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2011 Prize: Q&A with Dmitry Lisitsyn

May 4, 2011

Dmitry Lisitsyn is fighting to protect Sakhalin Island’s critical endangered ecosystems while also demanding safety measures from one of the world’s largest petroleum development projects. Learn more about his work in the Q&A below.

Q. What first brought you to Sakhalin Island and what made you stay?

A. My wife and I moved to Sakhalin Island in spring 1989 for what was to be a temporary stay. Then difficult times started in Russia, the market changes happened. We had a new baby and it was a difficult time to start a family. The most helpful thing at the time was the beautiful nature of the island – the forest and the sea. Then when we had opportunity to move back I didn’t want to. There are some people that move to Sakhalin Island intending to only stay briefly but end up staying forever and I am one of them.

Q. When did you first perceive threats to the island’s ecosystem and what inspired you to take action against these threats?

A. Since the very beginning – since when we first arrived in the wild forest. At the time, industry was already very developed; it was everywhere and it was obvious that the impact on the forest and wild salmon habitat was very bad. The oil industry didn’t have as much of a presence, though, since this was before the Sakhalin Energy project.

Q. Why have you not attempted to stop the Sakhalin Energy project altogether?

A. I haven’t always collaborated with oil companies and government. Sometimes we are in different positions. But it’s very stupid to be in opposition with the world if nobody supports you – you won’t be able to do anything. Especially in a place where the government and industry control the media.

Our model is to achieve real improvements. One strategy was total opposition and the other was to support good development and oppose bad development. Had we chosen the first strategy we would have achieved nothing. But we have achieved a lot. Oil is a major economic development for my country. I have to think about the economic benefits for my family and country.

It’s a complex system – sometimes we have a great relationship and other times we go to war. We’ve strongly criticized Shell at the planning stage before the development started since it is important to make the right decisions in the construction of a project.

Q. With so many powerful players involved in the Sakhalin Energy project and speculation that the Russian mafia has a role in salmon poaching, have you ever felt personally threatened?

A. The threat always exists but, like with any threat, like the threat of getting hit by a car when crossing the street, you can minimize it if you follow the rules. One important rule is if you pressure one company you increase the risks, but if you pressure an industry it’s easier. You have to be prepared and be fair. All your demands and your pressure have to be based on reliable evidence. You have to think about the economic issues and have to be smart in your work.

Q. What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment? What is your long-term goal in regards to your work?

A.The main achievement was the protection of the Vostochny Wildlife Refuge which protects the two rivers and the forests. When we won people couldn’t believe it – the companies had a legal right to cut the forest – they had a license from the government but we got them to stop it. We started the campaign in 1997. Since then different businesses like the fishing companies tried to enter the area. We pushed and created a natural reserve there and we protected the area from poachers.

Learn more about Dmitry and donate to his organization’s work.

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