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Fouled Out: Sochi Games a PR debacle for UN greenwashing strategy

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In this Monday Feb. 17, 2014 file photo, activist David Khakim, second right, is approached by two police officers after pulling out a banner protesting a recent prison sentence for a local environmentalist in front of the Olympic rings, in central Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/David Goldman, file)

EXCLUSIVE: Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine has cast a deep pall over the 2014 Paralympic Games that formally begin March 7 at the Winter Olympics venue in Sochi, with the U.S. and British governments the first to announce they will not send official delegations to endorse the spectacle.

But the tarnished international sporting event also underscores Sochi’s dubious outcome as a debacle for the public relations efforts of the United Nations Environmental Program, in partnership with the International Olympic Committee, to add a green patina to the increasingly elaborate games, and claim more luster on themselves.  

UNEP has long piggy-backed its green credentials atop the Olympic Games and its Paralympic counterparts as an emblem of its self-styled role as “the world’s leading institution environmental agency and the environmental conscience of the U.N. system.”  

The Nairobi-based U.N. organization has claimed that its role in advising athletic organizers “has gone from strength to strength” since it first signed an agreement with the IOC in 1994 to raise Olympic environmental standards and awareness.

In the case of Sochi 2014, however, the green legacy of the games, according to Russian and international critics,  looks more like permanent devastation in one of Russia’s most sensitive environmental zones, greatly  increased threats to the survival of rare and endangered wildlife species, and the accumulation of new manmade sources of pollution and destruction that will never be removed.

“These games are absolutely not green. They will go down as the most environmentally damaging ever,” one environmental activist told Fox News.

“These games are absolutely not green. They will go down as the most environmentally damaging ever.”

- Environmental activist

Among other things, the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) has declared that the damage includes the virtually complete destruction of the fishery value of the Mzymta River, which runs through the area, and was a spawning site for an estimated 20 percent of endangered Black Sea salmon. Among other things destroyed were about 7,400 acres of rare forests, which hosted a wide variety of rare trees and vegetation, along with the hibernation sites and migration paths of bears, deer and other species of endangered wildlife, as well as a series of valuable natural wetlands closer to the Black Sea.

Among the main causes of the devastation was the construction of a $9 billion highway and rail line to Sochi, which conservation organizations decried as completely unnecessary. Another cause is part of the games site itself, part of which is located on lands belonging to a highly valued Sochi National Park.

Indeed, as far back as 2006, WWF alleges -- the year Putin’s government successfully won its bid for the Sochi Games -- Russia began weakening environmental protection in such parks, abolishing compulsory environmental guidance on construction projects in the area, and in 2009 created new opportunities for logging in protected areas under a revised Forestry Code.

As it happens, 2009 was also the year in which UNEP and the Russian organizing committee for the Sochi Olympics (including the Paralympics) signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a “strategic alliance” that would include UNEP’s cooperation with and support for environmental activities related to the planning and staging of the Games.

(The official who signed the document on behalf of UNEP, along with other important environmental agreements about the Sochi Games, subsequently ran into troubles of a different kind at UNEP.)

The same memorandum declared the partners would “collaborate regularly” to maintain their cooperation, “including, but not limited to, providing necessary professional and technical advice.” The two sides agreed to meet at least twice a year to review progress on their mutually agreed activities.

Almost all of the subsequent disaster involved Russian authorities’ blatant disregard for a variety of much-touted agreements with UNEP, as well as promises to the IOC, which were designed to make the Sochi Games a “climate neutral” and “zero-waste”  spectacle, as well as to deal with the worst impacts of Russia’s OIympic construction on the region and its ecology.

Mostly the U.N.’s “environmental conscience” now blames Russia’s Olympic organizing committee, made up of a variety of private and government organizations, for the environmental mess.

In response to questions about the Sochi environmental program, a UNEP spokesman told Fox News the organization had submitted “technical reports with clear recommendations and comprehensive action plans” to the organizers to forestall or make good on environmental damage.

“The implementation of the action plans is the responsibility of the organizing committee,” the spokesman said, “since UNEP was not requested to play an oversight role.”

Russian environmental activists paint a different picture. As far back as 2009, many of them were complaining vociferously at UNEP-supported advisory meetings with Russian authorities that despite government promises, significant environmental damage was already occurring as a result of Sochi.

In a 2010 UNEP mission report, sparked in part by the complaints about the planned Sochi railway link, UNEP declared diplomatically that government decisions to improve matters were “taking too long,” and suggested a wide variety of information-gathering on the regional environment to help fix things, along with a start-up for “the process of designing a global ‘landscape restoration plan’” of the Mzimta River Valley.

The report also said “both sides need to increase efforts to genuinely engage each other” and that “those contracted to develop projects also feel that some NGOs [non-governmental organizations] were only interested in stalling the entire Olympic project and were not interested in constructive dialogue.”

On a sunny note, the report declared the Russian railway authorities in particular had been “very open to discussions and suggestions on improving this particular project as well as the other projects.” It added the UNEP mission “appreciated very much this positive approach of the local stakeholders who seem eager to address all environmental issues, with more interest and attention than in the past and pledged to integrate those issues in their work-plans and priorities.”

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The report then offered a classic U.N. solution to the disagreements about Sochi’s actual environmental progress: more frequent meetings, “with the hope that interactions between relevant stakeholders will ultimately become a regular practice.”

A UNEP spokesman did not answer a Fox News question about the subsequent number of meetings that were held.

In fact, WWF Russia, as well as the local chapter of Greenpeace, both quit the advisory meetings later in 2010, judging they were going nowhere.

That did not cause UNEP to rethink its boosterish strategy. In 2011, it hailed a “declaration of commitment for the Mzymta River basin ecosystem” that was signed by a gaggle of Russia’s Olympic organizers and “facilitated” by the U.N. organization. The document promised to “plan and take appropriate joint measures to develop and implement a comprehensive restoration plan for the Mzymta Basin ecosystem.”

It also said it would “request UNEP to undertake independent reviews of the plan” and its implementation. 

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In fact, says Igor Chestin, head of the Russian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), Russian promises to repair and constrain the environmental damage associated with the games a “paper program.” As far back as 2012, he told Fox News, it was well known in environmental circles that no money was being  allocated by Russia’s parliament to fund the effort -- despite a $50 billion price tag for Sochi overall.

“Environmental mitigation will never happen,” he predicts. “What’s destroyed is destroyed.”

That news evidently never reached UNEP. In April 2013 -- 10 months before the games -- UNEP’s executive director, Achim Steiner, along with Russian natural resources and environment minister Sergey Donskoy, announced yet another bilateral agreement, this one “covering priority areas such as the conservation of biological diversity, addressing the environmental aspects of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, and the environmental challenges facing the Arctic.” 

“UNEP welcomes the opportunity to further strengthen and develop our longstanding partnership with the Russian Federation,” Steiner declared in a UNEP press release. “The programs and priorities in the agreement signed today provide new focus and momentum for addressing environmental issues in the context of Russia's future economic development."

Whatever focus and momentum the new agreement provides, it has not yet reached Sochi. Indeed, Russian environmentalists, who were already being harassed and arrested by the Putin regime during the Winter Games, expect the repression will only intensify in the months ahead.

 “We have been very worried about Sochi,” says Susan Corke, director for Eurasia programs at Freedom House, a human rights organization based in New York and Washington. “We are expecting backlash and regression.”

“Civil society in Russia is in survival mode,” she added.

When questioned by Fox News, UNEP did not say whether it had said anything to Russian authorities about their treatment of Russian environmental dissidents.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell