Lessons in the importance of environmental watchdogs

Imagine being our guest at the North Carolina Coastal Federation. The police follow and stop you repeatedly, the highway department blocks a coastal road you’re traveling, and you’re detained by the marine patrol.

That’s what we experienced in June when several staff members from the federation visited with a private Russian environmental group. Our trip was supported by a peer-to-peer exchange run by the U.S. Embassy. We toured the Krasnodar Region that borders the Black Sea, about a three-hour plane ride south of Moscow.

Farms, industry and urban land uses significantly alter the landscape in that part of Russia. Estuaries are enriched with pollutants and invasive plant species. Pressures to drill for oil and gas are building. Meanwhile, tourism, fishing and hunting remain important economic assets.

Impediments to our work here in N.C. seem minor compared with the extreme challenges faced by our host. Our Russian friends have little money for private, non-profit work; limited access to sound science; weak media coverage; scant environmental education to foster public awareness; and sparse engagement by young people. In addition, government corruption is widespread, and local governments are starved for resources even to address risks to public health. Environmental laws are weak, and their enforcement even weaker.

What we saw made us keenly aware of the many privileges that enable us to do our work in the United States. We also came home even more worried about efforts by some state lawmakers to make it harder for ordinary citizens to contest environmental management decisions by state government.

There are dire consequences to people and the environment when the government is openly hostile to independent environmental watchdogs. At times we wondered how our hosts stayed so committed to their work. Then we saw many Russian people share our environment concerns – they want a clean and productive environment that provides for their needs and doesn’t endanger their health. Like us, they also love to fish, swim and hunt.

Environmental advocates in Russia overcome the lack of an independent press by inventive uses of digital video, cell phones, social media and community meetings. The Internet provides access to data, technology and science. Many locally elected officials try hard to represent their constituents since they are still chosen in free and open elections.

In one community, over 10,000 people signed a petition in just three days to protest plans by an oil company to drill in a highly prized estuary. This outpouring indefinitely delayed the wells, and led to a new 30-year investment by the oil company to help recover Sturgeon. And one of the marine patrol officers shared his belief that drilling would harm fishing even while he had us in custody.

We’ve been asked what we learned and whether we were able to help our Russian partners. There are no simple answers.

We did come home with renewed gratitude for the laws, agencies, scientists, teachers, media, donors and access to technology that enable us to do our work. We are now more fearful than ever about the long-term consequences of declining investment and political support for environment laws and programs.

Our Russian friends visit here this fall. We will expose them to our work and partners. Our resources and government agencies will perhaps inspire the way they work back home.

It is said that sometimes you need to distance yourself to see things clearly. What we saw in Russia certainly improved our vision about why we must cherish our coast and the liberties we have to protect it.

Todd Miller of Newport is executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.