The world's largest and deepest freshwater lake, Lake Baikal stretches for over 600 kilometers in the Siberian taiga, and in some places has a depth of more than one kilometer.
Home to over 1500 species of animals and plants, its unique fauna includes species found nowhere else, such as the Baikal seal. It's also the largest single reservoir of fresh water on Earth, holding 20 percent of the planet's reserves.
These features have made Lake Baikal into an icon of Russia's environmentalist movement, in Soviet times and the present day.
"Lake Baikal is something holy," explained Yevgeny Shvarts of the World Wide Fund for Nature. "It mobilizes everybody, from the left to the right."
He warns against overlooking its significance. "Before doing something that threatens Baikal, it is better to look at Russian history," he said.
The lessons of the past
It's also home to a Soviet-era paper mill which Greenpeace has described as an "ecologically dangerous enterprise."
In the 1980s, the fledgling green movement in the Soviet Union mobilized around the struggle to close the mill in Baikalsk, located on the banks of the lake. The waste products of the mill entered its ecosystem and were said to be detrimental to its organisms, from tiny plankton to the Baikal seals.
But it was only in 2008 that the government decided to halt production. While activists celebrated the closure of what had become one of the most controversial pulp and paper mills in the world, the move was a blow to the town's inhabitants, many of whom were employed there.
Then, when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Lake Baikal last summer, he suggested that the government was seriously considering restarting it.
"I do not exclude this possibility," he said. "We have to develop a program. First of all we have to provide work, and after that either rebuild the plant or close production. 1600 people are without work today. Now it is summer, many people are picking berries and working on the land, but what will happen after that?" he asked.
"They have families, children," he went on. "And of course, we will not act without thinking, regardless of nature and Baikal. But we have to act accurately and think about the people living here. So we have to create jobs, reconstruct the production, and after that bring the people to other places, but not leave them without work."
Putin was speaking after a submarine trip to examine the depths of the lake. The prime minister said he was happy with what he saw.
"I saw with my own eyes, and scientists of our Academy of Sciences can confirm that Baikal is in a good condition. There is hardly any pollution there. The biology of Baikal hasn't changed, there is an enormous amount of plankton, of life that has always been there, and, as scientists confirm, of course there have not been any changes for the worse in Lake Baikal."
And so, at the beginning of this year, the government decided to restart the paper plant in Baikalsk. An official transition period of three years has been scheduled, during which a new waste processing system must be built, which does not allow waste waters to enter the lake.
Putin's ruling has infuriated conservationists, who insist the plant is a threat to the local ecosystem.
Moreover, critics like Yevgeny Shvarts from the WWF say that this time frame has not been fixed in the original government decision. And this, they fear, may give the owner of the plant, billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a carte blanche to continue polluting Baikal.
"If the truth is that 30 months are needed to build a closed production cycle at the Baikalsk paper mill, as was reported to Prime Minister Putin, then why does the government's decision on Baikalsk not mention that the permission has been given for 30 months, and that it is only valid for the Baikalsk paper mill?" he asked. "In fact, it is now possible to build paper mills with outdated equipment everywhere along Lake Baikal. And Deripaska can now dump the paper mill's waste water as long as he likes and say that he does not have the time to build a closed circuit."
According to Shvarts, Deripaska's company Bazel has stated that at least three to four years are necessary to build a new, environmentally safe waste processing system. But the new director of the paper mill is already talking about seven years. That leaves only one conclusion, says Shvarts.
"I have spoken to managers of big Russian industrial ministries," he explains. "They say: that in 36 months you can build a new paper mill according to the latest technologies, from scratch. That means that they don't intend to change anything, that they want to continue to work with old, worn-out equipment."
Environmental versus economic priorities
Although newspaper reports suggest that Putin's decision might be a favor to Deripaska - the PM's favorite oligarch, according to British daily The Guardian - the main argument for restarting the plant has been to provide the people of Baikalsk with jobs.
Baikalsk is one of hundreds of so-called monogorods, a relict from the Soviet era, when whole towns were erected around one single factory or industry. After the collapse of Communism, many of these factories went bankrupt, shattering communities which were totally dependent upon them for their existence.
For Baikalsk, the restart of the paper plant provides a lifeline for hundreds of people. In January a delegation from Baikalsk arrived in Moscow to bring this message home. The mayor of Baikalsk told Russia's RTR television the people in the town were elated about the prospect of the plant working again.
"We are very happy," said Valery Pintayev, mayor of Baikalsk. "Imagine that our town has been without work for a year, and some of our specialists have left the town in search of work. And now the plant has been getting ready in the past two months to restart production, doing tests, and we hope to start production somewhere around the fifteenth of February."
But the mayor is vague about future prospects for his town. Baikalsk, he says, wants to develop tourism, and also start large-scale processing of strawberries, an important summer crop here. But asked whether he thinks that people will move to other towns or regions in search of work, he only shook his head.
"I think that is a utopia," he responded. "Nobody is even thinking of moving to another place. Even if we would offer free train tickets to Irkutsk, nobody would make use of that. Everybody stays and hopes that, now the plant will start work, we will live normally."
Meanwhile, protests against restarting the paper mill are widening. A mass meeting in Irkutsk is scheduled for mid-February. The office of the Baikal Environmental Wave environmental group in Irkutsk was recently raided by police, who said they were looking for illegal software. But environmentalists have little doubt that the raid was meant to intimidate the Baikalsk plant's opponents.
Yevgeny Shvarts of the WWF says that he fully understands the problems of towns like Baikalsk, which need to diversify their economies in order to survive. But he is convinced the plant's owner, Oleg Deripaska, is not concerned about what happens to its inhabitants. He is merely exploiting the town's dire situation to pursue his business interests.
"Deripaska does not invest in the environment," Shvarts said. "He uses the most outdated technology. He tries to convince and blackmail the authorities, saying that without that there will be social problems in the monocities."
According to Shvarts, restarting the Baikalsk paper mill will set a dangerous precedent. It will mean that dumping waste in a vulnerable environment is condoned, and will represent a huge blow to the environmentalist movement. He would like to see foreign companies refrain from buying shares of companies owned by Deripaska, hoping that international pressure may help to ensure the riches of Lake Baikal will be preserved for generations to come.
Author: Geert Koerkamp (jp)
Editor: Nathan Witkop