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The destinies of Russia and China are being decided in the Ulyanovsk woods – a joke?
Author: Igor Yadroshnikov, Bellona (Russia), Published on: 2 October 2017
[Unofficial translation provided by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre]
In Ulyanovsk, the opponents of the construction of a Chinese cement factory belonging to the Anhui Conch Company intend to conduct a protest on 6 October 2017. Aleksey Kurinny, a parliament member providing support to them, announced that public manifestation has been permitted.
Over the past several months, the residents of 5 villages in Ulyanovskaya oblast’ [territorial unit]– Soldatskaya Tashla, Yasashnaya Tashla, Skugareevka, Podkurovka and Stogovka – have been leading a persistent fight against a cement factory belonging to a Chinese company “Anhui Conch”. Protesters had serious intentions from the start, but the authorities did not understand that. The authorities of the Ulyanovskaya oblast’ turned a local environmental protest into a trans-regional and political act. The opponents of the factory and of its supporters in the local administration decided to strive for resignation of the Governor Morozov.
It all started peacefully. In 2015, Anhui Conch cement company, the government of the Ulyanovskaya oblast’ and the Corporation for development of the Ulyanovskaya oblast’ signed an investment agreement on the construction of a cement factory. In 2016, the issue has been discussed at a session of the Council for the trans-regional cooperation of the Volga Federal District and the upper and middle streams of the Yangtze River, which took place in Ulyanovsk. In June 2017, a delegation from the Ulyanovskaya oblast’ went to China, where the Governor discussed the details of the project with the company board members.
Residents learned about dangerous construction project in the end of June 2017, after an attempt to conduct a public hearing in Skugareevka village in the Terengulsky department, where the authorities intended to quietly lay the groundwork for future developments, so to say. In order to build a factory, it is necessary to change the status of the lands from agricultural to urban settlement.
Local residents became concerned about the sudden change of their lands’ status. This is when they learnt about a decision to set up a cement factory with a production power of 5 thousand tons of cement per day in a picturesque, ecologically clean area. When they learnt that, they rebelled.
Obviously, Chinese businessmen and local authorities immediately declared that the factory presented no risks, and, moreover, would bring a billion roubles per year in the local budget, creating 400 jobs for the residents of the Terengulsky district, and would provide financing for infrastructural and social projects. Cement would be transported through closed carriers, and open casts would be remediated.
As expected, local residents did not believe that. Not just because of their historic memory from the Soviet times preventing them from trusting the authorities, but also because they have seen actual examples of functioning cement plants: Novoulyanovskiy and Sengileevskiy.
Those factories belong to the Eurocement Group. This international industrial giant is among the 5 biggest cement companies in the world and declares its commitment to environmental principles. When this company entered the region, local authorities promised that it would bring jobs, increase budget and that all environmental norms would be observed.
However, as the facts show, these promises have not been fulfilled.
Local residents have many grievances regarding the Sengeleevsky plant: noise, contaminated air, limited access to water. The state Cement village is in could not be worse.
“Ulpressa” web resource investigated the conditions of the factory functioning. The plant functions with no safety zone around it. It does not fulfil the investment agreement, but benefits from the tax exemptions amounting to hundreds of millions roubles.
Local blogger Camille’ Bagautdinov demonstrated how Eurocement “remediates” its open pits in the Ulyonovskaya oblast’, which left enormous areas completely devastated. At the look of that, a question comes to mind immediately – why would one build another cement factory and destroys what’s left of nature?
People are not only concerned about the cement dust that would appear in case of factory launch. The lands, where raw materials for cement manufacturing are located, constitute a massive woodland covering an area about 800 hectares. Local residents and people from the city come there for mushroom and berry picking. There are water springs as well.
Land remediation project will follow after the concession period is over – in 49 years. Afterwards, another 100 years will be needed for the forest to grow again.
Another well-founded concern is related to the fact that digging a pit dozens meters deep would disturb hydrologic balance. The consequences are unpredictable, but it is clear, that they will be very negative.
People suggest organic agricultural production instead of cement manufacturing.
Thus, against this background, the assurances of Chinese businessmen and administration lack credibility, according to local residents. At one point, a social movement “For clean environment” emerged, and its members collected 3 500 signatures against the factory.
On 22 August, a tent city emerged along the federal motorway Ulyanovsk-Syzran’. Its inhabitants went on a hunger strike. They organized an assembly and invited the Governor to address the people and explain what was going on. All in vain. Regional Prime Minister, Alexander Smekalin, who bore the brunt of public discontent and listened to the protesters, was not able to calm the public and give satisfactory answers to their questions. When the people were tired to wait for an adequate answer, they attempted to get an audience with the local administration’ members.
They tried to get into the administrative building and even set up a tent at its entrance in order to meet the head of the region, but security service used their special division to stop the people from meeting the elected governor.
The opponents of the Chinese factory are not being detained or attacked yet, but charges against them have been pressed. A farmer Galina Mavrina and two retired women from Podkurovka village and Yasashnaya Tashla village have been prosecuted over an attempt to meet the governor. The judge of the Leninskiy district court Ildar Haibullov ordered them to pay an administrative fine of 10 thousand roubles.
At one point, the Governor did express his point of view. Unfortunately, again not at a meeting with the protesters. Sergey Morozov announced at a meeting with municipal deputies, held on 14 September, that “the district, the region and the country, all needed this factory”. In response, the opponents of the cement plant organized an assembly and announced that Governor’s position on the issue transformed their protest into a political one. They presented the Governor with an ultimatum: either he changes his position or resigns.
The activists also decided to attract president Putin’s attention to this problem. They organized a flash mob on the eve of his visit to the region (22 September 2017), spelling a plea with their bodies saying “Putin, save our forest”. A video shot from a helicopter is available online.
On 23 September 2017, the movement “For clean environment” announced that they would collect signatures for resignation of the Governor. They are planning to collect 100 000 signatures in the villages where the protests take place – Ulyanovsk, Syzran’, Tolyatti, Novoulyanovsk – and other places.
Evidently, the authorities cannot ignore any longer a well-founded protest of the local residents, treating it, however, as an extremely annoying situation. It is not excluded that they will try to portray it as extremism. An observation made by a local political scientist attests to that. It would seem ridiculous, were it not for the fact that the author of this observation is a distinguished political consultant Lev Pavluchenkov, who helped the current governor Morozov to come to power at the last elections, and who is also the governor’s current consultant.
“Why this current situation in Ulyanovsk and the events that took place in the region last week are dangerous? This type of situations, when armed people break into an office of a Chinese company, when they block the work of the entire regional government, is an evidence of the use of “Maidan” methods. Today, I would be concerned about the safety of Chinese citizens on the territory of Ulyanovskaya oblast’. What is going to happen, if the protest will follow “Maidan” scenario with incitements, “celestial hundreds”? It could even lead to deterioration of the Chinese-Russian international relationships”.
It is what it is. No more, no less. The destiny of the world superpowers are decided on the fields of Ulyanovsk.