Life of a Caspian Sea Activist

Galina Chernova: Environmental Hero


One of the first attempts to challenge the environmental impacts of transnational corporations in Kazakhstan’s rich oil fields was led by Galina Chernova, an environmental activist, journalist and director of the nonprofit organization Caspii Tabigatu (Caspian Nature). It was Chernova who publicly challenged an environmental impact assessment (EIA) commissioned by Tengizchevroil (TCO), a $20-billion project that hoped to build a 900-mile pipeline from the Tengiz oilfields on the east shore of the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea.

TCO was formed in 1993 as a joint venture between Chevron and the Republic of Kazakhstan to extract 6 to 9 billion barrels of oil from the Tengiz oil field over a span of 40 years. ChevronTexaco, which controls 50 percent of TCO, is the largest oil company member of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) and the primary beneficiary of the proposed pipeline.

At a public hearing organized by TCO to reassure citizens on the north coast of the Caspian Sea, Chernova asserted that the firm hired to do the EIA was unqualified. It proved an act that would cost Chernova her job.

Chernova first became interested in environmental problems in 1981. While working as a journalist for the Regional Department of Culture, she became attracted by the relationship between humans and the environment and the importance of human beings supporting the harmony of our fragile world.

Chernova was transferred to the Regional Environmental Protection Agency where she became an editor for the agency’s newspaper, and in 1989 she became the agency’s director for environmental education. She organized 30-minute radio shows and conducted seminars at schools, colleges and industrial enterprises. Chernova was dedicated to the idea of explaining the basic laws of ecology.

One of the problems that concerned Chernova at that time was the air pollution caused by oil refineries. Petroleum production in Kazakhstan deposited incredible amounts of polluted emissions into the air.

With these growing environmental concerns, Chernova went to work as a volunteer for a Kazahk environmental magazine called We and Nature. She wrote analytical articles and a monthly feature with comments by environmental specialists. It was difficult for her to write openly, however, since criticism of governmental policies and programs was not allowed at that time.

The period of “perestroika” launched by Mikhail Gorbachev opened new opportunities for collecting and exposing environmental information. While this made Chernova’s job as a journalist easier, she noted that perestroika “did not change the barbarian attitudes of humans towards nature.”

In July 1990, Chernova and four friends founded Caspian Nature. “We wanted to be legal,” she says. “People came to me and asked me to register the group as a legal NGO and become its president.”

After Kazakhstan signed the 1993 contract to begin oil production in the Caspian area, Chernova started campaigns to stop TCO’s use of scarce drinking water for cooling its petroleum facilities.

She was shocked by the oil industry’s cavalier attitude toward the local water resources when the country was experiencing serious shortages of drinking water. “There is practically no water in apartment buildings above the third floor,” she recalled. “The reasons are big losses during transportation and old supply equipment. We should recycle water in Kazakhstan as in the city of Tokyo.”

While the Caspian Sea is less polluted than the Black Sea, much needs to be done to protect the region’s fragile ecosystems. The Caspian region has become one of the most polluted areas in the former Soviet Union. An oily film now covers the sea’s surface. Unregulated flaring of natural gas dirties the skies and piles of toxic sulfur, a byproduct of oil extraction, contaminate the land.

When Chevron held public hearings on the findings of its EIA in April, 2000, Chernova rose to challenge the credibility of the assessment. Chernova argued that the quality of personnel and the technologies of the firm that performed the assessment were inadequate to the task.

She indicated that they did not take enough water and biological samples, and criticized monitoring results that failed to show any air pollution at company’s sites.

She was sued for libel by the monitoring company. After two months of hearings, the court rejected the lawsuit. The monitoring firm appealed to higher regional court but this court refused to review the case.

Although the court threw out the suit - thereby reaffirming the Kazakh peoples’ fundamental right to ensure the quality of their environment and their right to be part of any decision-making process that threatens their traditional way of life - the ramifications of the case nearly destroyed Caspian Nature.

The board voted to remove her from the presidency. The new president of the organization charged that Galina had initiated her criticism of the TCO project without backing from her organization. Chernova’s replacement not only defended the monitoring firm’s qualifications, but also went so far as to say that the suit against Chernova was justified.

After that, Chernova saw no opportunity to continue working with Caspian Nature (especially after a vice president of the company that performed the EIA became a board member and deputy chair of the organization). So, following in the footsteps of David Brower, Chernova left Caspian Nature and formed a new organization. It was called “Globus.”

Globus offers environmental education programs in schools and communities and conducts monitoring and research on ecological problems. Chernova has a team of devoted students who, she says, have “brought a nice fresh atmosphere to the NGO. After my friends in Caspian Nature betrayed me during the suit with the monitoring firm, I became more cautious. I want my organization to be really democratic. We have created a structure that is very simple and without hierarchy.”

Francis Macy is director of Earth Island’s Center for Safe Energy. CSE conducts training programs and offers seed grants to nonprofit women’s organizations in Kazakhstan. Oxana Osadcha, a CSE intern from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, is in graduate school in Monterey.

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