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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lake Baikal Struggles for Survival . . . and Sustainability

Air Date: Week of

Mary Beth Maher reports on a sustainable development plan being drawn up for the region around Siberia's Lake Baikal, the planet's largest freshwater body. Timbering and industrial development threaten the lake's delicate ecosystem, but provide vital jobs for local residents. A group of American land-use planners hope they can help local leaders and communities strike a successful and profitable balance for the region.


CURWOOD: Halfway between Moscow and Tokyo there's a 400-mile-long, crescent-shaped lake that holds one fifth of the world's fresh water. It's called Baikal. It's the oldest and deepest lake on Earth, and back in the near-wilderness of Siberia it's still relatively unspoiled, as are vast tracks of adjoining virgin forests. But since the 1960s, timber cutting and the development of shorefront industry have begun destroying the region's pristine condition. Some fear that with economic pressures mounting, the pace of ecological destruction will increase, too. But a group of land use planners from the United States is trying to prevent that by working with local residents and governments to develop a sustainable land use plan for Baikal, and bridge the gap between economic development and environmental protection. Mary Beth Maher has our story.

(Running lake water)

MAHER: Out on the lake in a fishing boat, Baikal is endless, breathtaking, a blue pearl of shimmering water edged with marble cliffs and snow-capped mountain ranges. Throughout its history the lake remained pristine. Even today, there are places where the water is so pure, a laboratory beaker used to collect samples will actually taint its contents. But that's changing. Pulp and paper mills built in the 60s, acid rain from industries within the watershed, and mismanagement of resources, particularly timber, are destroying the fragile ecology. Inikinti Vladimirivitch is the boat's captain. He's been fishing on Baikal his entire life.

VLADIMIRIVITCH: (speaking in Russian)

TRANSLATOR: I'd imagine pollution comes from pulp and paper mills, so if this pollution is stopped or the factories are closed down, it will probably be okay. Because the rest of the polluters are not strong enough to really damage the health of the lake.

MAHER: But if we close the factories, what about the people who work there? How will they live?

VLADIMIRIVITCH: (speaking in Russian)

TRANSLATOR: That's why the problem is so urgent. If you close down the factories the people will have no jobs. If you don't close them down, the lake will be polluted. So we really have to think of something here.

(Running boat engine)

MAHER: Resolutions for the protection of Baikal have been passed and systematically ignored for nearly a decade. During Perestroika, a national park was created to protect some of the watershed. But such efforts, while good for nature, often deprive the local population of their means of making a living.

(Door shutting, farm animals)

MAHER: Bolshoye Goloutstnoye is a small village on Baikal's western shore. Goats and cows stroll pass doors of Siberian log homes, and the air is tinged with the mist of waves lapping the shore. About 50 yards from the natural harbor stands a timber mill, abandoned after the new park's timberland was declared off-limits to harvesting. Most villagers work at the mill. Since it closed, many have moved to the cities in search of jobs, leaving traditional village life as well as the scarred ruins of industry on their shores.

BIRNBAUM: Two years ago this saw mill was shut down and left this sort of, as we call in, moonscape.

MAHER: Irina Birnbaum is a Slavic Russian married to an American environmentalist. She's Siberian Coordinator for the Sustainable Land Use Project, a joint Russian-American effort to protect Baikal by sustaining sustainable economies which will not deplete resources.

BIRNBAUM: We would like to develop and to create an open park here, and to use this marina, it's wonderful harbor, that might be very attractive. And it just will mean more people here, more choice.

MAHER: The plan has been three years in the making. Funds have come from American foundations and the US State Department. Zane Smith, formerly with the US Forest Service, now works to recruit the foreign investment needed to make the plan a reality.

SMITH: We promised them that we would attempt to match them up with some foreign investment, in particular, US environmentally sensitive business in their forestry and recreation tourism programs. Realizing that you really can't expect to have a sustainable development plan that has protected areas and developed areas without some sort of economic stability as well.

MAHER: Smith brings groups from the forestry and eco-tourist industries to Baikal to meet with local business people. Project leaders expect several joint ventures to be in operation later this year.


MAHER: Buryats, the indigenous people of Baikal, greet visitors to the sacred region of Olk'hon with traditional songs of welcome. Their slit eyes and coppery skin are similar to the features of American Indians who are said to be their descendants. Both cultures share a deep spiritual tie to the land. Ludmila Varfolomeeva is a descendant of shamans. She lives on Olk'hon Island, revered by the Buryats as the home of the gods. Varfolomeeva supports the project's plans to protect Olk'hon's forests and create an anthropological reserve. She sees the potential tourism offers, but urges caution in its use.

VARFOLOMEEVA: (Speaks in Russian)
TRANSLATOR: There should really be some well-thought-over plans of developing tourism here on the island. And also all tourist routes should be carefully considered, because really the recreational potential, or the carrying capacity of the island, is not so great. And so we should really think carefully where we can allow tourism to develop.

DAVIS: Tourism is something really important for the future of Baikal, but it is no panacea.

MAHER: George Davis is an international land use expert. He leads the land use projects.

DAVIS: The Baikal area is not ready for mass tourists. The facilities are not there. And even if it were, it's too fragile an area for mass tourism. So we have to be talking of people that want to rough it. Want to go to do hiking, want to go to do some sport fishing. Want to go to see the Buryat culture. They can't want to go to a Club Med. That's not what they're going to find.

(Forest birdsong)

MAHER: Davis says respect and preservation of the Buryat culture is vital to the success of the land use plan. So he proposes limiting access to fragile areas, employing local guides, and offering small bed and breakfast-type accommodations, which should bring in cash without straining resources. Some local residents hope a tourist trade will spark other, low-impact industries like woodcrafts and knitting rugs with local wool. The plan also includes guidelines for land use, cultural reserves, and business ventures, and has designated fragile forest areas as extractive reserves to be left intact, to yield fruits and nuts for people to eat and sell. Two of the three regional governments stand solidly behind implementation, but not everyone supports the sustainable land use plan.

ANTIPOV: (Speaks in Russian)
TRANSLATOR: The shortcomings of the program, as I have already said, is number one, the scale is far too big and far too general.

MAHER: Dr. Alexander Antipov is Deputy Director of the Geological Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Irkutsk. Like many of the conservative elite in this largely Slavic city just west of Baikal, he views the project as Western interference in a Russian problem, and is also skeptical of its goals.

ANTIPOV: (Speaks in Russian)
TRANSLATOR: And also the land use program is trying to tie together nature protection and economic development. I do believe that we can't protect Baikal and at the same time improve economic situation here. I somehow doubt it's possible at all.

MAHER: It's a tough trick to turn. Westerners are only now learning how to do it. But Davis says it's essential that people have an alternative to selling off the forests or coastline to get ahold of hard currency.

DAVIS: Our job is one of trying to assist the Russian people in avoiding the mistakes in the Western world. The frontier mentality that we approached our resources with is just starting to hit in Russia, and so this is the opportunity. They can either go the route we did as we started clearing our timber from the east coast to the west coast, or they can start managing their timber on a sustainable basis.

MAHER: Davis believes Russia's deep feeling for Baikal will not allow for wholesale sacrifice, but as with all things in Russia, money is the main obstacle to success. The US State Department has guaranteed implementation funds for the Sustainable Land Use Project, but could withdraw its support if Russia's political system deteriorates.

(Shoreline tides)

MAHER: Each year, more and more foreigners appear on the lake's shores. Not just tourists, but businessmen looking to make a profit on the watershed's vast mineral and timber wealth. Boat captain Inikinti Vladimirivitch believes isolation, once the staple of life on Baikal, is coming to an end. Like his neighbors, he hopes the land use plan will help them prepare for the change ahead.

(Boat engine)

VLADIMIRIVITCH: (Speaks in Russian)
TRANSLATOR: Well people will come to Baikal no matter what we do. They will be coming here, more and more, and our task will be to provide all the opportunities for them to relax here, but at the same time, to leave this area clean and healthy.

MAHER: If the plan is a success, Lake Baikal will receive international recognition as a world heritage site. Success will also show that sustainable development is an idea that works. Planners will take the concepts learned at Baikal and apply them in other places, giving all people the chance to live in comfort and dignity, but also in harmony with the planet. For Living on Earth, this is Mary Beth Maher on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia.

(Shoreline tide)

CURWOOD: That report was produced by Ms. Maher, and Mario Porporino.



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