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Environment loses out in Russia’s race to Sochi Olympics

SOCHI, Russia (AFP) ― Just outside the Olympic Park in Sochi, where the Winter Games open on Friday, is a green space with benches, artificial ponds and a couple of hides. “Ornithological Park,” the sign declares.

The problem is that there is not a bird in sight in the park, which was set up as a replacement for sensitive wetlands that were covered over for the construction of Games venues.

“It’s a profanation,” said Vladimir Zubakin, president of the Russian Bird Union, of the so-called park.

Criss-crossed by disused irrigation canals, the wetlands were a paradise for up to 65 species of birds including vulnerable Dalmatian pelicans that migrated here for the winter.

Today, the former wetlands lie buried under two meters of crushed rock, used to strengthen the spongy ground for the vast Olympic project championed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“They have been lost to the Olympic steamroller,” said Zubakin. “They say it looks pretty now, but birds actually prefer mud.”

A year ago, Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the organizing committee for Russia’s Winter Olympics, made a proud boast that the games would be “green” and even improve Sochi’s environment.

“We are delivering the green games … (and) dramatically enhancing the environmental situation,” Chernyshenko said. “This is new to our country. This is the first step to demonstrate that you can build an environment in harmony with nature.”

However many environmentalists bitterly reject such talk, bemoaning wrecked habitat, destroyed wildlife populations and bungled attempts to remedy the consequences of a massive program to ready Sochi for Friday’s opening ceremony.

Olympstroi, the state corporation overseeing the Olympic construction program, acknowledges that the work has affected a massive area of Sochi National Park ― 3,500 hectares in all ― but insists that every effort has been made to avoid damage to the environment.

Gleb Vatletsov, head of the company’s environmental department, said some proposed venues were ruled out, and some rare species were moved away from certain ski sites.

In addition to setting up the Ornithological Park, Olympic contractors 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.

“It was a huge task … we are not ashamed to talk about it,” Vatletsov told AFP.

Zoologist Suren Gazaryan, a member of a regional green group, Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, said much of the planting program had been “pointless.”

The planting could never substitute for the loss of established forest, which is a complex ecosystem, Gazaryan said.

“If they planted a forest in an open field of a 1,000 hectares, then yes, it could theoretically be adequate,” he said.

“But in any case, these are ecosystems, not a Lego set that you take apart and then rebuild somewhere else.”

Many plantings were done “by unqualified employees with large-scale violations” of methodology, the environment ministry watchdog said in a court decision last year, adding that tens of thousands of rare trees that were planted as compensation were “irreparably lost.”

Moreover, certain reptiles and brown bears are no longer present in the area around the mountain venues, according to official reports by Sochi National Park.

Another hotly contested issue is the fate of the Mzymta, Sochi’s largest river, which flows from a lake in a Caucasus reserve down to the Black Sea.

A road and a railway were built along its undeveloped left bank, connecting Sochi’s airport with Olympic skiing venues upstream.

Of the damage done to Sochi’s wilderness, “the river is the biggest shame,” said Igor Chestin, head of WWF in Russia.