Canadians see gold in Russian paradise

Mining plans for parks called dangerous

The Globe and Mail, August 8, 2000
Geoffrey York

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Russia -- Russia's new environmental regulators are lobbying for a scheme that could allow a Canadian mining company to dig for gold in a world-famous wilderness park.

If the plan goes ahead, Toronto-based Kinross Gold Corp. and other mining developers would be allowed to explore inside the Russian park's current borders. But alarmed environmentalists are vowing to fight it.

The Bystrinsky park reserve in the Russian Far East, established by the Kamchatka regional government in 1995, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 because of its wealth of pristine rivers, brown bears, bighorn sheep, eagles, salmon, reindeer, more than 120 volcanoes and a number of endangered animals and plant species. It is also home to about 1,000 aboriginal people, including nomadic reindeer herders.

The southern part of the park also holds several unexplored gold deposits. The Russian Natural Resources Ministry, which was given authority over environmental matters in a move by President Vladimir Putin, wants the regional government to shift the park's border about 50 kilometres northward.

Environmentalists say it may be one of the first times a national government encourages industrial development in a UNESCO heritage site. They say it is a graphic example of how Mr. Putin's reforms are jeopardizing Russia's environment and expanding the power of lobbyists eager to exploit resources.

"It's a dangerous step," said Olga Chernyagina, a botanist and environmental leader who is a specialist on the Bystrinsky park.

"I think the response will be very strong. It would ruin Russia's reputation. Every other country in the world is proud of having a UNESCO heritage site."

But the head of the Kamchatka branch of the Natural Resources Ministry plays down the controversy.

"Most of the landscape of Bystrinsky has no particular interest or unique features," Yuri Garashchenko said in an interview. "The mountains and vegetation are typical. There are practically no salmon-spawning grounds there. We think the park's boundaries should be changed."

Kinross Gold Corp., operator and part-owner of the planned Aginskoye gold mine near the nature park, confirmed that it could benefit from the ministry's border proposal, although it hasn't formally requested the change. Kinross president Arthur Ditto said the gold deposits inside the park could eventually "sustain the longevity" of the Aginskoye project, which is currently suspended because of low gold prices.

The Kinross gold site, which is believed to contain 26 tonnes of gold, provoked a major battle in the mid-1990s when the mining company sought U.S. government financing. Western environmental groups helped to block the financing and secure the UNESCO designation for the park.

Mr. Garashchenko and Mr. Ditto both argue that development of gold mining would actually help the environment, because it would provide jobs for unemployed workers who would otherwise survive by illegally poaching salmon and bears.

For parks to survive in their natural state, they need a "viable economy" in the region nearby, Mr. Ditto said in an interview. "God knows the people there could use the economic development. They're desperate."

Even the Russian environmental protection committee, under authority of the Natural Resources Ministry, seems to be supporting the changes to the park's borders.

"I'm sure there was a mistake in the original boundaries," said Anatoly Yefimenko, head of the Kamchatka branch of the environment committee. "They didn't take into account the very important mineral deposits there."

After Mr. Putin transferred the committee's responsibilities to the Natural Resources Ministry, critics said it was like putting industrial foxes in charge of the environmental henhouse.

Russian officials acknowledge that the move is intended to speed up industrial development. "Until now, the state environment committee was trying to prevent gold mining at all costs," Mr. Garashchenko said. "The policy has to be changed. The balance will be shifted toward using these natural resources. We will try not to prohibit everything. The ministry's policy is that natural resources should be explored and exploited."

Along with supporting mining in the park, the Natural Resources Ministry is opposed to a proposal by the United Nations Development Program to include Bystrinsky park in a series of four Kamchatka nature reserves where the UNDP would help strengthen management and safeguard the environment.

At a public meeting last month in Kamchatka, the ministry told the UNDP that $600-million (U.S.) could be generated in revenues from a nickel mine near Bystrinsky, compared with just $10-million in new funds from the UNDP project.

One ministry official, Igor Petrenko, published an article denouncing the UNDP project and blaming "foreign-funded environmentalists" for the "well-organized sabotage" of the mining industry. He said mining projects around Bystrinsky are worth $1.5-billion and could produce up to $90-million in annual revenues.

Environmental groups and aboriginal people from the Bystrinsky district are gathering support to protect the nature reserve and keep it within the UNDP project. Any change in the park's boundaries would be a dangerous precedent for other UNESCO heritage sites, they say.

"Gold mining will create a new network of roads, bringing in more people and reducing the animals and fish," Ms. Chernyagina said. "The reindeer pastures and migration routes will be destroyed. Gold mining uses cyanide, which could poison the rivers. Local people will be unable to follow their traditional way of life."

Gleb Raygorodetsky, a researcher with the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society, said the establishment of Bystrinsky park has revived animal species that were heavily damaged by gold exploration at the Aginskoye site in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Only in the last couple of years have some species come back, including snow sheep," he said. "The boundaries shouldn't be reduced. The organizations that worked hard to give it UNESCO World Heritage status will fight this."

Mining is not the only threat to Kamchatka's wilderness. The region is planning to spend $200-million to build a 470-kilometre pipeline from gas deposits in Western Kamchatka to the regional capital, following a route near Bystrinsky park. According to a UNDP consultant's report, the pipeline and the mine are "the most imminent of the threats" to Kamchatka's salmon population.

The pipeline would cross 83 salmon-spawning rivers and streams. Environmentalists are worried it would open the way for large-scale oil and gas development in western Kamchatka, but the government argues it is essential to solve the region's energy shortage.

"Of course it will affect the environment," Mr. Garashchenko said. "But it's very important to Kamchatka -- we can't live without it."