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War has Ukrainian environmentalists working overtime

The bombing of Mariupol, Ukraine. Photo: Mvs.gov.ua
The bombing of Mariupol, Ukraine. Photo: Mvs.gov.ua

Опубликовано: 12/05/2024

Автор: Viktoria Hubareva

The war in Ukraine has put many things on hold. But in this feature for Bellona’s Environment & Rights magazine, Viktoria Hubareva, a Kyiv-based journalist and ecologist, shows that Ukrainian environmentalists have their hands full

As Russian’s invasion of Ukraine grinds on, we must bear in mind that environmental safety is part of national security. Even during wartime, Ukraine’s green movements continue to keep environmental issues relevant. Grassroots organizations are developing methodologies to document environmental damage caused by military actions. They collaborate with — and argue with — the government, participating in decision making that affects our common world.

Thanks to the green movement, legal proceedings on the protection of nature reserves continue during the war. Reforms implemented by Ukraine within the framework of European integration are supported by environmental organizations. Their broad efforts focus on documenting the destruction of and damage to natural ecosystems, rescuing animals from combat zones, evacuating people, and sometimes providing material support to employees of nature reserves who have escaped occupied territories.

Cooperation between environmental organizations and the government

The most prominent example of cooperation between human rights activists and the government is the activity of the public organization “Ecology. Law. People” (ELP). Their mission is to protect the human right to a clean environment. Recently, the organization has been involved in reforms to the environmental control system. At the international forum “United for Nature. Agenda for Ukraine,” ELP’s executive director Elena Kravchenko, with the head of Ukraine’s State Environmental Inspection, jointly presented their vision for reforming the state environmental control system in Ukraine.

Vokzalna Street of Bucha (Kyiv Oblast of Ukraine) where a Russian military column was destroyed on February 27,2022. Credit: Ukrinform TV / Ukrainian Armed Forces 

At the same time, the organization continues its regular activities related to its main goals. In 2023, ELP continued to represent the interests of residents and public organizations in ongoing court proceedings, provided legal assistance to citizens who had previously contacted ELP, as well as to those who raised issues of environmental problems in areas where shelling was less intense.

ELP also pioneered advanced methods for monitoring air quality during artillery shelling. The method involves launching a drone equipped with sensors to measure the amount of dust, heavy metals, and other indicators. The testing phase in fall of 2023 exposed some problems, but the mere fact of exploring such technology already indicates the organization’s deep integration into the process of documenting ecocide.

When the government and environmental groups aren’t on the same page

Soon after the catastrophe at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in Eastern Ukraine, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers decided totally restore it, provoking outrage among environmentalists, scientists, and the public in general. To provide a deeper understanding of the context of the hydroelectric power plant’s restoration, one must note that the construction of the reservoir over 70 years ago involved flooding historically significant territories of Ukraine and displacing local residents. The public is likewise afraid a new dam could be targeted by terrorism, repeating the catastrophe.

Nevertheless, without conducting the mandatory environmental impact assessment required by Ukrainian legislation, the decision was made to restore the whole dam after the war ends. To oppose this, 14 Ukrainian environmental organizations formed a coalition calling on the government to abandon the risky and premature decision. The desired result has not been achieved yet, and the dam project is currently frozen. No work can proceed until the eastern bank of the Dnieper River is liberated.

Pre-war priorities are still important

Ukrainian Human rights organizations continue to monitor government procurements, projects, as well as the implementation of new regulatory act impacting natural resources.

For instance, a suit brought by environmentalists of the Free Svydovets coalition group, which works to preserve the Svydovets mountain range — one of the most beautiful places in the Carpathians — has been ongoing since 2016. Many environmental groups are also focused on the case of resort construction in areas that are still not designated as nature reserve objects but nonetheless meet those requirements. It is thanks to the extensive information campaigns of Free Svydovets that petitions in favor of protecting the mountain range receive thousands of signatures.

The Svydovets, Mountain Range. Credit: Daniel Baránek

It was thus in the spring of 2023 that a petition defending the Svydovets range quickly garnered 25,000 signatures. The petition contained two requests – to protect Svydovets and to prevent the construction of enormous resorts. The public’s concern about such issues reflects the colossal effort of environmental organizations, as well as the fact that even during wartime, environmental issues are not irrelevant.

Volunteer Activities and working with donations

Ecologists from the public organization “Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group” (UNCG) monitor logging in forestry areas, bringing activities that violate legislation to public attention. In 2023, UNCG managed to enforce norms regarding the creation of protected zones for endangered species.

Ukrainian human rights organizations also play a significant role in supporting Ukraine’s nature reserve fund, even parts of it that are those occupation. An illustrative example is the case of the Askania-Nova nature reserve, which was occupied in the early days of the full-scale invasion.

Despite the occupation, both as an administrative unit and as a team, the reserve managed to survive in the “Ukrainian format” for over a year of occupation, even though state funding for the occupied reserve was inaccessible. Purchasing food for the zoo animals, fuel for machinery, spare parts, and meeting other necessary needs of the reserve were possible thanks to the support of UNCG, which, together with other organizations, collected donations and found ways to transfer funds to Askania-Nova.

Even now, with Russians temporarily establishing their own administration in the reserve, UNCG continues to support employees who have relocated to territories controlled by Ukraine, paying their salaries. The group meanwhile continues its regular activities — monitoring environmental violations, and documenting and reserving new territories for the creation of nature reserves.

Evacuating animals from combat zones

Since 2016, the organization UAnimals has been promoting the humane treatment of animals and protecting them from exploitation and abuse. During this time, it has managed to ban circuses using animal in thirty cities in Ukraine and has achieved the adoption of several animal welfare laws. With the onset of full-scale war, all organization efforts are focused on rescuing animals from combat zones. This includes not only domestic cats and dogs but also wild animals and birds with injuries, animals from zoos, nurseries, and livestock. Over two years war, about 3,500 animals have been evacuated from combat zones, with approximately 400 of them finding new homes.

An environmentalist with UAninimals evacuating a dog from a combat area. Credit: UAnimals

Not long ago, UAnimals demonstrated that organizations can respond quickly to new challenges. At the end of last year, during an air raid alert, several children were prevented from entering a bomb shelters in Kyiv because they had a dog with them, all due to a legislative restriction on animals in shelters. The situation provoked public outcry, and less than a month later, changes were made to the relevant order. Now, pets are allowed in shelters — all thanks to the quick response of UAnimals, which submitted proposals resulting in more humane legislation.

Green Recovery —  a New Milestone in the Activities of Environmentalists

While the attention of some is focused on urgent tasks —satellite monitoring of fires or rescuing animals — the attention of others looks toward the future of Ukraine. Since the second half of 2023, many have been talking about recovery after victory. The  Ekodeya, or EcoAction Center for Environmental Initiatives puts considerable effort into combating climate change and, last year, joined the largest European climate network, CAN Europe.

EcoAction’s vision of Ukraine’s green future involves abandoning fossil fuels, creating new points of economic growth in Ukraine’s mining cities, implementing energy efficiency principles in the restoration of old housing and construction of new housing, and increasing the share of renewable energy sources in Ukraine’s energy system.

Collaboration between environmental organizations and the media also plays a significant role. After the publication of a short article about fires on Dzharylgach Island, a criminal case for violating the laws and customs of war was opened by the Kherson Regional Prosecutor’s Office. It was the ecologists who first informed journalists about the fires in the Dzharylgach National Nature Park.

In Ukraine, environmental NGOs have not tempered their activities since the start of the war, but rather the opposite. The environmental challenges preceding the full-scale war didn’t just disappear with its onset; instead, there is now a need to document the consequences of combat, implement reforms, and create conditions for sustainable, nature-friendly, green recovery.

Viktoria Hubareva writes for the Ukrainian online news magazine Rubrika and is serving as an expert with the Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Work Group. This article originally appeared in Russian in Environment & Rights Magazine.