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Suren Gazaryan

Suren Gazaryan Suren Gazaryan Suren Gazaryan
01 Aug
2014
Suren Gazaryan is a Russian environmental activist and winner of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize. After leading campaigns to expose government corruption and illegal use of protected forest along Russia’s Black Sea coast, he had to flee to Estonia to avoid arrest

I was born in the city of Krasnodar, not far from Sochi area, which is now degraded due to the Olympics. It’s a beautiful region with many protected areas. When I was young, my friends and I would travel around visiting different places. That was in Soviet times, when people would visit nature just for fun.

I wanted to be a veterinarian but I swapped to biology to enter university. Besides studying, I was an active caver. That was how I became interested in the bats in our region. I realised that almost nothing was known about them. I started trying to study the bats in our caves and contacted some professional bat experts to find out more. One of them invited me to be a PhD student and so my scientific journey began.

Around the turn of the millennium, I discovered one of the largest colonies of barbastelle bats in the world. The cave was under threat at the time because local administrators wanted to turn it into a show cave. I tried to stop this and received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. We stopped the development plans and today, the caves still aren’t visited by tourists.

The cave is situated in a beautiful part of the Western Caucasus. It’s very well preserved compared to other parts of the region and was given World Heritage status in 1999. We have a huge massif of broadleaf forests, the largest massif in the European area. It’s particularly pristine because there has been very little human activity in the region as the local population was removed from the area, leaving it empty for around 100 ] years. The plants are very diverse, but we also have many animals, including mammals such as the Caucasian tur [a mountain dwelling goat-antelope], red deer, bear, wild boar and about 30 species of bat.

Around the time I discovered the bat cave, I realised that criminals were illegally logging in the area. This wasn’t just affecting the forest, but also the water flow inside the caves. They were cutting down fir and beech trees, very old beech trees that are valuable for bird species and very beautiful.

When President Putin took power in 2000 and began preparing for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, a number of people in power or close to power began grabbing land to build luxury developments. The environmentalists of Russia agree that the impact of the Sochi Olympics on Russia was totally negative. It’s an example of how not to do the Olympics. The area where it was held was within the Sochi National Park. It was illegal to do anything within these protected areas, but in 2006, they changed the legislation to allow recreational facilities and infrastructure to be constructed inside a national park. And now this has become a template for other protected areas in Russia.

We managed to prevent some developments, such as the construction of ex-president [Dmitry] Medvedev’s residence, but in terms of the Olympics, we couldn’t do very much there. So there were some small successes but overall, I think we lost.

Russian people responded positively to our campaigns, but it was a passive kind of support, as they aren’t yet ready to act to change. They become quiet or stop when there’s a conflict with the state; nobody wants to be actively opposing the state.

They are frightened and that fear is reinforced by the state. They make examples out of people who stand in opposition to them. The criminal charges brought against my friend and me are an example of that. He is now in prison. He lives off inedible food, sleeps in a dormitory with more than 100 other people and spends his days sweeping the roads. He’s watched constantly, he isn’t allowed to rest and the people there are treated very inhumanely. I feel very bitter and desperate about the situation. I’m in a much better position than the friends I left in Russia.

Unfortunately, only a few people in Russia connect the environmental problems to Putin and the government. They think that the problems are caused by local officials or corrupt local businessmen. They don’t want to look further and see the real cause of the problem. You shouldn’t underestimate the role of propaganda. They have built excellent propaganda systems that are very successful. The recent action in Ukraine shows that Putin has a lot of supporters and I don’t think they will stop supporting him any time soon.

  

CV

1974 Born in Krasnodar
1991–96 Studied biology at Kuban State University, Krasnodar
2001 Completed PhD on bats of the Western Caucasus
2002 Joined NGO Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC)
2004 Appointed senior research associate at the Institute of Ecology of Mountain Territories, Nalchik
2010 Utrish Nature Preserve founded to protect 10,000 hectares of land following an EWNC campaign
2013 Fled to Estonia after being charged for protesting against illegal developments and logging
2014 Appointed research associate officer for the UNEP/EUROBATS Secretariat in Bonn

This story was published in the August 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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