Samara Region environmental group asserts that rights are fundamental and fighting for them is natural

Publish date: November 8, 2010

Written by: Maria Kamentskaya

Translated by: Charles Digges

SAMARA REGION, Russia – Do Russians have the right to breathe fresh air, walk in the woods and prefer green parks to new high-rise buildings? If yes, then how are those rights to a healthy environment to be protected, especially in Russia where peoples basic rights are, lightly speaking, not always observed? These simple issues are being dealt with by environmental organisations, specifically the Samara Socio-Ecological Union.

Most of what the Samara Socio-Ecological Union deals with is human rights – not only environmental rights but the right to information, to decisions and to fair courts. According to Sergei Simak, the union’s leader, it is important not only to defend, but help people to grasp a simple truth: To have rights is normal, and to fight for them is natural.

The Samara Socio-Ecological Union is an organisation that poses a worthwhile model for other environmental agencies working in Russia, and whose experience provides hope for rights and fairness in an atmosphere where many have given up.

At present, the Samara Socio-Ecological Union is engaged in three equally important programmes – public environmental monitoring (the Union has more than 100 inspectors) which Simak calls a “school of civil society,” preparation of volunteers and environmental impact studies.

“In fact, our most important task is the formation of a civil ecological culture,” said Simak. “Legal proceedings, public inspections, volunteer actions, and many other things, we are focused directly on this. We are conducting work on the environmentalization of the educational system, on the environmental management of learning institutions, and developing environmental programmes in schools ad kindergartens.”

Environmentally versed people begin, albeit slowly but surely, to have an impact on authorities.  

“It’s not sufficient to win a case or a series of cases. It’s far more important to create conditions in which public activity becomes not an exception but the rule,” said Simak. “Then, the authorities will begin to feel a sense of accountability to the public.”

Mission – mutual action with authorities

But how, in Russia’s circumstances, does one achieve real results in the defence of people’s rights?

“If we want to solve the problem for real, and make it systematic, then it is necessary to act mutually with authorities. We must be able to use the resources of the system itself to nudge it toward changes. There is simply no other way,” said Simak.

In this context, two principles to which the Samara Socio-Ecological Union adheres must be recalled – being apolitical, and the principle of ‘nothing is personal.” As such, the Union never comes to hurried conclusions, and does not rely on personalities. Environmentalists are ready to cooperate with any political party, bureaucrat or businessman if they are in their turn prepared to facilitate the defence of the environment and people’s environmental rights.

Of course, things don’t always go smoothly, and the Samara Region is not an oasis in which bureaucratic structures are constructive, the courts fair, and the public active.

Count up from the zero years

Nonetheless, time has had its impact on environmentalists. The first decade of the 21st Century, or the “zero years” has been a time in which environmental impact studies were liquidated, state ecological monitoring abandoned, systems of managing forestry and a raft of environmental preservation institutions passed on. The bottom was apparently hit with the destruction of environmental preservation systems in Russia. Such is Simak’s evaluation of the current state of things.

But reaching the bottom means a limping ascent up. The results of ecological destruction finally boomeranged into the economy, and the rhetoric of Russian officials has begun to change. Now, the most important thing for environmentalists is to gather and unite strength – so powerfully that the ideals and number of adherents of environmental priorities prevail over the big money of lobbyists for de-environmentalism.

There are yet defenders of nature in Russia.

A good symptom for environmentalists is that people now are not so concerned about money as they were in the 1990s. New youth environmental groups with volunteer and nature preservation leanings are appearing. And more young active people are coming more eagerly to the Samara Socio-Ecological Union, and the Union passed traditions and the baton of the natural preservation movement to them.

“The defence of the Khimki Forest is an example that not all of Russia is hopeless,” said Simak. “There are those who are capable of resisting the looting of the authorities, and the authority, at a certain level of pressure, is forced to react, yield, throw out its anti-environmental decisions,” Simak continued, adding, “Yes, it’s unusual to authority, but with each such victory, it acquires a more and more human face.”

Achieving fairness is possible

The Samara Socio-Ecological Union has a number of court victories and cases thrown out over the corruption of judges under its belt.

“Now, Samara judges in cased that we are participating in behave differently,” said Simak. “By the efforts of the Socio-Ecological Union, a number of construction projects have been stopped, permission for construction in green regions has been revoked. City residents, receiving the support of the Union’s volunteers and activists, now understand that achieving fairness is possible. Officials meeting with activists and literate citizens already are not risking rudeness.”

“We have succeeded in creating a working and tried in practice model of effective environmental organization,” continued Simak. “which employs the support of the population, noticeable in the information sphere, and which the authorities must take account.”