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From: "Brendan Luecke" <bjluecke@hotmail.com>
Subject: Great Baikal Trail
Date: Thu, 16 Jun 2005

The Business of Conservation: The Great Baikal Trail
By Brendan Luecke
Brendan Luecke previously studied the Lake Baikal environmental movement as a Fulbright scholar in Irkutsk and is currently working as a volunteer at The Great Baikal Trail in Irkutsk.

The environmental movement surrounding Lake Baikal has long been frustrated by an indifferent business community and a local government which has largely ignored, if not complicated, preservation efforts. Likewise, the Russian legal system has offered little recourse, leading most local NGOs to seek political and often financial support for their efforts in the world community. Despite concerted efforts, the movement can hardly be considered a success. 2003 was the worst year in over a century for forest fires in the Irkutsk region, and the local forest service was overwhelmed and underfunded. The Baikal World Heritage site, created in 1997, has yet to find adequate protection in Russian legislation, or even have all its borders confirmed by the Russian government. Most recently, the World Bank withdrew financing for the "reprofiling" of the Baikal Paper and Pulp Plant because Continental Management, the company running the plant, had failed to make significant process towards completing the work being financed. And topping the list of troubles, perennial plans to construct oil pipelines through the Baikal watershed are a veritable sword of Damocles -- a constant threat to the lake's ecological future.

However, recently a small group of NGOs, backed up by a much larger group of volunteers, has found a way to circumvent both industry's and government's apathy towards what they see as "unprofitable and impractical" environmentalism. The Great Baikal Trail Association, in conjunction with regional national parks and wildlife reserves, land owners, and the local tourism industry is building an expansive trail system around the lake to make Baikal's natural treasures accessible to tourists and residents alike and spur the development of a local economy based on ecotourism. If all goes as planned, the development of ecotourism will create a strong economic incentive for local residents and government authorities to resist the industrial development that threatens the lake, to better manage the region's natural areas, and to finally address long-standing threats to the lake's health.

The idea of a circum-Baikal trail system has been around for years, but the first steps towards its realization were only taken recently. The project was the brainchild of Andrei Suknev, Director of the Baikal Federation for Sport Tourism, Ariadna Reida, who are currently the co-directors of the Great Baikal Trail Association (GBTA). Currently, GBTA works closely with Earth Island Institute in the US, as well as the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, Earth Corps, and numerous local and overseas NGOs, national parks and wildlife reserves, and local government agencies.

Work began in 2003 with seven pilot trail-building projects around the lake; the program grew to 14 projects in 2004, and 30 will be completed this summer. In 2004 alone, 145 km. of trail were built or repaired, with a much larger volume of work expected this summer. However, even at this pace, it will take decades to complete the 2000 km. needed to encircle the lake. The vast majority of labor is provided by volunteers. In 2004, 345 volunteers, 120 of whom were foreigners, came to relax on Baikal, enjoy socializing in an international atmosphere, and contribute to a good cause. Roughly 500 are anticipated this summer.

Initially, the project attracted little interest from the regional administrations or national parks and wildlife reserves, though it was well received by the tourism industry and municipal governments. However, over the past three years the idea has gained support rapidly. In 2003, the first joint project was completed with Zabaikalskiy National Park. Since then cooperation has expanded to included roughly a dozen joint projects this summer in nearly every protected natural territory around the lake. The oblast administrations have been warming to the idea as well, offering some limited support. This summer, for the first time, GBTA has carried out a joint project with the private sector. Baikalinfo.ru, a prominent Baikal area travel agency, sponsored one project and plans to support more projects next year.The only major criticism of the project has been that the trail system will inevitably impact protected wilderness areas. This is certainly a valid point, but seems rather trifling when the environmental community has spent the past five years trying to keep oil and gas pipelines away from the lake and the national park system has been in a budget crisis for the past decade.

Until now, GBTA has received generous funding from the Foundation for Russian-American Economic Cooperation, US AID, the Trust for Mutual Understanding and various other sources. However, as overseas aid is limited, and grants are not indefinitely renewable, GBTA hopes to cover its operating costs with revenues from ecotours, private donations, and through partnerships with the tourism industry. Aside from financial concerns and the inevitable conflict between wilderness and trails, administrative challenges from rapid growth and a real-estate boom on Baikal, which could threaten public access to trail routes, are the only clouds on the horizon.

In the opinion of this author, the emergence of the Great Baikal Trail has the potential to become a turning point for the Baikal environmental movement. Environmentalism on Baikal has its roots in a well-deserved romanticism towards the lake and basic NIMBY, or rather NOBE (Not On Baikal Ever), rallying cry. The movement first flowered in the late 50's and 60's when an overt protest movement emerged against plans to build the Baikal Paper and Pulp Plant. When the plant was completed, the environmental movement battled to close it, and more recently some members grudgingly settled for reprofiling. The most visible environmental NGOs in the region, Baikal Wave, Dauria, and the Buryatian Union for Baikal, of Irkutsk, Chita, and Ulan-Ude, respectively, have all continued this tradition, playing the crucial role of watchdog organizations for everything from illegal logging to ill-planned oil pipelines. While there have certainly been many excellent projects by these and numerous other organizations in many areas ranging from environmental education to the creation of a new national park (Alkhanay National Park was created through a partnership between Dauria and the Chita oblast administration), the overall movement is seen as anti-development by the wider public. This has not only deprived them of the support of many local residents, most of whom are seeking to raise their standard of living through economic development, but has even lent support to the unlikely accusation that environmental NGOs are "green spies" seeking to sabotage Russian economic development in exchange for grant money from Western governments.

The Great Baikal Trail Association is the first organization dedicated to protecting Lake Baikal through development. While ecotourism certainly has its drawbacks, and perhaps shouldn't be permitted in some areas, it can provide food, clothes, and education for the local population. Most importantly, it creates an economic incentive for locals to protect the lake. Instead of selling lumber on the black market or seeking contract work on a pipeline project, they'll be selling Baikal's natural beauty, a business far more attuned to environmental concerns and long-term economic development the natural resource extraction that currently dominates the economy. Similar schemes have been used with varying success everywhere from Kenya to Costa Rica, and while ecotourism is by no means a panacea, there are many reasons to believe it may be an effective approach to development and conservation on Baikal.

Environmental morals have been evoked as an argument for saving Baikal for decades, but making money, cynical though it may be, for many is a much better one. By finding the common ground between economics and environment, GBTA may have found a winning formula that could become a powerful engine for positive change on Baikal. Hopefully this model can be adopted by others in the movement, who will then not only continue to bring attention to activities threatening the lake, but also develop environmentally friendly and profitable economic alternatives. Indeed, considering the corruption and legal vacuum that have hamstrung many conservation efforts to date, this may be the most realistic way to save the "Pearl of Siberia."

If you have comments regarding this article, would like more information about the Great Baikal Trail, or are interested in participating in a project, please contact Brendan Luecke at bjluecke@hotmail.com.