During my visit to Russia last autumn, my Greenpeace colleagues from Moscow organized a small field trip to the far north. Our destination was the area around city of Usinsk in the republic of Komi - just about 50 kilometers south of the Polar Circle.
One thing that caught my eye already during the landing were the amazing autumn colours of the local taiga - vast forests around the Pechora River, and the blue gems of the lakes surrounding the river.
Unfortunately, our mission was not admire the beauty of local nature, but rather to document the devastating impacts that the oil industry has in these remote, pristine places. This is because Komi region is not only blessed with vast wilderness inhabited by the indigenous Komi people, but is also unfortunate to host significant deposits of oil. Most of them are being explored and exploited since 1970's, nowadays by Lukoil, the second largest Russian oil company.
I have read about some of the problems, particularly the oil spills, earlier, but now I got the opportunity to witness it directly - and literally - on the ground.
After a two hour flight from Moscow, we arrive at the tiny Usinsk airport. Several dozen other people travel along - most of them workers changing shifts - and we are already awaited by Roman and Volodya, as well as two local citizens from the Save the Pechora Committee: Yekaterina and Valeriy.
Without much waiting we hit the road - there is only few hours of daylight left and we want to make the best of it. Passing through the city of Usinsk, we are heading west.
Already in the van, we are being explained the situation. There are about 65 active drills in the area, with Lukoil alone producing 17 million tons of oil a year. The crude oil is transported in aging pipelines to local facilities for initial processing, and then further south to a major terminal in Ukhta.
The problem starts with the drills themselves, as they are routinely flaring the gases from the wells, releasing not just CO2 but also carcinogenic toxins in large quantities. Despite the fact that the Russian government promised to stop this practice already back in 2007, we were able to not only see the flames of dozens of flares along the road, but also smell their nasty odor in the air.
But what's far worse are the corroding pipelines. Hundreds of kilometers of them run buried under shallow dikes, and due to the hard environment, they often start leaking after less than two decades. However, the average age of the existing oil pipes in Russia is over 30 years. As a result, the oil has already been leaking at hundreds of locations just within the area we visited.
It does not take long before we arrive at a site of a large recent spill, just next to local storage tanks and two flaring chimneys. This spill has there been for about a year, left in the open. We are told that on the other side of the same pipeline, another leak occurred few years ago. It's impossible to see, because Lukoil had covered it with a thin layer of sand. When I step onto the sand plain, my rubber boots quickly sink into the black mud underneath and I have to quickly retreat. The leaked oil is still there. Obviously this method of dealing with the oil spill has only one effect - its keeps it out of sight. There is no actual clean up that would prevent a further spread of of the toxic oil into the soil and water.
We use the opportunity also to open a banner with a slogan saying "Don't flood me here", standing in solidarity with the indigenous herders of reindeers. It is these local communities that suffer most - from the ongoing air, soil and water pollution caused by the oil industry. The rate of cancer among them is on increase, and their livelihoods are literally being swamped in the crude oil, while they are barely heard by the authorities, let alone by the local oil industry.
Only thanks to the relentless campaigning, supported by the local activists from the Save the Pechora Committee and by Greenpeace, they managed to get at least some recognition. The enemy is however very powerful. Little has changed and the poorly maintained pipelines continue to spill oil all around.
Next we move to a spot of the largest oil spill in the Russia's history (so far). In October 1994, a pipeline here collapsed and released over 100,000 of tons of oil that swamped many hectares of surrounding land.
The whole area has been reportedly cleaned up, but even today - more than twenty years later - we can still see here and there ponds full of oil left behind.
It's getting darker, so we rush to another massive leak recently discovered by Valeriy and his friends.
Along the way we stop by another typical occurrence - pond of water mixed with oil. There is plenty of ponds and ditches like that along the road.
What we witness on the next destination is not a leak of crude oil, but of a chemical liquid that is being used to thin the heavy oil from the drills, in order so that it can flow more easily over the longer pipelines. Well it's not oil, but just another toxic chemical mix that spreads across many hectares of land here. At one place, we even spot five workers in the distance, apparently trying to do something about the leaking pipe. Given the vast area around that has been soaked and blackened by the toxic compound, their effort looks really pathetic.
We walk several hundred meters along the mess and spot another place where the pipe has been leaking. The hole in it was "fixed" by putting a simple collar around it.
Obviously, the usual way of operation here is to wait until the leak starts, then dig out that section of pipeline, patch it somehow, burry it again and continue business as usual.
The night falls quickly and we need to retreat. Valeriy is organizing a meeting with some more locals: they will wait us in our hotel tonight.
If you spot the rosy patches on the sky on the three photos above, don't be mistaken - it's not twilight from sun, these are reflections of the gas flares on the low laying clouds. Now that the sky got darker, we can actually see them in all directions.
On the way back, we learn from our colleagues that according to the estimations, about 30 million barrels of oil - that is about five million tons - leak onto land within the Russian Federation every year. So what we have seen is really just a tip of an iceberg. The scale of the untackled problem becomes even starker when we compare it with the infamous oil spill in the Mexico Gulf in 2010. At that time, about 5 million barrels of oil escaped. This means that here in Russia, in a routine operation of the oil industry, an equivalent of six Deepwater Horizon disasters happen every year! With close-to-none publicity and awareness even within the country itself.
The next day we have to get up very early morning, when it's still dark - well as much dark as it can get with the bright burning flares all around. We are heading to a remote village of Kushshor. It sits on an elevated bank of the Pechora River, and is only accessible via the river; no road whatsoever goes that far.
After about two hours of drive on a bumpy road from Usinsk, we reach a village of Ust-Usa. Now, the only way further is by motorboats.
Two of them soon arrive to pick us. We put layers warm cloths on us and a waterproof jumper on top - it's a grey dark day, it's continuously raining and for the next one and half hours, we will just have to squeeze and sit motionless on the tiny bench under the open sky, while the boats will speed up along the river. Not very comfortable, but for my part, I prefer this to the clouds of mosquitos that are regular here during the short summer.
The Pechora River is impressive - at one place where we ride, it's over 2 km wide, but for most of the journey, it is split to half by massive sand islands deposited in its middle. The sheer water is live and beautiful, framed by the endless colorful strip of the autumn forest along its banks.
After a long ride, our boat drivers take a turn and we are heading to a small bight. On a slope above it we can already spot several wooden houses.
We are heading to one of them. The bi-lingual street sign (in Russian and Komi languages) tell me that we are on the "Sunny Street" number 3. This is the address of Nina Volotovskaya and her husband Ivan, who greet us with big smiles and urge us to proceed from the rain to their warm, cozy home.
I am passing to them a folder with several beautiful pictures, taken earlier the year by my friend and colleague Masha. A rare gift that they really appreciated, as they did the two packs of genuine Dutch stroopwafels that I brought along - something that they never seen or tasted before.
Mrs. Volotovskaya is one of the heroes of the Komi people. When an oil drill just across the river from the village caught fire last summer, she and other local activists were trying to attract attention to what was happening. Despite a massive fume of black smoke suffocating the village, the authorities as well as the company just kept ignoring it. When she called the mayor, he replied that he does not want to have anything to do with it. It took endless efforts, and a month of time, before the problem was finally acknowledged and addressed. Imagine - that nasty fire next to the village went on for a whole month!
But today is a happy day for her - and for us, too. Sharing the inspiring stories over a table filled with local delicacies, we deepen our mutual dedication to fight the destruction of the environment and the injustice caused to the local people by the big dirty industries.
Despite continued rain, we also go out and walk to the hill above the village. From here, we can see the beautiful scenery of the Pechora River, as well as the drills on the opposite bank - including a location of the recent disaster.
Uphill, we are passing by a simple memorial, made of roughly welded metal sheets. It is a reminder of another tragedy that hit the community seventy years ago. When the Nazi Germany army opened the eastern front in 1941, the Soviet Union called on every citizen to defend their fatherland. The mobilization reached even this remote village, and thirty men left to fight for the country. When the war ended few years later, only six of them returned alive. I still struggle to imagine how the horrors of war deeply wounded even such a community, which was virtually out of reach of the civilization.
On the way, I also encounter a local villager who is carrying home his today's catch of fish. He knows the river well, and explains me how the size and type of fish depends on the prevailing direction of winds and momentary state of the environment. One of the concerns he shares with us is the pollution of the river caused the oil operation, and he wonders what impact it may have on the local fish.
Fishing is one few remaining sources of livelihood for the locals. As if the scars of the Second World War were not enough, today the whole village - as many similar remote communities - faces an unbearable combination of economic, social and environmental hardships. The local branch of the state agriculture company (sovchoz) disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago, and there are no economic or employment opportunities left. The population had shrunk from about a hundred people two generation ago down to today's twenty inhabitants. Young families with children have all fled to seek a better life elsewhere, and barely come back even for a visit of their parents.
Luckily for Nina Volotovskaya, her grandchildren keep coming for holidays to this beautiful place where the daily life is so hard - she proudly shows me a photo of one of her little granddaughters in tiny pink rubber shoes. I am sure that one of the reasons why the girls enjoy their visits is the freely roaming herd of horses that the family keeps on the meadows surrounding the house.
I can tell that their beautiful horses have a happy life here, and they are also easy to become friends with.
Before we leave, I enjoy a chat with Ivan, Nina's husband, on the backyard of their house. He says that by mid October, snow will start falling and soon after, the river will freeze and stay like for many months, till a late spring. It won't be possible anymore to use their motorboat to get to the town for the shopping - buying sugar, flour and other few necessities - they usually do every two weeks.
He then explains me that for the winter, they swap the motorboats for snowmobiles with which they ride on the ice - and upon my request, he goes to show me his machine, parked in the nearby barn.
We make a final group photo before leaving Kushshor. The farewell is very hard. Nina and Ivan are inviting me to come back, and if I happen to come during the long sub-Arctic winter, thez promise to come and pick me up from the town of Ust-Usa on their horses. Well it has not worked out so far, but perhaps one day...
Although I am far away now, I carry in my memories all the courageous, determined and inspiring Komi people that I was lucky to meet. I continue to bear witness about the horrible things that the oil industry is doing to these people, their land, and our whole planet. And together with them and many others, we keep fighting for a better world.
In addition to links in the essay, I recommend this article for further reading: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/05/the-town-that-reveals-how-russia-spills-two-deepwater-horizons-of-oil-each-year
And do not miss this beautiful photo essay: