As Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi prepares to take the Winter Olympics torch from Vancouver, conservationists are calling the area an environmental disaster. The southern city, surrounded by the pristine forests and rivers of the North Caucasus mountains, is hosting the 2014 games. As a result of the vast Olympic project championed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, unique habitats have been destroyed, and spring water has been contaminated by heavy metal waste.
As part of its bid to hold the Olympics, Russia told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, that it would follow green building standards, and even improve Sochi’s environment. “We are delivering the green games,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the organizing committee for Russia’s Winter Olympics. “This is new to our country. This is the first step to demonstrate that you can build an environment in harmony with nature.”
In a interview with TIME, Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist and member of the environmental campaign group, Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC), said that “Sochi organizers have failed on all their green promises.” Gazaryan explains, that the “construction process for the Games has been hugely damaging for the region. He and the ENWC have documented evidence of illegal waste dumping, construction that has blocked the migration routes of animals such as the brown bear, limited access to drinking water for locals and a generally decreased quality of life for many in the city of Sochi.”
The damage done to the Mzymta, Sochi’s largest river, which flows from a lake in a Caucasus reserve down to the Black Sea is “the biggest shame,” said Igor Chestin, head of the Russian chapter, of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). The river was the spawning site of many Black Sea salmon, which have now disappeared, or died as a result of water contamination.
“The most dangerous and important part of the damage is the biodiversity lost in the area,” says Gazaryan. “Parts of the national park have been completely destroyed. This area was the most diverse in terms of plant and animal life in Russia.” Official reports by Sochi National Park show that brown bears, and various reptiles, can no longer be found in the area.
In an attempt to try and compensate for the destruction of the land, and the homes of its wildlife, Russia created an Ornithological Park, and planted 1.5 million new trees – three for every one that was cut down in the Sochi National Park, to make way for Olympic sites. Gazaryan says that much of the planting programme had been “pointless.” “The planting could never substitute for the loss of established forest, which is a complex ecosystem,” says Gazaryan. “[T]hese are ecosystems, not a Lego set that you can take apart and then rebuild somewhere else.”
“It’s a profanation,” said Vladimir Zubakin, president of the Russian Bird Union (RBUC), of the human made park. The wetlands were a paradise for up to 65 species of birds, but now the former wetlands lie buried under two metres (6.5 feet) of crushed rock. “They have been lost to the Olympic steamroller,” said Zubakin. “They say it looks pretty now, but birds actually prefer mud.”
As many conservationists will agree, it is a disgrace to create this magnitude of environmental degradation just to put on a spectacle that only lasts two weeks. Humans continue to destroy the planet mindlessly for the sake of profit and glory, even when there is no guarantee of either.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons: courtesy of Olympstroy.