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Earth Island News

Siberian parks in peril

Baikal Watch

There are few places left on Earth like Lake Baikal. In Soviet times it was the most popular summer tourist destination. These days, it’s a little-known getaway spot that adventure travelers are on the verge of rediscovering.

     Those adventure travelers might want to travel to Baikal soon. In a decade or two there might be very little left to rediscover. A consortium of Russian oil companies, along with BP Oil Co., is set to build a series of pipelines that will skirt around Baikal, and feed the expanding markets of China.

     Oddly enough, the rich deposits of oil located just west of Baikal will not fuel the local economy. Russia is simply too starved for hard currency. Oil moguls from Moscow and abroad will find it more profitable to sell oil to China — even though this would entail building a pipeline that is over 2,000 miles long, ruining several national parks and other intact ecosystems along the way.

     Local activists are ready to fight these pipeline plans. Their motivation is not just to protect the environment as well as their (predominantly Tibetan Buddhist) culture. The local people are equally concerned with the economic fallout from this pipeline. They fear losses in tourism and in the land’s natural productivity.

     On Baikal’s shores are three Yellowstone-sized national parks, and four equally large wilderness areas. There are hundreds of Buddhist temples, and monasteries recently rebuilt over the last 10 years. Several international agencies have recognized the benefits that ecotourism might bring to Baikal. The World Bank estimates that, with appropriate new policies and government promotion, ecotourism could easily become Baikal’s largest industry. More recently, the US Agency for International Development (and its partners at the Foundation for Russian American Cooperation) have decided to fund the Baikal Federation of Ecotourism.

     Unfortunately, the biggest ecotourist draws are the parks and wilderness areas most threatened by proposed oil pipelines. One of these parks in is in the Tunka region southwest of Baikal. Here are sweeping valleys enclosed by high mountain peaks, raftable whitewater rivers, and dozens of mineral springs.

     Park officials are certain the Tunka can attract tourists,adventurers, and religious pilgrims. But will tourists come to the Tunka if pipelines cut through the passes and into the valley, across the rivers and springs, and into China?

     The oil companies say that at least 30 percent of the pipeline jobs will be for locals. But they fail to mention that on Russia’s Sakhalin Island, where several years ago oil companies promised similar employment prospects, not even 10 percent of the jobs ended up going to locals, most of them the lowest paying. There is no means for local governments to collect taxes on this oil. Virtually all fees and revenues will go to Moscow.

     The construction companies have released cost estimates that are substantially below what it cost to build the trans-Alaska pipeline some 30 years ago, even though the Siberia-China pipeline will be at least twice as long. Many fear that savings will come at the expense of the environment.

     Fortunately, there are many more tourists coming to Baikal this year, looking for adventure in the taiga. With the development of the Great Baikal Trail, and with the growth of the Baikal Federation of Ecotourism, there is reason to hope that long-term service-oriented jobs can be created from ecotourism development. The only thing lacking is publicity to attract tourists.

     The Baikal Federation of Ecotourism and the national parks at Baikal have begun to develop the Great Baikal Trail, which will ultimately run the entire circumference of the lake (some 1000 miles in all). With help from Earth Island Institute, the Tahoe Rim Trail, and the Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation, the Federation plans to host volunteer trail-building teams every summer.

What you can do: Take Action: To join a trailbuilding team or to visit Lake Baikal, contact Baikal Watch, Earth Island Institute, 300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco CA 94133 or email baikalwatch@igc.org. For more on the Great Baikal Trail, please see: www.baikal.eastsib.ru/gbt/

   

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