Dear Thomas Bach and members of the International Olympic Committee,
We recognize that you contribute your time and expertise to the International Olympic Committee in part because you desire a better world. We are writing to let you know that your choice of Sochi as the venue for the 2014 Winter Games has had the opposite effect. Community leaders in the region report that this is the most environmentally destructive Olympics in the history of the Games. In addition, these environmental leaders have been harassed, detained, imprisoned, and exiled by Russian authorities. This is unconscionable, and directly conflicts with the Olympic Charter: “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.”
Global Greengrants Fund is an international foundation that provides grants to grassroots organizations working for environmental sustainability and social justice. In 2011, one of our grantee partners, Environmental Watch of the Northern Caucasus, began researching and writing a study on the ecological impacts of the Sochi Olympics. The organization has overcome tremendous obstacles imposed by the Russian authorities in order to release their report this past week. Here are some of their findings:
- Much of the infrastructure for the Games has been built on what was once a protected national park. Russian politicians changed their country’s environmental laws to make developing the area legal.
- Thousands of acres of pristine, old-growth mountain forests and rich montane meadows have been destroyed as part of the construction.
- The Mzymta River, once free-flowing and pure, has been hemmed in by concrete walls and polluted with toxic contaminants. In addition, about 1.5 million tons of gravel was illegally excavated from the river. The destruction of this watershed now causes regular flooding in communities near the river.
- Migration routes for brown bears and access to their feeding grounds have been disrupted or eliminated, and a biodiversity hot spot in the Krasnodar region with diverse population of migratory birds, many of which Russian authorities list as endangered, has been destroyed.
When Russian authorities found out that Environmental Watch was working on this report, they told the group to halt the project, but Environmental Watch chose to continue its research. The authorities then severely escalated their repressive tactics. One of the report’s authors, Yevgeny Vitishko, was arrested and sentenced to three years in a penal colony. The former director of the organization, Suren Gazaryan, fled to Estonia and is now living in exile. Authorities froze the organization’s bank account. Now, during the Olympics, environmentalists and human rights advocates are being detained on a daily basis.
The International Olympic Committee must take responsibility for the environmental devastation and human rights violations, because they come as a direct result of the selection of Sochi as an Olympic venue. We appreciate that you have inquired with authorities regarding the charges against Vitishko, but this is not sufficient. We urge you to use the leverage you have as a respected international body and call for the release of unjustly imprisoned environmentalists.
Sochi is the hot spot right now, but the issue is bigger than Sochi. It is time for truly sustainable Olympic Games. We ask that the IOC acknowledges climate change. This is a time for conserving our energy, forests, and rivers, not building villages every two years for a one-time sporting event. Use venues that have already been built in countries all over the world. Adopt binding environmental and human rights safeguards for all Olympic activities.
In summary, we ask you to do the following:
- Call on the Russian government to free environmentalists who have been jailed, stop detaining people on a daily basis, and/or give them fair trials.
- Acknowledge the environmental devastation of the Sochi Olympics, promote Environmental Watch on North Caucasus’ report (obtainable in Russian and selections in English), and urge the Russian government to mitigate the disastrous environmental impact of the Olympics by following Environmental Watch’s recommendations.
- Create a truly sustainable model for the Olympic Games. Use existing venues. Adopt binding safeguard policies with respect to environmental protection, human rights, resettlement, and labor conditions of Olympic construction activities. Develop an independent mechanism to receive and investigate complaints. Make decisions about where to hold future Olympics contingent on strategic environmental and social assessments that incorporate stakeholders and assess risks.
The environmental and human rights impacts of the Sochi Olympic Games have brought unprecedented negative attention to the International Olympic Committee. We urge you to learn from this experience and chart a new path forward that truly educates youth to create a peaceful and better world.
We are ready and willing to discuss these issues with you, and would welcome the opportunity to do so.
Teresa Odendahl, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Global Greengrants Fund
CC: U.N. Secretary General and the Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace