The ghost of the Khimki Forest debacle hangs over the Khibin Mountains near Murmansk

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Environmentalists last week through a months longs series of demonstrations and the recruitment of rock stars to their cause managed to wheedle a promise from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to halt clear cutting in Khimki while the issue is “further analysed.”

Environmentalists are hoping that Murmansk Regional authorities will similarly ban strip mining in the scenic Khibin Mountain range, and have appealed to authorites.

Primarily affected is the Apatit-Nefelinov ore field of Partomchorr. The Partomchorr ore field is located in the northern region of the Khibin Mountains. The recently created North West Phosphoric Company (SZFK in its Russian abbreviation). At the end of July, the Murmansk Trust of Engineering and Construction Survey began drilling work by order of the mine developer Giprorud.

Forms for permission to drill were never filed out and tree felling began without any permit documents. Tourists who observed the drilling reported it to the Kola Centre for Wildlife, and the centre’s staff and volunteers took part in checking the ongoing work and composed a document bringing to light the violations.

“The technology they are using is like this – where there are no roads, they are just clear cutting trees and casting them aside, getting the bore hole through to the needed spot, drilling, and then they move further,” said Konstantin Kobyakov, the Kola Centre for Wildlife’s director. “We counted some 600 trees with diameters beginning at 8 centimetres. Then they became much bigger, as work continued after we left.”

Victor Lebedev, head of the Kirov Forestry Enterprise is convinced that the geographical survey party has no permission to fell trees. But according to Russia’s forestry codes, he has no right to stop the work or write up a violation. He can only present the regional committee on forestry with a list of damages inflicted to the government. Environmentalists are certain that damages are in the range of 2 million roubles ($65,000).

But Lebedev’s calculations turned out to be modest than those of environmentalists.

“The surveyors will be presented with the damaged plus an administrative fine,” he said.” Specifically, I can say the fine for the tree felling and damage to topsoil tegumet is approximately 600,000 roubles, and the violators will not be able to wiggle out of it.”

Environmentalists are sure that in the face of continuing mine construction, the Kola Peninsula will altogether lose its most important tourist brand name – the Khibin Mountains because few will find themselves desirous of gazing on dumps and open pit mines. Experts know what they are talking about: for decades, huge holes of mines drilled by the North West Phosphoric Company’s competitor Apatit have been gaping in the mountains. Exlosions on the hillsides have destroyed plant life, and industrial development has created dusty roads and dumps all around.

Of course, the leading suits of North West Phosphoric Company have promises to minimize impact on the environment, compactly place industrial installations, and apply contemporary technology during construction. But so far, the phosphorous magnate’s words have clearly departed from reality.

“That this tree-felling is occurring without permission is an indicator of the relationship between the managers of the ore field and the environment. But the most important is danger hiding in the construction project at Partomchorr,” said Mikhail Ryzhov, an expert with the Kola Ecological Centre. “They are planning to dig a pit mine in the Kuniika River Valley, near Lake Goltsov, a beautiful and popular spot for tourists and locals. This cannot be there. It will simply kill the Khibins as a natural territory,” he said, adding, “Therefore any construction will destroy the landscape. Roads will have to be built to it and tourism will be lost for the northern Khibins. Even the preparation work for the mines has cancelled the development of tourism in the Khibins.”

According to statistics, 90 percent of tourists coming to the Murmansk region head directly for these highest mountains in northern Europe. These tourists come year round, in summer for the hiking and winter for the skiing. Therefore there must be a fight to save the Khibins – as decided the activists who sent off a document containing the list of damages to the regional prosecutor for natura; defence and the forestry committee. The documents are currently being reviewed.  nd in this review, much will depend on Murmansk Region authorities. They speak often about the priority of developing tourism, however there have not yet been any further discussions.

A project to turn the Khibin Mountains into a national park is not progressing – a concept that would truly enable the development of tourism and the preservation of these mountains. And this plan is included in the priority plans of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources. All of the fundamental documents were prepared in 1999. All that is lacking now is true initiative from the Murmansk Regional authorities.  

Charles Digges contributed to this report.

Alexey Pavlov

murmansk@bellona.ru

Charles Digges