February/March 1990 Issue #4 * ECOLOGIA NEWSLETTER Archive

February/March 1990 Issue #4

The development of natural sites for tourism is attracting interest in an increasing number of countries today. Use of an area for "eco-tourism" preserves the ecological value of the site, as well as its historic integrity. Areas suitable for wilderness adventures, such as hiking, canoeing or cross- country skiing, can often attract tourists and photographers from around the world. "Eco-tourism" can bring foreign exchange into an area, while providing economic incentives for preservation of the area's natural features.

This issue of ECOLOGIA Newsletter features two different stories occurring in the Soviet Union. In one, Americans and Soviets use a camping expedition to discuss common environmental concerns. The other story discusses the problems of large-scale industrial development in an ecologically sensitive area, suggesting "eco-tourism" as a less risky method to take advantage of the area's natural resources.


"We, the Altai Salvation Committee and all environmentalists of the USSR appeal to you! The Altai needs your support and help!

"The USSR Ministry of the Power Industry is planning to build a series of water-power plants and a large water reservoir on the upper Katun River, the main waterway of the Altai. A dire threat looms over this unique virgin place that is valuable not only for the USSR but also for the whole world. The Katun River Valley is famous for its cliffs and rocks covered with ancient inscriptions, pictures and shrines. The planned 180 meter dam and water reservoir, as Pasley Samuk, an Altai writer, put it, 'will not only drown our past by flooding two thousand kurgans (ancient burial mounds) but also ruin our future.'

"The planned water reservoir would flood deposits of mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, thus polluting the municipal water supply of Altai as well as that of the major cities Novosibirsk and Barnaul. The unique climatic spa of Chemal would be destroyed, gone would be the river valleys with numerous local medicinal herbs, and the climatic conditions would deteriorate severely throughout Asia.

"The only alternative is ecologically clean water generation. Hydro- electric and thermal power plants are not the best energy source for villages and sites of the Altai highlands, as mountain power transmission lines are inefficient and unsafe. Nevertheless construction at the Katun water-power plant site has already begun.

"Join the campaign to save the Altai! Support the project to secure the future of this region. Write letters to the leaders in charge of this decision, urging them to:

  1. Stop construction of the Katun water-power plant.
  2. Proclaim the Katun River Valley a UNESCO world cultural and natural heritage area.
  3. . Grant the Altai Highlands the status of a national park.
  4. Convene an international conference on ecologically clean power generation before any new decisions are made concerning the construction of hydro-electric, thermal or nuclear power plants. Representatives of Green Parties should be invited to such a conference which should take place as soon as possible in Moscow."

V. Geidt from Novosibirsk, a Member of the Committee to Save the Katun and Altai, writes in An Appeal to the Conscience of the International Community:

"The final decision on the Katun project rests with the Council of the Ministers of the Russian Federation and of the USSR. Unfortunately, in the Soviet Union, expert commissions do not have veto rights. [Governmental expert commissions in 1987, 1988 and 1989 had all recommended against the project because of its high cost, economic inefficiency , threats to the environment and health.] As a result the technocracy, that product of the command- administrative system, is continuing its attempts to push forward this project, regardless of the strong protests of numerous scientists and of the community at large.

"Because the Katun project threatens to do irremediable damage to the unique historical, cultural and natural region which is the Altai Mountain area, it must speak to the conscience of the world. In turn, this conscience could express itself in a demand that the Katun Valley be placed on the UNESCO register of World Heritage sites and in an appeal to the highest levels of government in the Soviet Union, to Gorbachev, Ryzhkov and Vlasov in the Kremlin, to show the wisdom of the state by putting an end forever to the idea of building a hydro-electric dam on the Katun River."

The Altai Salvation Committee is asking concerned people to send letters opposing the Katun River Dam Project to:

1. Aleksandr Vlasov
Chairman, Council of Ministers, R.S.F.S.R.
Krasnopresnenskaya UL 2
Moscow 103274, U.S.S.R.

2. Nikolai Ryzkov
Chairman, U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers
The Kremlin, Moscow, U.S.S.R.

3. Nikolai Vorontsov
Chairman, Goskompriroda
103009 Moscow, U.S.S.R.
Ul. Nezhdanovoy, # 1

4. Mikhail Gorbachev
President of the U.S.S.R.
General Secretary of the CPSU
Staraya Square, 4
Moscow, U.S.S.R.

For further information on the organized opposition to the Katun River Dam Project, contact:

Maria Cherkasova, Socio-Ecological Union
Council of the Union
Malaya Bronnaya, 12, Apt. 12
Moscow U.S.S.R. 103104

V. Geidt
Member of the Committee to Save the Katun and Altai
U.S.S.R. 630117
Novosibirsk 117
Ul. Polevaya 16, Apt. 5

Background to the Katun River Project, U.S.S.R. : A Brezhnev-Era Holdover Opposed by Local, National and International Environmental Organizations

A large dam and hydro-electric power plant is currently being planned for the Katun River in the Altai Mountains. Controversy surrounds this plan because of its potential impact on the area's population and eco-system.

The Altai Mountain Range is located in central Asia, where China, Mongolia and the Soviet Union meet. The range runs roughly south and east, inside the Soviet Union and then along the Chinese-Mongolian border. The legendary Mt. Belukh (4506 meters, 14,783 feet) is its highest peak. Originating in the Altai Mountains, the Katun River flows north and slightly west into the Ob River. Geologically, this area is part of the Kuznetsky-Altai ore belt, which contains substantial deposits of mercury, including methyl mercury, as well as cadmium and arsenic. The reservoir area of the proposed dam site is inside the Kuraisk-Sarasinsky mercury zone. This has raised serious questions about the dangers of mercury contamination in the supply of drinking water which would be created by the proposed dam.

Historically, the Katun River valley was an ancient "cradle of civilization" of Scythian and Turkish peoples. Their artifacts, such as petroglyphs and burial mounds, are found throughout the valley. Today it is the home of approximately 65,000 indigenous Altai people, whose language is a member of the Turkic group (similar to Azerbaijani, Kazakh and Uzbek). The Altai are only 29% of the total population of the oblast. Soviet government records indicate that local apartment housing is scarce, villages lack running water and central heating supplies, and only 16% of the homes receive natural gas. The hydroelectric dam would displace one village (550 residents).

The Katun River valley is located within the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Oblast, which is a part of western Siberia, in the Russian Republic. Its capital city , Gorno-Altask, is about 375 kilometers south and slightly east of Novosibirsk.

The idea for a hydroelectric dam project on the Katun River dates back to the 1950s. The argument for it is that it will promote development and raise the standard of living in the area, because of the large amount of construction and the greater energy which would be available. However, analysis of the situation reveals that its primary beneficiaries would not be the local people. Quite the contrary - their wilderness environment, water supplies and traditional way of life would be severely damaged. But the central planners in Moscow and the large bureaucracies still control most of the economic activity in the Soviet Union. They, together with local Communist party leaders, would benefit in many ways from the large amounts of money flowing into the area.

The entrenched leadership of the oblast , including the Chairman of the Gorno-Altai Oblispolkom, are supporters of the project, along with a number of the centralized Soviet Ministries, including Minenergo and some sections of Gosplan, the centralized planning agency. Local opponents include an organization of Greens, a women's movement named "Sisters of Katun", and a number of officials, especially those of Altai nationality. Also active in opposition are a number of Academy scientists, newspapers (including Sovetskaia Rossiia), the Soviet Turkologists' Committee, the Ukrainian Women's Movement, and 22 People's Deputies from the Ukraine. Nikolai Vorontsov, the Chairman of Goskompriroda in Moscow, is also on record as opposing the hydroelectric dam and supporting use of the area for tourism instead. The nation-wide Socio-Ecological Union has strongly condemned the project and is gathering national and international support, declaring 1990 as "The Year of Katun".

Economically, the proposed dam is an example of the centralized bureaucrats' planning for large, inefficient and environmentally destructive projects. The majority of the electricity generated by the dam would probably be transmitted to European Russia, since Siberia has plentiful electricity relative to the population. Thus a significant amount of the electric power would be lost in long-distance transmission. The plant is not needed for local energy needs. The argument is that building the dam would generate jobs for the local community and would raise the standard of living. However, it seems more likely that the project, by providing a huge source of electric power, would attract other industrial development (a lead production facility, for instance), which would further exploit the resources of the area for the benefit of Moscow. In addition, the inefficiency of such a large plant would actually weaken the economy, as it would consume a lot of capital as well as natural resources. Investment of money, time and human effort in designing more energy-efficient machinery and buildings is more likely to improve the economy over the long term.

The opponents of the dam propose an alternative vision for the area. They cite the increasing interest in "eco-tourism" - international travel to sites of natural beauty which provide challenging and unusual settings for outdoor activities. Since 1987, a number of river-rafting and catamaran expeditions down the Katun have drawn groups of Westerners from various areas of the United States of America, as well as from West Germany. There have also been youth exchange progams which link teenagers from the United States and the Soviet Union in river wilderness adventures. American and West German magazines and television have featured the Katun rafting experiences. Development of the Katun River area on this basis would preserve its unique features, while boosting the local economy and local employment, and bringing in foreign currency.

Wilderness Exchange: Hiking Expedition in the Ukraine

by Gerald P. Kruth Sierra Club - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Last August, I led twelve participants from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club on an environmentalists' visit to the Soviet Union. It was an outgrowth of visits by a Pittsburgh Sierra Club activist to Donetsk, our Sister City, and the method was for Soviets and Americans to interact in a wilderness exchange. The highlight of our two week trip was the eight days we spent in the Carpathian Mountains in the southwestern Ukraine, near the Czech-Hungarian border.

The Soviet participants were all from Donetsk, members of Komsomol, between 19 and 31 years old. They had volunteered to travel to Uzghorod to share the experience with us. Through our day to day contact, and a series of environmental workshops and discussions, we started a dialogue about private grass- roots environmentalism.

We explained that the Sierra Club was a private organization dedicated to environmental protection and wilderness activities. At our initial meeting, we presented the Soviet delegation with posters of the whole earth as viewed from the orbiting NASA satellite. The posters had been donated by the World Federalist Association of Pittsburgh. The Soviets responded with environmental concerns of their own, and budding ideas as to how they too can demand greater environmental responsibility from their government.

A series of challenging hikes, punctuated by dayovers, tested everyone's outdoor capacities. We had environmental workshops after each meal. We had brought along printed matter, on many topics of interest to environmental protection and public safety. Several participating physicians talked about various facets of the medical field in America. An engineer who works for Westinghouse Corporation spoke on air quality and forest management. We made frequent comparisons between our two countries' different systems, which have, rather ironically, yielded common problems. Irrigation problems, and overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, were cited both in western Nevada, U.S.A. and the Aral Sea area in the U.S.S.R. Warning was given the Soviets on the proliferation of disposables which threatens to engulf American cities in a sea of garbage. Now that McDonald's with its throwaway mentality has set up shop in Moscow, they may be closer to that day than previously imagined.

The residents of Donetsk acknowledged that theirs is one of the most polluted areas of the Soviet Union. They know about environmental pollution. They know how it negatively impacts their lives, and the health of everything associated with such pollution. However, they do not have the ability to sue their government, which controls all aspects of production and public safety.

Our train left Uzghorod for Moscow at 3 A.M. Our friends turned out at that hour with hugs of joy, and shouts of plans for reunion in America. Since my return home, I have had several letters from my new friends in the Ukraine, which are most gratifying: "You must know that the Sierra Club already has many allies in the matter of defense of environment in U.S.S.R.". Also, "The days of the Soviet-American ecological hike brought us closer and made us a small family."

For far too long, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. have been ideological and military rivals. The planet can no longer afford the ruinous competition to strip the earth's resources and honeycomb it with chemical and nuclear waste. There are many human problems that transcend boundaries, and threaten the welfare of all life forms. Competition and rivalry need to be put aside in favor of an accomodation and partnership toward environmental therapy. Our step last summer, toward understanding each other as individuals, may yet go a long way toward creating a new partnership.

In addition to his work with the Sierra Club, Gerald Kruth is also a member of the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania. They are currently planning this spring's activities to celebrate Rachel Carson Day, May 16 - 19. The guest of honor will be Vasili Peskov, an environmental journalist from Moscow's Komsomol Pravda who has suggested that Rachel Carson be nominated for a Nobel Prize in the Environment. Events include a visit to Conneaut Marsh to visit active bald eagle nests and waterfowl, a fund- raising dinner, and activities at the Homestead. Anyone interested in attending should contact :

Gerald P. Kruth
6660 Kinsman Road
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15217 U.S.A.
Telephone 412-421-4914

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