When Russia bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, they committed to green building standards and a “zero waste” policy that promised not to add to landfills. The $51-billion Sochi Olympics – the most expensive in history – will truly have costly consequences to the environment. The area of development includes a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park – the most biodiverse location in Russia. Eight thousand acres of preserved forests have been damaged and wetlands important for migrating birds have been buried under two metres of crushed rock. Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist with Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) who is living in exile due to criminal charges stemming from his humans rights work, says that parts of the park have been totally destroyed. He adds that much of the government’s much-vaunted reforestation efforts have been “pointless.” The planting of 1.5 million new trees was often done by unqualified personnel who violated conventional methodology.
The Associated Press reports that Russia’s state-owned rail monopoly has been using illegal landfills to dump construction waste from an $8.2-billion, 48-kilometre highway and railroad link between the airport and alpine venues. These illegal landfills are in a water protection zone, and could potentially lead to the contamination of Sochi’s groundwater. Some IOC members have reportedly admitted to making a poor choice when they selected Sochi. Former IOC member Els van Breda Vriesman told Dutch broadcaster NOS that many members would vote differently today.
The Russian government stepped up law enforcement activity against local environmentalists during Olympic construction. Activists have been detained and criminally charged, some have lost their jobs. The government plans to illegally shut down EWNC due to the group’s insistence on legal compliance during Olympic preparations.
Before we get too up-in-arms about Russia’s environmental misconduct, let’s not forget our own here in Canada.
More reason for concern: Environmental destruction and Indigenous rights abuses often go hand-in-hand. We saw this play out at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where protestors linked environmental degradation and Indigenous sovereignty, and we’re seeing it again now with the Circassian community calling Sochi “the genocide Olympics.” The Circassians are indigenous to the North Caucasus region but were driven from driven from the area in the 19th Century. Historian Walter Richmond is calling Sochi the site of Europe’s first genocidein a new book.