Yevgenia Chirikova (L) and other environmentalists try to present Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with timber. Photo by Igor Tabakov / Moscow Times
The fate of an urban forest has sparked turmoil between protesters and police in Moscow, where environmentalists say a road-construction project threatens to destroy a key part of the city's dwindling green belt, designed in the 1930s to minimize pollution and preserve wildlife. The urban refuge is seen as especially important in light of the country's ongoing heat wave, which has contributed to a deadly spate of forest fires.Late last week, police arrested nine environmental activists camping out in the 1,000-acre Khimki Forest, which faces partial destruction to make way for an $8 billion federal highway between the capital and St. Petersburg, the Moscow Times reported.
The ongoing standoff between activists and authorities has seen the brutal beating of highway critic Mikhail Beketov by unidentified attackers, reports of intimidation threats, and a local government building attacked with smoke grenades after the Khimki mayor suggested that building the highway in the forest of centuries-old oak trees was preferable to letting it pass through residential areas with "dachas [summer homes] and garden plots."
Corruption Alleged in Highway Project
Activists say Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin illegally transferred the forest from protected land status to lands zoned "for transport and infrastructure" to create profit from road-building and logging contracts. According to Forests.org, which issued an action alert on the issue over the weekend:
In Russia today, 26 road construction projects are proposed for public conservation lands. Organizers against the projects say construction of these roads are being allowed to proceed by corrupt politicians for the benefit of their construction company partners. The bulldozing and cutting of trees has just begun in Khimki Forest despite a lack of cutting permits and no solid financial backing.
Environmentalists are targeting the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a potential investor in the project, calling on the international body to pull its backing for the highway, which authorities say will help ease traffic congestion by offering an alternative road to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
"They are a European organization. They care about risks to their reputation. They understand that they could get it in the neck... if corruption or environmental risks are involved," said activist Yevgenia Chirikova, who lobbied EBRD management at this year's annual general meeting.
Key Pollution-Fighting Force at Risk
"The forest filters the air and the dust that can carry pollution all the way to our lungs. All this dust remains here. If there were no forest, hundreds more people would die of cancerous diseases," said activist Andrei Margulev, noting the large number of polluting vehicles and industrial facilities in the region.
Environmentalists' concerns have become even more acute in the face of the current spike in temperatures.
"The forest is important to us not only as a source of oxygen, but also for its biodiversity, which is unique for the Moscow region," said Chirikova, a businesswoman who moved to Khimki with her family to live closer to the forest. "There are fewer and fewer such places, and we understand that if we don't preserve this forest, we won't survive next summer when temperatures reach 36 degrees Celsius."
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