Mr Lebedev, thank you very much that you agreed to give an interview to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Your initiative group was formed in Soviet times already, in 1989, and obtained an NGO status in 1997. Which major directions of your work have been determined in this period? What issues are you tackling with right now?
First of all, I would like to tell about our working formats. At the very beginning, there was only a group of journalists and scientists concerned about the issues of natural resources management and wildlife protection from nuclear waste in the Far East. We closely worked with Greenpeace – both with the International one and the Russian office. At that time, I was a deputy in the regional Legislative Assembly. It helped a lot, especially in terms of access to information. In 1995, we launched our own bi-weekly programme on a regional TV Channel – “Zapovedano” (“Entrusted”). It was a very exhausting technical work but also a great achievement for the whole region, as we highlighted not only negative events but also positive developments: These were the time, when authorities, legislators, and the government rather considerably cared for the environmental protection. In 2004, the programme ceased to exist. Yet, since 2001 we have been publishing a regional journal “Ecology and Business”. Now to the directions of our work. As we are primarily a journalist organisation, we are interested in all aspects of environmental protection – management of marine resources and forestry, legislation in the field of environmental protection, indigenous peoples, with whom we have been closely collaborating. But our major area of interest is forestry – timber complex, illegal deforestation, forest certification, etc.
Speaking of forestry, I was told that you encountered illegal forest cuts and a non-sufficient forest regeneration, which is a rather common problem for Russia as a whole. Can you tell me, what the other most acute issues are – amendments to the Forest Code, anything else?
The main obstacle for the forestry and the forest business is certainly the flaws of our legislation, which has been constantly deteriorating. The latest Forest Code reform of 2007 seemed to have resolved an important legal problem – to separate forest and land resources. But eventually it just designed a more comfortable environment for corruption, which we are trying to fight now. It created an enormous number of loopholes for corrupted officials and businessmen, which leads to devastation of the most valuable forests. And this is our pain in the neck. In the Far East, especially in the South of Primorye, there are the most valuable forests of the temperate zone with a variety of rare species. But this is the area of rich businessmen with good connections, who earn money by cutting the wood. This issue concerns all the regions, where such forests are located, as well as big cities. At the moment, the All-Russian People’s Front and us do our best to gradually counter those abuses.
In the “Ecology and Business” Journal, you touch upon the problems, which are resulted from violations in the field of environment. The Far East region is a territory of great importance for Russia: An APEC Summit took place in Vladivostok, such high-profile natural resources projects as Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 have been implemented here. Is it really possible to influence the business and governmental structures? What tools do environmental activists like you possess to protect the environment in the Far East?
This is a very good question, which refers to another very salient issue of managing the Russian territories and natural resources. For officials, it is more comfortable to work with large businesses, while Russia is an immense agricultural country. Its economics is only then sustainable, when the managers and officials take care of small businesses and local communities, ie of what is spread all over the Russian territory. Large businesses always stand for the concentration on a tiny territory, they drain the energy as well as human and natural resources from all the vicinities pushing the neighboring territories into desolation and deforestation – and no one cares. All the attention is drawn to certain centres of development predetermined by the Development Roadmap for the Far East, which we have been steadily elaborating on, analysing and making suggestions to. We also have the Sosnovka Coalition for organisations from Siberia and the Far East. It was founded in 1997 with assistance of our American colleagues. Within the Coalition, we meet on an annual basis and strive to oppose huge precarious projects such as launch of a pulp and paper plant in the Baikal Region or cutting of virgin forests, or erection of river dams, whose produced energy is not needed. We understand that all these efforts are aimed at getting access to easy money from Chinese investors. This is a compelling threshold of our development, which is a thrilling issue for environmental activists caring for a sustainable territorial development. We not only endeavor to address our local authorities but also – through our colleagues in Moscow – try to influence the government and the State Duma. We work with international organisations, try to establish a dialogue with the World Bank or with the newest BRICS Bank. We have tools. We have people, who possess authority. And we do our best to preserve this influence. Although our capacities are not too big, we do not tend to give up.
Your organisation has joined the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum recently, right after the General Assembly in Budapest. What is the Forum’s value for you? What were the reasons behind your decision?
In the Far East, between gigantic industrial civilizations of Japan, China, and South Korea, we rather feel ourselves as an Asian society, while Europe is located somewhere away. At the same time, I agree with my colleagues from the Sosnovka Coalition – and those were them, who recommended the Forum to us, – that a modern world is moving towards globalization and nothing is to be done with it. Politics, economics, ecological movements – all gets globalised, and the global markets connect us all. I am a member of the Public Steering Committee of the Primorye Region and an international member of the Forest Supervisory Board dealing with voluntary forestry certification. Working with the forest production companies, we see how big the influence of the end consumer markets on the regions, where deforestation takes place. The timber production, and furniture in particular, has been distributed – via China – throughout the world afterwards. And since Europe remains one of the global centres of economic and environmental consciousness, it is essential to be able to see into it.
As the Eastern-most of our members, what challenges do you see for EU-Russia relations? (Meanwhile, we cover the territory from Lyon to Vladivostok.) Which issues are the most acute ones today?
First and foremost, these are those notorious political processes. But I would rather skip talking about them, though they influence all aspects of our lives – such as sport or migration processes. I would like to point out, though, that number one topic in Eurasia is probably the initiative of a New Chinese Silk Road, which has attracted lots of satellites and side-ventures, and it is natural that Russia is actively seeking for its role in all this. This project is orientated at the Central and South Asia as well as Europe, directly affecting perhaps a part of Siberia only. It seems that the Far East is being cast aside. But we understand that the market is global now and ups and downs somewhere else respectively affects the situation here. In that regard, Russian initiatives should take into consideration which consequences those would have for the Far East. And within our Sosnovka Coalition, we elaborated on the strategies to make those initiatives not yet another scheme of illegal enrichment for Chinese and Russian oligarchs but an effective trade model.
The interview was shot on 24 August 2016 via Skype by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.