Community is Power

In over 19 years of working in Altai, I’ve learned that communities are where advocacy begins.

As a child, I never really thought about the ideas of nature and community. I spent my days wandering the wild “open space” areas between homes where I grew up in Maryland.

I hunted crayfish, scrambled over logs, and built stick forts. When my family moved to an idyllic Bavarian town, I dragged my sled up the nearby ski slope, hiked picturesque landscapes, and lay on my back to watch the snow fall endlessly under a streetlight. In my teenage years, horses were my passion. I spent countless, gloriously dirty hours working at a local riding stable and riding through nearby forests and fields.

The Katun River in Altai. Photo, courtesy of the author.
The Katun River in Altai. Photo, courtesy of the author.

In time, these early days attending a volkschule (primary school), learning German, and traveling across Europe and the US opened my eyes to the diversity of landscapes and peoples on the planet. I wanted to study the world. The Perestroika and glasnost led to a degree in Russian language and linguistics in late 1992, just after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Over the next several years, I traveled in Ukraine and Russia and worked various jobs: recruiting students for a high school exchange program, helping refugees from the war in former Yugoslavia find jobs in the US, organizing trips for cardiac medicine missions to Russia. But it was nearly a decade before I discovered my passion — serving grassroots activists fighting for environmental justice and human rights in Russia.

Contrary to popular Western stereotypes of barren tundra, Russia has incredibly diverse ecosystems — forests, wetlands, steppe grasslands, mountains, and even coastal rainforests. Stretching 5,600 miles across Eurasia from the Caucasus to the Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East, this country has been home to hundreds of ethnic groups since time immemorial. And while today Russian citizens take pride in diverse cultures and landscapes, the Russian government steadfastly treats natural wealth and beauty as a raw resource colony and Indigenous minorities as inconveniences to be sidelined, assimilated, divided, and disenfranchised.

I’ve visited many places to partner with local communities: Kamchatka’s volcanoes and salmon rivers, mines in Magadan’s tundra, the pristine Lake Baikal, the Kuzbass basin, and Altai, which captured my heart. I was drawn to this small mountain region — in Russia’s four-corner border area with Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia — for its diverse and healthy ecosystems, Indigenous peoples who have retained their culture and passion for their sacred landscapes, and the dedicated activists who fight to protect this heritage.

Beginning in the early 2000s, Altai’s beauty attracted a huge surge in tourism. In normal years, over a million people visit these “Siberian Alps.” The influx of unsustainable hordes of tourists who have never heard of the “Leave No Trace” philosophy, as well as uncontrolled, often corrupt, extractivist logging, gold-mining, and land grabbing businesses pose a grave threat to this region and the pastoralist, animist cultures of its Indigenous peoples. In Russia, altruistic initiatives are often perceived as suspect, and philanthropic funding is very hard to find.

This is where initiatives like The Altai Project come in. Established in 1998, the organization initially provided microgrants and technology to solar energy enthusiasts, builders using natural materials, and environmental activists fighting ill-conceived dams and other extractive projects in the region. I continued this work when I joined in 2006, and by the end of the decade Altai was a leading Russian region in the use of large solar arrays and private solar, micro-hydroelectric, and wind installations. We shifted gears to provide critical early support for restoring the region’s snow leopards and birds of prey. Today, snow leopards are flourishing and expanding into new territories, and the big cat has become the region’s beloved symbol. We listen to partners and adapt as conservation priorities evolve in Altai.

In my 19 years of working in Altai, I’ve learned that communities are where advocacy begins. As US-Russian relations rise and fall and Russian civil society struggles under an autocratic and repressive government, I cling to my partnerships with dedicated activists and scientists working at great personal risk and sacrifice to protect the natural and cultural heritage of Altai and Russia as a whole. As an ally, I strive to witness their work and inform the world of their struggles. I know in my heart that we are stronger together — communities are powerful weapons in the fight for environmental justice and human rights.

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