforts to establish global conservation efforts with local organizations, Pacific Environment has been working hard to influence the paths taken by some of the most powerful financial institutions in the world, ensuring that these major players are aware of the effect they have on the health and resources of our planet. Our input has been sought by the International Energy Agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Ex-Im Bank Advisory Committee, and several other government agencies and media outlets. Our work is crucial, and people are listening.

One of our major victories has been on the policies of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the agency tasked with apportioning United States investment in the developing world. Through years of hard work and lobbying, Pacific Environment and other organizations like us have succeeded in changing the course of OPIC’s policies. In 2013 OPIC committed over a billion dollars to renewable energy projects. That’s 30% of its total financing, compared to less than 3% in 2009.

OPIC has committed $400 million in support of the Redstone Concentrating Solar Power plant in South Africa. This project is a major milestone in President Obama's Power Africa initiative, which aims to increase energy infrastructure across the African continent.  Photo source: http://www.evwind.es/

OPIC has committed $400 million in support of the Redstone Concentrating Solar Power plant in South Africa. This project is a major milestone in President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which aims to increase energy infrastructure across the African continent.
Photo source: http://www.evwind.es/

This year, we worked with Indian civil society groups to publish two reports on the ongoing human rights and environmental violations committed by the Sasan coal project, funded by Ex-Im Bank, another financial giant. One report, titled Export Credit and Human Rights: Failure to Protect, was presented at a UN-sponsored conference in Geneva in December 2014.

We scored another huge victory in Africa thanks to our dedicated campaigning work. President Obama’s Power Africa program, designed to increase energy infrastructure in Africa, was introduced in 2013. Originally, its lack of explicit funding for renewable energy projects was worrying, and some thought that Power Africa was a thinly-veiled springboard for the coal industry to dig its claws into Africa. However, in the two years since the program was launched, neither Ex-Im nor OPIC have made use of the lenient fossil fuel allowances granted by the program, instead contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to more than 30 renewable energy initiatives. This shift in attitude is due partially to the contributions of Pacific Environment and allies, who have been slowly pushing Ex-Im and OPIC towards more sustainable institutional cultures and business models.

After its charter expired this June, Ex-Im Bank faced a potential shutdown. On October 29th, the House of Representatives voted 313-118 to reinstate it, extending its charter through 2019.  Photo source: http://blogs.ft.com/

After its charter expired this June, Ex-Im Bank faced a potential shutdown. On October 29th, the House of Representatives voted 313-118 to reinstate it, extending its charter through 2019.
Photo source: http://blogs.ft.com

With our partners, we have changed the way these organizations think, as well as made sure the media covers these changes in attitude and gets the word out to the public. But the fight isn’t over. OPIC is still considering funding two oil-fueled power plants in Africa. The World Banks’ new safeguard framework, introduced in 2014, has weakened transparency, due diligence and accountability while removing provisions for the rights of communities affected by energy projects. There is still much work to be done. But, with the help of our many allies in NGOs, nonprofits, civil society organizations and the world community of environmental advocates, we are confident that the necessary steps will be taken. With your help, we will succeed.

Posted in Civil Society, Climate Change, Coal, Communities, Energy, Export Credit Agencies, Featured, Finance, Global, Grassroots Activism, Issues, offshore drilling, Policy, Regions, Responsible Finance, Sustainable Development | Comments Off on Tightening the Environmental Standards of International Investment Banks

Big Win: President Obama Stops Arctic Drilling

 

In a stunning development this week, President Obama announced that he is cancelling upcoming oil and gas lease sales for Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska. And, in a companion move, the Department of the Interior denied requests by Shell and Statoil to extend the leases they already hold in the Arctic Ocean.

These are huge wins for America’s Arctic and the global climate. And it’s the voices of people like you who spoke out against dangerous offshore drilling in the Arctic that helped make this happen. Thank you!

What a difference a month can make. Just in September, Pacific Environment and allies went to court —again; this time to force the Department of the Interior to ban Shell from drilling in one of the Arctic’s most ecologically significant areas that sustains walrus populations in Alaska and Russia.

Walrus2012Awith Kid

At the time it looked like Shell might actually be allowed to pursue its reckless drilling program. Until, in a surprise move a couple of weeks ago, Shell announced that it would abandon Arctic offshore drilling for the time being and ask the Obama administration to extend its leases until some future date. But with its denial of the requested lease extensions President Obama’s administration finally killed oil and gas drilling off the coast of Alaska—at least for a couple of years.

Shell’s departure is great news for the Arctic Ocean, and President Obama’s follow-up decisions are making history. Let’s take a moment to savor this win and to thank the President for protecting the Arctic and keeping dirty fossil fuels in the ground.

But this is no time to rest. We are absolutely certain that when oil prices rise again and administrations change, Big Oil will be back. And we will be prepared. Stay tuned for our Five-Point-Plan to protect the Arctic for future generations.

Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Climate Change, Energy, Grassroots Activism, Marine, Oceans, offshore drilling | Comments Off on Big Win: President Obama Stops Arctic Drilling

Arctic Ocean and Wildlife Warrant Special International Protection

Co-authored by Alex Levinson and Kevin Harun, Pacific Environment

First published in High North News and Huffington Post

Imagine traveling seas beset by hurricane force winds, extreme waves, poorly charted waters, and long seasons of darkness. Where calls for help may not be readily answered. Now, imagine pristine seas where exotic wildlife, some traveling great distances to feed or have their young, are found in abundance. A place that has sustained capable, local people for millenniums.

This is not a science fiction adventure to some far off planet. Instead, both descriptions could be applied to navigating Arctic waters. Both fearsome and plentiful, the arctic merits special attention.

Amidst the recent troubling news that Shell Oil has received conditional approval to drill in Arctic waters, a separate, critical victory for the larger Arctic ecosystem was overshadowed.

After over a decade of negotiations, international rules are set to provide mandatory protections for the Arctic Ocean. The new laws, known as the Polar Code, are being enacted by a United Nations agency and will be the first mandatory protections for polar waters. Why is this exceptional? Because the international community for the first time is formally recognizing that Arctic seas and wildlife warrant special safeguards.

The Arctic Ocean includes some of the world’s richest and most extraordinary marine resources – pristine fisheries, an abundance of marine mammals, and densely populated sea bird nesting colonies. Indigenous peoples in Alaska, Russia, Canada, and elsewhere across the Arctic continue to practice traditional ways of life that rely on Arctic coastal waters for food.

But now, the sea ice is melting – possibly to disappear entirely in the summer as early as 2020. Oil companies, mining industries, and many nations are racing to industrialize and “harvest” the resources of this “new ocean” emerging from the ice. Commercial shipping is accelerating in these remote regions despite the extreme risks to mariners and the environment.

The arctic marine environment is remote, dangerous, fragile – and severe. Storms routinely reach hurricane force, waters are ice-filled and poorly mapped, communication systems can easily fail, and substantive spill response or search and rescue can be thousands of miles and weeks away.

The new Polar Code is the first step toward wholesale recognition that Arctic waters and wildlife are unique and deserve special protections. The Code requires that ship captains plan their routes to avoid marine mammals. The Code bans ships from dumping oily wastes and garbage. It imposes important rules for ships operating in remote, ice-choked waters regarding their design, operations, sailor training, and search and rescue requirements.

The Polar Code is a critical first achievement, but it fails to tackle some of the most dangerous remaining threats – highlighting the need for the international community to quickly adopt additional protective provisions via a second phase.

The number one need is to ban heavy fuel oil. The Arctic Council – a forum for Arctic nations and peoples — has identified a spill of heavy fuel oil as the greatest potential threat to Arctic marine resources. This oil – thicker, more viscous, and dirtier than lighter grades – is both shipped as cargo and used as a transport fuel by ships transiting Arctic seas. Because it does not evaporate, heavy fuel oil in severe Arctic conditions would be virtually impossible to clean up if spilled, for example, in waters where arctic birds and wildlife concentrate.

For these reasons, heavy fuel oil was banned in Antarctic waters in 2010. It should be kept out of Arctic waters too.

A revised Polar Code should also regulate “black carbon” emissions from ships – which are known to accelerate ice melt and climate change – and much more stringently regulate ships unprepared for icy, stormy waters thousands of miles from aid.

Environmental accomplishments are hard to come by and need to be celebrated. We’re toasting with champagne this week to acknowledge the achievement that the nations of the world have recognized the Arctic Ocean’s special fragility. But we’ll put away the champagne glasses tomorrow and get back to work. We need to ensure that this week’s accomplishment is only the beginning of a more comprehensive protective scheme for one of the earth’s great natural regions.

Alex Levinson and Kevin Harun are, respectively, the CEO and Arctic Director of Pacific Environment, an international environmental group that has partnered with local and indigenous communities in Russia, China, California, and the Alaskan Arctic for more than two decades.

Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Bering Sea, Global, Marine, Oceans, Policy, Shipping | Comments Off on Arctic Ocean and Wildlife Warrant Special International Protection

Arctic Peoples and Wildlife Receive Unique, Historic Protection

 

Today, we celebrate a historic win for the Arctic, its wildlife, and its peoples. After years of negotiations, at 9 a.m. London time, the international community agreed to establish some special protections for this magnificent region.

 

The new laws, known as the Polar Code, forbid ships traversing the Arctic to dump garbage, sewage, and oil into the ocean. They also require that ship captains avoid large groupings of marine mammals when planning their routes through the Arctic.

 

Over the past three years, Pacific Environment’s hard-hitting advocacy and intense coalition work helped convince U.S. federal agencies and other countries to support strong protections for ocean life via regulations of shipping in Arctic seas.

 

Polar bear, walrus, and other Arctic wildlife are threatened by pollution from ships traversing fragile Arctic waters.

Polar bears, walrus, and other Arctic wildlife are threatened by pollution from ships traversing fragile Arctic waters.

Amidst the troubling news about Shell oil drilling this week, these protections don’t come a minute too soon. Sea ice is melting, and oil companies, mining businesses, and nations are racing to industrialize and “harvest” the resources of this “new ocean” emerging from the ice.

 

Commercial shipping is accelerating in these remote waters despite the extreme risks to mariners and the environment. There are long seasons of darkness, storms routinely reach hurricane force with extreme waves, the waters are filled with dangerous ice and poorly mapped, communication systems can easily fail. This is a region so remote that calls for help may not be readily answered. The next facility with people and equipment capable of responding to a severe accident or oil spill may be thousands of miles and weeks away.

 

Now there will be rules in place that protect some of the world’s richest and most extraordinary marine resources—pristine fisheries, an abundance of marine mammals, and densely populated sea bird nesting colonies. Indigenous peoples in Alaska, Russia, Canada, and elsewhere across the Arctic continue to practice traditional ways of life that rely on Arctic coastal waters for food.

 

Although these new rules establish important protections, they don’t go far enough. We will spend the next year to make sure that other critical issues will be regulated in a second version of the Polar Code: the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (which is nearly impossible to clean up in the event of an oil spill); reduction of black carbon (the most important contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide); dangerous toxic emissions from onboard ship incineration (which harm human health and marine mammals); and disposal of ballast and grey water (which may contain harmful chemicals and invasive species).

 

Still, let’s take a minute to enjoy this achievement. Tomorrow, our fight for the Arctic continues.

 

Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Bering Sea, Marine, Oceans, Policy, Russia, Shipping | Comments Off on Arctic Peoples and Wildlife Receive Unique, Historic Protection

Coal Declines Worldwide – Even in China

 

“Worldwide, for every new coal plant built, two have been shelved or cancelled since 2010…. In China, coal use declined in 2014, signaling the start of a shift towards greater reliance on renewable energy. And, in the U.S., over 77,000 megawatts of coal energy have retired or are slated to retire.”

This good news comes from Boom and Bust: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline, published this week by CoalSwarm and the Sierra Club. The report, together with a new online interactive map, Global Coal Tracker, describes the state of coal use worldwide.

A Chinese language version of the Global Coal Tracker was released this week as well as part of a new website–meiyouwenti.org (“The Coal Problem”). This new online resource shares information on China’s coal industry and the health and environmental impacts of coal.

Coal Tracker

A Chinese-language version of the Global Coal Tracker shows proposed coal power plants and their development status across China.

 

China’s central government has signaled a commitment to reducing the country’s reliance on coal, but this alone won’t be enough.

The coal tracker shows that while some provinces have canceled projects in an effort to improve air quality, other provinces are lagging behind. What is surprising to see is that even some of China’s wealthiest provinces (e.g., Jiangsu and Guangdong) have ramped up their use of coal power in recent years, rather than switching to a cleaner (and healthier) energy mix. The coal tracker also suggests that local governments are still incentivized to cash in on coal, and that a lot more coal-fired power plants are being built in China than are needed to meet energy demand.

Pacific Environment and our partner Waterkeeper Alliance support a network of grassroots organizations that are watch-dogging the coal industry to increase industry transparency and push for better implementation of environmental laws, national and regional coal caps, and pollution reduction targets. The coal tracker will help them and a broad range of concerned citizens across China identify coal industry trends and ensure a cleaner energy future for all.

Find out more about Pacific Environment’s air pollution and coal work in China here.

 

 

Posted in China, Civil Society, Climate Change, Coal, Communities, Energy, Grassroots Activism | Comments Off on Coal Declines Worldwide – Even in China

Building a Cleaner China from the Grassroots Up

 

First published in China-US Focus

In a mid-sized industrial city in China, a staff member of the environmental group Green Hope answers her cell phone. On the line is a middle manager at Pearl Steel Group who is calling to ask about a report Green Hope issued on air pollution from the company’s nearby flagship steel plant. In recent years, the municipal environmental protection bureau had fined the plant several times for violations of their pollution permits, but Green Hope’s report – which details these violations alongside photo evidence and testimonials from rural residents living near the plant – finally spurred the company to take action. The company manager asks for a meeting with Green Hope staff to discuss how it might better control its pollution as well as more fully share environmental information with the public.

While this particular story is fictional, events of this kind, which were unthinkable even a few years ago, have become an increasingly common occurrence across China. Brought by stronger regulatory support for public engagement in environmental affairs and a widespread concern about China’s devastating levels of pollution, China’s local environmental groups are finding themselves well positioned to ensure that government promises for a cleaner, greener future are realized.

Space for grassroots environmental action in China has grown in recent years thanks to several key regulatory changes. The first is in the area of data sharing. Citizens are able to access more information than ever about pollution and polluters following the passage of  information disclosure laws in 2008. China’s newly revised environmental law, which came into force January 1, 2015, takes accountability a step further by requiring real-time disclosure of pollution discharge data from key industries. And since the law also allows the government to fine polluters more, and more often, factories that routinely discharge illegal amounts now face a regulatory system that could actually do damage to their bottom line.

The new environmental law also requires that governments respond to citizen accusations against polluters, and clarifies that non-governmental organizations have the right to bring environmental lawsuits. A recent Supreme Peoples’ Court interpretation confirmed that China’s local courts will now be instructed to hear cases brought by citizen groups, including public interest cases. Many environmental groups are positioning themselves to take advantage of this new sphere of action.

Meanwhile, air pollution has become so critical across China that last year Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on pollution” and the State Council revealed a far-reaching Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan. This included absolute limits on particulate pollution in certain regions of China, and bold wording on “widely mobilizing citizen participation” to help deal with the mounting crisis.

The national government of China is clearly sending a green light to citizen groups to take an active part in forging a more sustainable development path. But what happens region by region and city by city depends on how committed local government actors are to making tough changes – and the extent to which local watchdog groups (like Green Hope) are able to negotiate the space available for participation and advocacy.

One challenge is that local government officials are often unsure of the role civil society groups can and should play. In many cases, environmental groups can and do tactfully remind government departments about their duties to disclose information and listen to public concerns. And in fact, due to these efforts, many local environmental protection bureaus now see grassroots environmental groups as key allies, acting as “eyes and ears” on the ground, and bringing pressure for resolution of problems that officials have been unable to solve themselves.

But attitudes towards grassroots environmental groups varies between government departments as well as between regions. Where environmental enforcement is already a priority, such as developed regions along China’s coastline, citizen groups have an easier time making headway against polluters. For example, some local governments already have aggressive plans to phase out dirty energy; as with Hangzhou municipality’s “zero coal” plan which will phase out coal boilers in two years. In places like Hangzhou, local environmental groups have an important role to play in ensuring these government clean-up plans are enforced. But getting local governments in less-developed “energy frontier” regions to take better care of the environment can be more challenging. High profile scandals in coal development provinces of China have demonstrated some government officials are not only aware of industry misdeeds, they are themselves part of the problem.

More could certainly be done by China’s leaders to facilitate widespread citizen enforcement and engagement– such as enshrining participation principles in China’s next five year plan. But to a large extent China’s environmental groups are already succeeding at turning these principals into reality by setting up independent pollution monitoring networks, pollution reporting hotlines, and online pollution information platforms. Moreover, they are helping ordinary citizens become productively engaged in seeking solutions. For example, in September of 2014, the Beijing based Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs released a cell phone app that allows citizens to monitor pollution discharge data in real time and draws the link between specific sources of air pollution and air quality. Just by releasing the app, some 65 industries came forward with a pledge to correct their pollution record.

More has to be done– China’s water and air pollution issues have never been more severe. But the good news is at least in some parts of China, long-time polluters are feeling the squeeze of robust pollution regulations combined with actual on-the-ground enforcement. And China’s grassroots environmental groups are usually the reason better enforcement happens.

Posted in Capacity-Building, China, Civil Society, Climate Change, Communities, Grassroots Activism | Comments Off on Building a Cleaner China from the Grassroots Up

Keeping the Amur River Wild and Free

The Amur River is the largest, still free-flowing river in Asia, and its basin the most biodiverse region in Russia. But its vast forests, wetlands, and steppes, as well as its endemic tigers, leopards, cranes, and bears are threatened by a voracious demand for energy and natural resources.

Amur-River

Large-scale dam building threatens the mighty Amur River basin, the largest, still free-flowing river system in Asia.

 

Drawing on lessons learned over the past 25 years, Pacific Environment’s new report, Conservation Investment Strategy for the Russian Far East,  reflects the geographical and strategic priorities identified by some of the world’s most respected experts on the region.

In addition to Arctic ice ecosystems in Chukotka and salmon ecosystems throughout the Far East, the Amur River basin was selected as one of three high-priority regions for future conservation investments.

As the most promising strategies for success in the Amur River basin, the report’s experts recommend focusing on stopping proposed dams on the Amur River and quickly expanding the Amur’s protected areas to include its vast wetlands.

Eugene Simonov, a longtime partner of Pacific Environment, is a successful grassroots activists and one of the world’s foremost experts on the region. He is spearheading Rivers without Boundaries, a coalition of grassroots environmental groups from Russia, China, Mongolia, and the U.S. that seeks to preserve river basins in northeast Eurasia through joint advocacy and promotion of best practices in river management.

Eugene-Simonov

In the following Q&A, Eugene highlights the global importance of the Amur River basin.

Q: Why is the Amur River Basin so important for global conservation efforts?

BESIDES ITS OBVIOUS GLOBAL BIODIVERSITY VALUE and outstanding qualities of free-flowing river, the Amur is also an important example of sharp contrasts among countries—natural, cultural, economic, psychological. Russia, Mongolia, and China essentially belong to three different civilizational roots and each of the countries dominated the whole Amur Basin at one time in history. You can hardly find another river basin on Earth that is so deeply divided. You have the country with the biggest appetite for natural resources bordering countries that believe their resources are boundless. Yet they share one river ecosystem and understand they have to protect their common environment, despite the desire to extract and transport natural resources. The future of the Amur depends on where they strike the balance and whether they find adequate common language to agree on rules of cooperation. This is a unique experiment that has a lot to tell us about the solutions to global problems.

Q: The Amur Basin has a well-developed civil society and a wealth of scientists and experts working on conservation. But the region is so vast and there are so many conservation challenges, what is the ultimate priority?

FOR FRESHWATER ECOSYSTEMS, THE GREATEST PRIORITY is to agree on new ecologically sound objectives for common river basin management. Once upon a time, in 1986, Russia and China agreed to ruin this river completely by a chain of hydropower dams in the main stem. The Amur was saved partly because of mutual mistrust, and partly because of a huge educational effort undertaken by conservationists. We have yet to replace the mechanical ideal of artificial reservoirs generating energy with a more sustainable, mutually agreeable management goal.

Q: The 2013 flooding may have been good for the Amur River and its flora and fauna, but it devastated many communities, and resulted in new calls for more dams and flood control infrastructure. How can people value the natural river when it’s a threat to their livelihoods, even lives?

PEOPLE OF THEIR FREE WILL HAVE CHOSEN TO SETTLE IN FLOOD-PRONE AREAS because of their proximity to water, naturally fertilized floodplain soil, abundance of fish, and so on. They do value the natural river. Even at the height of the 2013 floods, polls showed that most people didn’t see dams as a remedy for floods. Funds that the government is now trying to earmark for building new dams could be better used for modernization and adaptation of riverine municipalities, so new settlement infrastructure and economy are better adapted to floods and droughts. Russian regions along the Amur do not lack land resources, so there are opportunities to avoid this conflict just by not building residences and production facilities in the floodplains.

Q: Even if Russian citizens and authorities were to implement the most rigorous conservation standards and practices, won’t China’s voracious appetites for raw materials still overwhelm the Russian Far East?

THE REAL QUESTION IS WHETHER RUSSIAN AND CHINESE AUTHORITIES and businesses could develop and enforce such rigorous standards and practices. The two countries share many environmental objectives (like tiger protection or river pollution prevention). Success is not granted, but quite feasible.

Posted in Biodiversity, China, Civil Society, Communities, Energy, Forests, Freshwater, Grassroots Activism, Rivers, Russia, Russia Community Partners, Russian Far East | Comments Off on Keeping the Amur River Wild and Free

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