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Sochi's environment in danger

Geert Groot Koerkamp, SochiFebruary 21, 2014

Conservation groups are criticizing the damage done to Sochi’s environment while the town prepared for the Olympic Winter Games. Many of them are now being harassed and silenced by Russian authorities.

The Imeretinskaya lowlands today
Image: Geert Groot Koerkamp

The Olympic Winter Games held in and around the Russian city of Sochi are said to be the most expensive Games in the history of the Winter Olympics. Arguably, they are also the Games that have had the biggest impact on the environment.

For years, environmental groups have called for more attention to be paid to the damage done to the region's natural reserves due to the large-scale construction of sports facilities, residential areas, tunnels, roads and railways needed for Sochi to host the Games.

But their pleas were mostly ignored, and many activists were detained or harassed in an attempt to silence them. A lengthy report on the environmental damage caused by the Games preparations was presented earlier this month in Moscow.

Protected area

A huge sign close to the Olympic Park near Sochi bearing the words "Ornithological Park" warns visitors it's a protected area and it's prohibited to disturb the wildlife here. Behind the sign is a large pond with ducks and other water birds, surrounded by bare terrain with sparse, recently planted vegetation. On all sides it's surrounded by residential areas built to host athletes and journalists. If anything, this ‘ornithological park' is reminiscent of a large urban pond.

This is all that's left of the natural riches of the Imeretinskaya Lowland, a large plain situated between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea. Until a few years ago this was a mixture of agricultural land and wetlands of great importance to birds and rare plants. For many bird species, it was a key stopover location on the eastern Black Sea flyway.

A huge sign close to the Olympic Park near Sochi titled "Ornithological Park" warns visitors that this is a protected area and that it's prohibited to disturb the wildlife here.
The sign warns visitors that this is a protected area, even though it's not treated as suchImage: Geert Groot Koerkamp

For years, biologists urged authorities to grant the area protected status, to defend it against further human disturbance. They had no idea of the fate that would ultimately await this precious area, which, until recently was considered unsuitable for large-scale development.

Years of construction

Reality set in soon after the International Olympic Committee awarded Sochi the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics seven years ago. Trucks and bulldozers invaded the area. People previously living here had to move. They only miraculously succeeded in preserving the Old Believers' cemetery, which is now situated right in the middle of the Olympic Park, next to the main stadium.

The Imeretinskaya Lowland quickly turned into a huge construction site. For years, inhabitants of Sochi and surrounding areas had to cope with constant noise, traffic jams and dust, electricity cuts and lack of tap water.

And the Imeretinskaya Lowland was not the only area affected. The mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana, developed as a modest ski resort in Soviet times, became the second center of Olympic activity. The aim was to turn it into a European-style resort, with hotels, shopping malls and winter sport facilities.

A new road, which some say is the most expensive ever built in Russia, and a new high speed railway were built in the river bed of the Mzymta River to connect Krasnaya Polyana with Sochi and the other Olympic locations. Forests were felled to make room for ski jumping hills and snow reserves, in case there is insufficient snow available during the Games.

'They shouldn't touch our mountain'

The locals saw it all happen. They felt dismayed but helpless. Tatyana, a pensioner, has lived in the village of Esto-Sadok since 1956. She hardly recognizes what has become of her home since preparations for the Olympic Games started.

Local Tatyana in her hometown
Local Tatyana doesn't like what the Olympics have done to her villageImage: Geert Groot Koerkamp

"The new houses of course did not exist, there were just fields there. Nobody ever built along the river, because the water may rise. But nobody asked the locals when they started building," she told DW in an interview.

"No one should touch our mountains. [Recently] there was Olympic ski jumping on the slopes. But the mountainside slides down all the time. They will manage to maintain everything during the Games. But then they will have to start repair work."

Over the past years, environmental activists have done whatever they could to draw attention to the irreversible damage being inflicted on the environment, but with little result.

"I was born in Sochi," said Vladimir Kimayev, a member of the Ecological Watch of the North Caucasus environmental group. "I know it well. I love the people and the city. I have climbed every mountain in the neighborhood. But when I visit Krasnaya Polyana and the developed areas, where the landscape has been changed, the environment and the climate, then my heart bleeds."

Authorities not impressed with criticism

Criticism by Kimayev and other activists was, to say the least, not appreciated by the authorities. They were repeatedly harassed by police, detained, or their homes searched under various pretexts. One member, geologist Yevgeny Vitishko, was recently sentenced to three years in a labor camp, for allegedly damaging a fence of a country house belonging to the regional governor.

"He deliberately risked his property, his life, his freedom, to draw attention to this outrage," environmentalist Aleksei Yablokov said at the presentation of a report on the environmental impact of the Sochi Olympics in Moscow.

The authorities deny any wrongdoing and stress that everything has been done to prevent damage to the environment. According to the Russian Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Rinat Gizatulin, the net effect of the Olympic Winter Games on the environment of the Sochi region will be positive. He stresses that any losses have been minimal and compensated for elsewhere in Russia, and that in general the region has become greener.

The former village of Esto-Sadok has been taken over by a huge hotel
This is what the village of Esto-Sadok looks like todayImage: Geert Groot Koerkamp

Biologist Aleksei Yablokov, who has been at the forefront of the environmental movement in Russia since the 1980s, disagrees. "The preparation for the Olympics can only be called intolerable barbarism," he said.

"Wetlands of international importance have been destroyed in the Imeretinskaya Lowland. The territory of the Caucasus State Reserve, which was thought to be untouchable, has been damaged. The Mzymta River has been ravaged. And this is just a small part of what is going on there."