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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop HIGHLIGHTS OF PRESENTATIONS G.E.Schweitzer National Research Council The list of organizations represented at this workshop provides a good overview of the types of environmental NGOs that are active in Russia and the United States. There are of course hundreds of others with special interests and unique approaches—at both the national and local levels. But in general, advocacy, analytical, and educational NGOs have been well represented. At the same time, the concept of NGOs is somewhat different in the two countries. An American environmental NGO is usually perceived as an organization established specifically to contribute to environmental improvement at the national or local level, or both. Professional societies (e.g., the American Chemical Society), nongovernmental laboratories supported by the federal government (e.g., Oak Ridge National Laboratory), and departments of universities, for example, are not usually considered to be environmental NGOs, even though Russian specialists might consider them to be an important form of NGOs. In Russia there is a long history of many types of organizations outside the formal governmental structure participating in environmental protection activities that today are considered to be environmental NGOs. They include, for example, coordinating councils established by regional governments with common environmental interests, institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences, government-sponsored citizen organizations, museums with environmental outreach programs, and societies that promote ecology programs for students. During the past decade, hundreds of western-style environmental NGOs have been established in Russia, many with strong international ties to western NGOs. Greenpeace is probably the leading example of this trend. Several speakers have noted, however, that some of the new Russian NGOs, with far
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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop less stature than Greenpeace, are primarily interested not in championing environmental causes, but rather in serving as a vehicle for expressing dissent with broader governmental policies and in becoming conduits for western grants. Still, many new Russian NGOs are very vigorous advocates of greater attention to environmental concerns amidst the economic collapse in the country, and they certainly have carved out a permanent niche on the Russian landscape. Some environmental NGOs in both countries are devoted to ensuring that decisions and policies taken by government, including the enforcement of environmental regulations, are in the best interests of the public. They use direct communications with governments, the power of the mass media, and the judicial system to achieve this goal. Others have assumed responsibilities not adequately handled by government agencies, such as packaging government information and data in a form that is understandable to both specialists and the public and in developing additional data relevant to governmental decisions. Others serve as rallying points for voices of the people or provide meeting grounds for polluters, the public, and government. Others direct their energies to education and training of both professionals and the public—offering courses, preparing educational literature, and generally supplementing activities of educational institutions by sharing experiences, developing new analytical techniques, and applying new methodological approaches. Still others serve as coordinating centers for governmental authorities and specialists from different regions of the country with common interests. Then there are hybrid organizations that assume several of these tasks and additional responsibilities as well. The workshop addressed many environmental issues, with heavy reliance on case studies; and the discussions of immediate environmental problems placed the consideration of NGOs into a meaningful perspective. In the aggregate, NGOs are interested in all aspects of environmental protection. At the same time, several differences in the agendas of NGOs in Russia and the United States seemed apparent. Of course, the differences expressed at the workshop were somewhat influenced by the individual interests of the participants. The Russian emphasis on protection of forests and on the impacts of large-area radioactive contamination was understandable. The economic crisis has led to a deterioration of the technical and administrative capabilities to control pollution with the result that particulate and other common pollutants are of greater concern in Russia than in the United States. Also, solid waste disposal is a serious problem in Russia, where segregation of wastes, recycling of wastes, and establishment of adequate landfills lag behind efforts in the United States. The U.S. effort, on the other hand, has increasingly focused on human health impacts of pollution. Control of toxic effluents and emissions is a high priority with risk assessment being an area of intensive development. Also, the
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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop United States is able to devote more resources to investigation and protection of biodiversity; and global environmental issues also receive increasing priority. In both countries, scientific research plays an important role in the work of NGOs. Many Russian presentations were by specialists of the institutes and centers of the Russian Academy of Sciences, clearly an important resource for NGOs. In the United States, many NGOs now have internal scientific capabilities, which enhances their credibility in dealing with government agencies. In both countries, solid scientific data are important in convincing the government agencies, the legislative bodies, and the public to give greater priority to environmental concerns. Turning to education and training, Russia has an impressive array of programs at both the high school and university levels. However, a recent law rescinds the long-standing requirement that an ecology component must be included in the mandatory-core high school curricula, leaving the decision on this matter up to local authorities when they prescribe the optional aspects of the curricula. Several universities have adopted “sustainable development” as a theme, and a number of NGOs work with the universities in this field. It is important that “sustainable” development not become “no” development, and the importance of economics in the work of the NGOs was recognized. One example of the tight linkage between NGOs and students is in the city of Tomsk, where students provide much of the core of the NGO movement. The internet was repeatedly cited as an important tool for the NGOs. U.S. government agencies increasingly use the internet to disseminate important information related to their decisions; and this trend has been of considerable importance for NGOs. The role of e-mail in tightening the linkages among NGOs with common agendas is clear; but there are many uncertainties as to the environmental data that are disseminated on the internet, given the absence of good quality control mechanisms. Nevertheless, in the years ahead, internet communications and data transfer will be central to the activities of many NGOs. Several questions were not completely answered during the workshop, and they should help provide a framework for more focused workshops on the role of environmental NGOs that could be organized in the future. What additional steps can the Russian Government take to facilitate the work of NGOs? The pending legislation to update the basic environment protection law addresses the role of NGOs, but will additional amendments be necessary? As the Ministry of Natural Resources absorbs its new responsibilities for protection of the environment and protection of forests, how will it ensure that NGOs continue to have access to governmental decision-making, how will it disseminate information to NGOs, and how will it support NGO activities at the local level?
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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop Given the economic crisis, should Russian NGOs emphasize cooperation or confrontation with government agencies and with the polluters? Is the judicial system sufficiently responsive to environmental concerns encapsulated in law suits to warrant greater efforts in the field of litigation—at the national and local levels? Are the councils supported by regional governments in the Urals and in Siberia useful models for replication in other areas? How can the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Atomic Energy be encouraged to pay more attention to NGOs? What are the characteristics of successful NGOs? Is support by western grants an asset or a liability? Can the Russian Academy of Sciences’ new committee on cooperation with environmental NGOs facilitate cooperation among the scientific community and environmental organizations in a manner that enhances the credibility and the impact of these organizations?
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