What lessons Bashkiria learnt from Kushtau?

Kushtau as a marker of modern environmental processes. Part 1.

The example of Kushtau has shown that the legislation on subsoil use is imperfect, which is why there are situations when mining is allowed in the habitats of IUCN Red List plants and animals, says Karina Gorbacheva, political expert and columnist for Realnoe Vremya. Today, in the author's column, the expert explains how the struggle for Shikhans exposed other environmental problems in Bashkiria and united the civil society. Gorbacheva also analyses the similarities and differences of the phenomena of Kushtau and Shiyes.

An important event happened for Russia — Kushtau mount received a nature protection status with the category “natural monument” of regional significance (the corresponding decree was signed by head of Bashkortostan Radiy Khabirov). Why is the shihan's rescue a matter of national importance and what conclusions can society draw from this story?

A sign of civic cohesion

The struggle for the preservation of Kushtau has been undertaken by active citizens since November 2018. Over this time, the residents of the foot of the mountain, the republic, the whole country, and even people from Russia living abroad, could come together to express their consolidated position on the future of the shihan. Perhaps, the expectation of those interested in developing the mountain was that the population would not notice the disappearance of the “little-known hill”, and the voice of dissenters would be drowned in the information noise. However, in almost 2 years, the information about the value of Kushtau spread throughout the country and even in other countries, which has also affected the outcome of the case.

The people who supported the preservation of the mountain met many obstacles: an information blockade, when the media refused to raise the issue of Kushtau; public opinion that “everything has been decided”, “the mountain will be developed”; pressure from employers, law enforcement officers; intimidation by unknown persons; blackening in social networks; introduction of provocateurs who sow discord; threat to life, health and freedom.

Similar difficulties are encountered in almost every environmental process in which citizens decide to defend their rights to the environment and fight for nature. Fears, frustrations, and even despair are associated phenomena in the lives of those who have decided to protect nature. The case of Kushtau showed that the desire to preserve the shihan was stronger and became a decisive force for the unification of society.

Kushtau and Shiyes

The phenomenon of the protection of Kushtau is original, it differs from the case with Shiyes. In Arkhangelsk Oblast, residents found out about the construction of the landfill suddenly and they had to react quickly to logging and construction works. They found themselves in a situation where they should have acted yesterday. Perhaps this is why the entire region quickly joined the defense — people realised that the trouble had already come to their home and there was no time for build-up.

Unlike Shiyes, the history of protecting the Bashkir shikhans lasted about 15 years. The alternating demand of one or the other shihan, the periodic fading of conversations about the BSK's raw material problem, the presence of security statuses for two shihans, and the talk that Kushtau is not suitable, blunted the vigilance of society and even accustomed to that some shihan probably “will have to give up”. In many respects therefore, the statement on the future development of Kushtau have not encountered any protests. It was as if the society was checking whether they would really develop the mountain, or if they would change their minds. Moreover, there was a time interval of six months between Radiy Khabirov's statement and the issuance of the license, which created the illusion that the decision was inconclusive.

At the same time, Shiyes's example was revealing. Repeated clashes between local residents and PSCs, footage where people in black, with their faces covered, beating civil activists, dragging women along the asphalt, the knowledge that residents from other regions were hired to protect the landfill, often unscrupulous, the need for activists to control illegal construction at the risk of their lives — all this scared and therefore forced residents to act before the situation in Kushtau worsened. Therefore, for almost 2 years, local residents wrote to all authorities, conducted educational work in social networks, people organised pickets, made their way to the media, and appealed to environmental organisations. A huge preparatory work was carried out, the purpose of which was to resolve the issue peacefully before the workers arrived on the hill.

On Shiyes, all this had to be done in parallel with the existence of a camp near the landfill, while on Kushtau there was a reserve of time. At the same time, the phenomena of Shiyes and Kushtau are similar in the main thing — both situations eventually gained strong popular support, which was a necessary condition for victory. And as an anti-example, it is worth remembering the construction of a landfill in Mikhali, Kaluga Oblast: it would seem that the same landfill as in the north, only in Central Russia. However, popular outrage there was not strong enough to prevent the creation of a hazardous project.

The effect of Kushtau

The struggle for the preservation of Kushtau mount exposed the real state of the environment in Bashkortostan. Suddenly, for many, it turned out that the natural monument of the purest lake Talkas is threatened with shallowing due to gold mining, and the rivers originating in the Kryktytau mountain range are threatened with pollution due to copper mining. And now the “living chain” flash mobs are held not at the now well-known and saved mountain but at new points of environmental confrontations.

The struggle for Kushtau has shown that the region, rich in its nature, focuses not on the development of tourism, but on the extraction of resources. As for tourism, a month before the events in Kushtau at the forum on urbanism, Chairman of the State Committee for Tourism Salavat Nafikov admitted that the tourism industry in Bashkiria survives at the expense of enthusiasts.

Kushtau is not the first or only point where the interests of the population and industrial groups collided. But Kushtau is the first case that has become known throughout Russia when a unique natural object was saved. This is an inspiring example of the unity of the people and a developed civic consciousness. Time will tell whether the experience of Kushtau will have a positive impact on solving other environmental disasters in the country.

Systemic problem

The talk about the confrontation for Kushtau cannot be complete without understanding its causes. According to Askhat Kayumov, the ecologist from Nizhny Novgorod and member of the International Socio-Ecological Union, the situation with Kushtau is a consequence of imperfect Russian legislation. This idea was made by a well-known public figure on September 2 at the scientific round table discussion of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation dedicated to the preservation of Kushtau. The fact that state bodies issue licenses for mining in territories where exploration and mining activities are deliberately prohibited is a key source of environmental problems. This creates a situation when, after obtaining a license, a business begins to demand a change in the status of specific territories based on the received permission.

The law on mineral resources and the regulation on the procedure for licensing the use of mineral resources were approved in 1992. Article 8 of the law 'On Subsurface Resources' states that the use of certain subsurface areas may be restricted or prohibited in order to protect the environment. However, article 11 of the regulation on licensing procedure does not specify the obligation to provide information about restrictions on exploration and the production of minerals that apply to a particular site. In turn, article 14 of the law 'On subsoil', which explains the conditions for refusing to accept a license application, does not prohibit accepting an application in the absence of such information.

Thus, basic documents on subsoil use is formulated so that it is possible to license the extraction of mineral resources in the forest area or site of growth or habitat of endangered plants and animals, and public authorities have no right to refuse this, citing the value of a natural site.

To be continued

By Karina Gorbacheva

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya