Seeing a red "X" on a tree during a routine walk through the forest would change Evgenia Chirikova's life. She knew the 2,500-acre forest—the “green lungs of Moscow"—was federally protected land. Once she learned the government was planning to build a highway directly through the forest, Chirikova began to dig deeper and mobilize her community—even when confronted with threats to her family—and ultimately left her engineering job to form Defend Khimki Forest. She's in the U.S. to accept a Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism. I spoke with her last week about the Khimki Forest and the fight to save it—here are the highlights of that conversation:
Why are you so dedicated to saving the Khimki Forest?
The Khimki is important to me because it's close to where I live. I live basically in Khimki Forest. In Russian, we say—it's my "little homeland." It's where I went for long walks with my husband after we got married, and while I was pregnant waiting for my children to be born. It's just a place that's really valuable to me.
Can you talk about the threats or government suppression you've faced since starting this work?
The biggest difficulty came when I presented, on behalf of the Defenders of Khimki Forest, a report to President Medvedev on alternatives to the proposed highway project. The report contained 11 alternative solutions to the existing transportation and infrastructure problem. About a week later, a child protective services representative showed up at my apartment holding an anonymous claim that I was abusing my children, starving them. The federal law does not allow for child protective services to investigate anonymous claims, on the one hand; on the other hand, people who are indeed found guilty of child abuse face serous jail time and their children can be taken away.
I produced a brief video explaining the situation; as that went viral, people began calling child protective services and demanding that the investigation be withdrawn. By the end of that very same day, the investigation was shut down and I received a personal apology from the ombudsman for children's rights.
Why did the Russian Federation of Motorists join the fighting against the highway?
They knew that this proposed highway is not a solution to the existing transportation problem in the region, and that in fact it would just make the problem worse. One of the main issues being, for example, that when you're building a 12-lane highway and then merging it all down back to four lanes again en route to Moscow, that just creates more problems.
How did you convince European banks to withdraw their support of the project?
Initially, we worked with an organization called Bankwatch to develop that part of the campaign. We generated a ton of expert assessments, both in terms of the environmental and socioeconomic aspects as well as the legal and regulatory violations that would occur, and are occurring, as a result of that road. We reached a critical mass and they were forced to withdraw their plans to invest in the project.
That said, there is still European involvement in the project. French company Vinci is earning a lot of Russian taxpayer money through its involvement. They're perfectly capable of bringing high European standards and good technology to the project, but instead there are workplaces injuries. Two people have died as result of the construction practices there. And Vinci is benefiting from a complicated channel of funding where money is paid, then channeled to offshore accounts. One of those belongs to a close associate of Vladimir Putin.
And what is the argument for building the road through the forest, when you've outlined so many clear alternatives?
Essentially, the proposed road is not so much just the road as a larger land grab. If you build it along one of those alternative routes that doesn't affect these federal forests, then you don't get those federal forests. In building the road the way they propose, not only do they get the roadway, but they get all the forest land around it. If that land were to be legally sold, which it can't in its current status, they could sell it for the equivalent of about $130 to $135 per hectare, which is pretty cheap. If they are able to do what they want, then they'd be able to sell for $8,000 per 1/100th of a hectare. It's exponentially more money. It's just another example of Russia's resource-based economics of earning short-term profit at the expense of the local environment.
Who would be selling off this land?
We did some research on that issue, and discovered a company that is essentially a front for all the different agents in this issue. This company is advertising that land for sale—in violation of a ton of different laws—and not only are they selling land illegally, or attempting to sell the land illegally, but they're calling it agricultural land instead of forest land. That would mean that there aren't any trees on that land. So when one of us called them to ask, "What if we buy this land—it has trees on it, but you're saying it's agricultural?" They said, "Oh don't worry, we'll just chop them down and provide you with clear land."
So it's clear that the government knows. There's no way these kinds of things could be going on without the government allowing it to happen.
What's the status of the forest now, and your campaign to save it?
We've achieved a number of things, including a six-month halt to the project, during which no logging occurred. During that time, we were able to generate the public environmental impact report, which included the development of the alternative routes. Overall, we've been able to completely stop logging of the oak grove—the most valuable part of Khimki Forest.
Is there anything people in the U.S. can do to help the forest?
One way Americans can get involved in this issue is by asking their local legislators to support the proposed Magnitsky bill currently being considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: the Rule of Law and Accountability Act of 2011.
If signed into law, this bill would permit the U.S. to freeze the bank accounts and real estate and block the entry of corrupt bureaucrats—the same corrupt bureaucrats who are involved in selling off our land and Khimki and other areas. They take this money and spend it abroad, without investing any of it back into Russia. Enacting this law would allow us a better way of getting their attention and stopping these corrupt bureaucrats from doing what they're doing to our natural heritage in Russia.