Marina Rikhvanova, Co-chairwoman of the NGO Baikal Environmental Wave, was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia for her on-going achievements in the protection of Lake Baikal, the "pearl of Siberia," in Russia. Founded in 1990, the prize is given annually to six grassroots environmentalists working for change around the globe.
The pristine lake is the largest and deepest fresh water body in the world. Because of its age and isolated location in Siberia, it contains unusual collections of freshwater flora and fauna and 1,700 plant and animal species. In 1990 Rikhvanova co-founded the Wave, an environmental group focusing on the protection of the lake. None too soon because in 2002, the Russian government announced plans to build the longest petroleum pipeline in the world, extending nearly 2,570 miles from eastern Siberia to an oil terminal on the Pacific coast. The pipeline would be built within a half-mile of Lake Baikal, despite concerns about possible oil spills and leakage.
Rikhvanova and the Baikal Environmental Wave (the Wave) opposed the plan. They wanted the government to reject the project because it was environmentally unsafe. The pipeline would carry 1.6 million barrels of oil per day within half a mile of the lake. Any breakage in the line would dump thousands of tons of oil into the lake and cause irreparable damage. Even the monopoly in charge of it admitted that a breakage could release 4,000 tons of oil into the lake.
At great personal risk because of Russia’s increasingly repressive political climate, Rikhvanova led a national campaign that included rallying thousands in protest. Volunteers of the Wave and Baikal movement obtained over 20,000 signatures and partnered with international organizations during the campaign to oppose the construction. Finally in April 2006, then-President Putin ordered the pipeline to be rerouted away from the lake’s shores. This was a major win for the NGO and Rikhanova.
However, there was to be no resting on past laurels. In the same year, the Russian government announced plans to construct the International Uranium Enrichment Center, to be located a mere 50 miles from Lake Baikal. Uranium would be transported from other countries to the center, enriched and returned.
With the huge environmental and health risks to the people and the lake posed by the center, the group has again moved into action. They are demanding that the required independent environmental impact assessment and review be carried out. In early 2007, Rikhvanova traveled to Moscow to protest the building of 40 new nuclear power plants across Russia and in the spring of 2007, she organized several protests in Irkutsk -- one attended by more than 1,000 people. Last summer she started a No-Nukes Camp close by. And recently, a protest camp run by radical political groups was invaded by nationalist thugs and a murder took place. Rikhanova's son was arrested for the crime -- the scapegoat, she believes -- so she is now fighting a double battle to free him.
TreeHugger: How many people are involved in the Baikal Lake Wave organization?
Marina Rikhvanova: Baikal Environmental Wave is a registered organization; we have 15 members and nine staff members. The amount of staff depends upon whether we can pay the salaries. The Baikal Environmental Wave is financed through grants and private donations from abroad and from Russian people (mainly from the U.S. and Europe).
TreeHugger: Is positive change possible with the new president of Russia?
Marina Rikhanova: Perhaps positive change is possible, but not major change, because new and old presidents are members of one system: a raw material economy oriented towards export.
TreeHugger: What is the status of the uranium enrichment facility now?
Marina Rikhvanova: They are building without an Environmental Impact Assessment or public hearing. Recently (as of June 20) some Russian and International organizations, in addition to our organizations, addressed the Australian Parliament with a letter in connection with the Australia-Russia Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.
TreeHugger: Given the terrible threats to your family, how do you overcome the fear for your own safety?
Marina Rikhvanova: My strategy is to inform people. If people are informed they can help.
We wish Mrs. Rikhvanova all the best with her future endeavors. ::The Goldman Environmental Prize
This is one in a series of interviews with the Goldman Environmental Prize Winners.