2014 Winter Olympics will destroy wildlife sites of international importance

March 13, 2007 9:55 | by Àndrey Rudomakha

The most environmentally unfriendly Olympic Games in the whole Olympic history are planned for 2014 in Sochi (Russia, Krasnodar Territory). Most of the Sochi Olympic venues are to be constructed on the territory of the Sochi National Park and in the buffer zone of

the Caucasus Reserve and this will result in destruction of valuable natural complexes of world-wide importance.

However, the rest of the Olympic infrastructure, which is not on the territory of the Sochi National Park, also poses a threat to biodiversity. Many of the Olympic facilities are planned for the Black Sea coast in Imeretinskaya Lowland, which is also a very valuable natural area.

On October 9th, 2006, Alexander Tkachev, the Governor of the Krasnodar Territory, handed to the President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Rene Fasel the Certificate confirming the allocation of the land for construction of the Grand Ice Hockey Arena for the Winter Olympic Games-2014. The ceremony was held in Imeretinskaya Lowland where it is planned to construct the Grand Ice Hockey Arena. This event marked the beginning of large-scale "Olympic" intrusion into the ecosystem of this natural area.

According to the Federal Target Program "Development of Sochi as mountain-climatic resort (2006-2014)" approved by the Government of the Russian Federation (RF), in addition to the Grand Ice Hockey Arena, the following projects will be constructed in Imeretinskaya Lowland

- Olympic Stadium (capacity 40,000 seats)

- Olympic Skating Centre (12,000 seats)

- Speed Skating Arena (8,000 seats)

- Small Ice Hockey Arena, (7,000 seats)

- Main Olympic Village (3,000 guests);

- Curling Arena (3,000 seats).

As a result, the Winter Olympics-2014 infrastructure will be concentrated in the areas of Krasnaya Polyana Settlement and Imeretinskaya Lowland. Additionally, in order to provide the Olympics with electricity, the Adler thermal power plant is to be constructed in the Lowland. This will also contribute to the pollution of the resort's environment. The construction and operation of the Olympic venues and infrastructure will result in the final transformation of the unique ecosystems of Imeretinskaya Lowland.

Imeretinskaya Lowland is situated between two rivers, the Psou and the Ìzymta. This natural area is the only Colchis (Kolkheti) lowlands and marshes landscape in Russia. These are extremely important wetlands, the conservation of which has not only federal, but also international significance. The special geomorphologic and climatic conditions of Imeretinskaya Lowland was a basis for the formation of unique biological diversity on its territory. Its biodiversity includes birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. It is unique. It includes the only known habitats in Russia of the Kolkheti marsh tortoise (Emys orbicularis

colchica) and Italian scorpion (Euscorpius italicus). The habitats of other rare animal species such as the Large-Headed Water Snake (Natrix megalocephala), Caucasian Toad (Bufo verrucosissimus), and Common Tree Frog (Hyla arborea schelkownikowi) are also situated

in the Lowland. Approximately 200 bird species, including many which are rare and protected (such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature "Red List" - i.e. endangered - species, the Great Bustard (Otis tarda), Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis), and Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) inhabit this territory. It is located on the bird's migration paths and a large number of birds overwinter in the area. As well as the great significance of Imeretinskaya Lowland for the birds' protection, it has the status of "Important Bird Area of international importance"

Apartucularly important rare plant species of the Lowland is the Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), which does not grow anywhere else in Russia. Such rare species as Swamp Sawgrass (Cladium martii) and Sea Daffodil (Pancratium maritimum) also grow here. The unique coastal vegetation of the Lowland, which includes almost 30% of Mediterranean species, is of particular importance. Other rare species such as the Giant Reed (Arundo donax), Yellow Horned Poppy (Glaucium flavum), Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum), Sea Kale (Crambe maritime), Cogongrass (Imperata cylindrical) and others can also be found there.

This variety of species represents, unfortunately, only a small part of the former biological diversity of the Imeretinskaya Lowland. At the end of the XIX century the Lowland was covered by pristine subtropical woodlands, growing among marshes and lakes. Marshy alder woods surrounded by stands of ash trees prevailed in the Lowland. Many oak, yew and box trees grew here. The Lowland became world famous as a result of the discovery of thousand year-old specimens of the Royal Fern. It represented a paradise for fauna.

At the same time, however, the mass invasion of Imeretinskaya Lowland was beginning. The forests were cut down, the marshes were drained, and the virgin coastal sites were


It seems that there is no any other site in Russia for which the scientists and community have struggled for so long a time. The well-known Russian botanist and geographer Nikolay Kuznetsov was the first to write about the uniqueness of landscapes of the

Imeretinskaya Lowland, as long ago as 1891. Many other scientists have since pointed out the necessity of wildlife conservation in the Lowland, and in 1911 Imeretinskaya Lowland was declared as a natural monument.

Unfortunately, the protected area status of The Lowland was subsequently lost and its territory continued to be exposed to intensive economic development. The especially intensive intrusion into ecosystems of Lowland began in the second half of the last century, and the result was that the vast sites of Imeretinskaya Lowland were almost completely transformed.

The scientists of the Sochi Branch of the Russian Geographical Society have made huge efforts to preserve the unique nature of Imeretinskaya Lowland. In 1994 they launched a detailed study of its territory, confirming the necessity of giving the status of Natural Monument to 15 sites within it. However, the Sochi and Krasnodar Territory authorities did not support these efforts. The establishment of the natural monuments did not seem necessary to them. The development of the Lowland territory continued.

A second study conducted ten years later revealed that only three sites were left that urgently required preservation. On the initiative of Russian Bird Conservation Union, a new study was carried out a few years ago in Imeretinskaya Lowland. This showed

the need to create a wildlife reserve (zakaznik), but nothing changed.

Imeretinskaya Lowland must be preserved! It is necessary to give the status of "specially protected area" to the still existing valuable sites. Restoration of natural ecosystems on many sites, which have been disturbed by economic activities, is still possible. The scientists of the Sochi Branch of the Russian Geographical Society are ready to implement the restoration in every possible way, including through reintroduction of the many rare species considered to be lost.

The international environmental and scientific community is concerned about the preservation of the biological diversity of the Caucasus ecoregion and the valuable natural coastal areas of the Black Sea region. Yet instead of preservation the Russian government plans to develop the territory of Imeretinskaya Lowland, building for the Olympic Games. This would lead to the final destruction of these unique natural ecosystems.

The NGOs working on protection of the Imeretinskaya Lowland do not have much hope for their voices to be heard in Russia. Unfortunately, their opinion, opposing the general line "to carry out the Olympics at any price", is ignored. The main hope of the NGO

community is to be heard by the international sports organizations. Environmentalists and scientists cannot believe that the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation would wish to hold Olympic competitions on the ruins of the natural ecosystems of Imeretinskaya Lowland.

This article was adapted from a longer piece written by Àndrey Rudomakha of Environmental Watch on North Caucasus. It was translated by Andrey SURKOV