Staunton, August 25 – Many environmental movements arise because of a threat to the well-being of the people who live in an area. That is the case at Shiyes. Others appear because they affect places that have a religious or ethnic significance that people want to preserve or revive, as in many parts of the Russian North and the North Caucasus.
But the case of the movement around Kushtau, a mountain in Bashkortostan, the situation is different and more complicated; and the reasons that the protesters, although powered by ethnic concerns, are likely to win out is because they are using federal environmental protection laws to protect their republic against its own rulers.
Bashkir activists have been very clear that those seeking to defend Kushtau are not doing so for religious reasons as some Russian commentators have suggested. Muslims have no tradition of defending such a geographic landmark, they point out (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/08/status-of-bashkir-language-also.html).
At the same time, these activists generally concede that the development of the mountain by a soda company would not have a direct negative impact on the population around it. There would be some damage to rivers and to the range of plant and animal life but not necessarily a disaster to the Bashkir population.
Given that thousands of protesters have come out to oppose the development of Kushtau and more than 10,000 have signed a petition against that move, the question inevitably arises: “why is this Bashkir mountain so important” for Bashkirs? The answer, Vasilia Yagodina of Knife Media says, is instructive (knife.media/kushtau-ecology/).
More than two hundred million years ago, what is now Bashkortostan was covered by a Urals Sea. The four isolated mountains (shikhans) are the ancient reefs from that sea, and they can be seen from almost anywhere in the republic, thus making them symbolic of Bashkortostan in a way that Ararat is for Armenia.
Originally, there were four shikhans, Kushtau, Orkatau, Toratau, and Shakhtau; but during Soviet times, the last was destroyed by being mined for soda. Now, Bashkirs fear that the development of Kushtau in the same way will cost them an important symbolic part of their national landscape.
Over the last two decades, scholars in Bashkortostan have sought to document the flora and fauna that are unique to that place and that would be lost if Kushtau were to disappear under industrial development. Their work has been widely covered in the Bashkir media, and Bashkirs know far more about the mountain’s ecology than many, including the government, think.
They know that if these plants and animals are destroyed, they won’t be replaced; and they know that if yet another shikhan is reduced to nothing, they will lose something that has been part of their physical and mental maps for hundreds if not thousands of years, Yagodina continues.
But they know something else that Ufa appears to have forgotten: the destruction of these forms of life and the environment which supports them is a violation of at least two federal laws, “On the preservation of the environment” and “On the animal world.” Consequently, unlike many ecological protesters, they believe they can use Moscow laws against republic leaders.
They want all three of the remaining shikhans to become a protected area and national park, and the strength of their protests has forced Ufa to promise that. Everything will become clear, the activists say, on September 3 when a final decision is slated to be made. If they win on this point, the protesters will be thrilled but also encouraged to make new demands as well.
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