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Dmitry Lisitsyn fought to protect Sakhalin Island’s critical endangered ecosystems while also demanding safety measures from one of the world’s largest petroleum development projects.
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On a remote island off Russia’s far eastern shore, the once-pristine natural environment has become a veritable “wild west,” with government interests and multinational corporations bulldozing and drilling to exploit the area’s extensive petroleum resources. Sakhalin Island boasts some of the world’s greatest marine biodiversity including a critical breeding area for endangered Western Pacific Gray whales and the Pacific Ocean’s most productive salmon spawning grounds. But the discovery of vast oil and gas reserves has led to rapid industrialization and new infrastructure allowing access to remote areas of the island. In turn, logging companies began rapidly extracting timber resources, and salmon poaching increased exponentially, likely a result of poachers’ ties to organized crime trading in high-priced salmon caviar.
In the early 1990s, two major petroleum projects were initiated on the island: Sakhalin I, led by Exxon, and Sakhalin II, managed by Sakhalin Energy, a consortium consisting of Royal Dutch Shell, Mitsui, Mitsubishi and other oil companies. With nine distinct projects planned or underway in the area, Sakhalin Island has attracted the most significant foreign investment in Russia, accounting for more than US$100 billion for Sakhalin I and II alone. Sakhalin II includes three off-shore oil and gas terminals, 480 miles of sub-sea pipelines, a processing plant, 1,300 miles of onshore pipelines and Russia’s first liquefied natural gas plant. To date, only Sakhalin I and II are in the exploitation phase. The remaining seven projects are in varying stages of development and some are frozen in negotiations for the time being. Still, the combined development on Sakhalin Island represents the world’s largest integrated oil and gas project.
Dmitry Lisitsyn grew up in a small Siberian village near the Angara River and surrounded by taiga forest. In school, he learned about the environmental devastation happening in other parts of the world and was deeply affected. He wanted to do something to help protect the environment, but saw little opportunity for political action in the totalitarian system then controlling daily life in the Soviet Union.
Lisitsyn moved to Sakhalin Island in 1989, and his first few years on the island were difficult as he struggled to make ends meet working as a carpenter during the economic crisis leading up to the fall of the Soviet government in 1991. He was starting a family at this time, and the extraordinary natural beauty and diversity of the island provided a source of solace and peace. During this time, fundamental changes were taking hold in Russia; democracy, civil liberty, and political reform became a reality. Like many Russians, Lisitsyn felt a sense of possibility for the future. He continued to feel strongly about protecting the environment, but didn’t quite believe that regular people like him could make a difference. However, a chance meeting with British environmental leader Emma Wilson opened a new door for him. She explained how civil society operated in other democracies and how dedicated activists organized local movements. In 1996, she founded Sakhalin Environment Watch, and Lisitsyn joined as a volunteer. A year later, Wilson moved back to the UK and Lisitsyn began leading the organization.
Over the past 15 years, Lisitsyn and Sakhalin Environment Watch have emerged as the region’s foremost defenders of the environment. Since the start of the Sakhalin Energy project, Lisitsyn has been the development’s watchdog, successfully lobbying for stricter regulations, cleanup of toxic sludge and the discontinuation of waste-dumping in the ocean. His efforts have not focused on halting the project, but on making certain that existing regulations and restrictions are implemented and enforced. By forging relationships with indigenous villagers, fishermen, scientists, government officials and Sakhalin Energy industry leaders, Lisitsyn has negotiated a stop to destructive practices.
Based on information provided by Lisitsyn and his colleagues, the IUCN Western Pacific Gray Whale Advisory Panel successfully urged oil and gas companies to implement a moratorium on seismic testing activities in the summer of 2009 until the health of endangered whale populations could be determined. Seismic testing for 2010 took place early in the year, prior to the arrival of the whales.
In 2010, due to Lisitsyn’s efforts, Sakhalin Energy was required to comply with stricter erosion protection and safety measures regarding the Sakhalin II pipeline construction. Lisitsyn had spent weeks walking the pipeline route, taking photographs of potentially dangerous damage to the structure and reporting his findings to the authorities and Sakhalin Energy.
These successes came on the heels of several other victories achieved by Lisitsyn: discontinuation of waste dumping in the Sea of Okhotsk by Shell and Exxon; more rights and benefits for the island’s indigenous communities; and the cancellation of Shell’s plans to construct pipelines across key feeding grounds of Western Pacific Gray whales.
Lisitsyn also campaigned to create the Vostochny Wildlife Refuge on Sakhalin Island, which has led to the protection of nearly 67,000 hectares of ancient forest, salmon spawning grounds and the adjacent marine area. He spent four years lobbying public officials and organizing the indigenous villagers and local communities who opposed commercial fishing in the refuge. In 2007, the Vostochny Wildlife Refuge was permanently protected, and in 2009, the regional government appointed rangers to guard the reserve. Lisitsyn and his colleagues have since established a sustainable partnership between local people, responsible state agencies, the local fishing association and NGOs in order to protect Sakhalin.
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