Vladimir Uyba, head of the Komi Republic, insulted local eco-activists calling them “eco-trash” as they stood against plans to build a new landfill on the outskirts of Syktyvkar. The place for the waste sorting plant is close to Ezhva, one of the districts of Syktyvkar. Waste management is an explosive issue for the locals, as only two years ago they had forced the authorities to abandon plans for a massive landfill at Shiyes, on the administrative border between the Komi Republic and Archangelsk Region. The garbage reform, which began in 2019, continues despite the events in Ukraine. The authorities keep making behind-the-scene decisions and local communities are trying to stop dangerous projects.
What do they want to build in Ezhva
The district of Ezhva is about 14 km from the historical center of Syktyvkar. It was built in Soviet times as a town for employees at a new pulp and paper mill. Because of the emissions from the plant and poor ecology, Ezhva is considered the last choice for people looking for housing.
There was a landfill in Ezhva before, one built in the Soviet era, but it had been closed by a court decision. Then there was a plan for a replacement near Mandach, a village in the neighboring Syktyvdinsky district. The authorities claimed that it was needed also because another landfill, northwest of Syktyvkar, had already been filled beyond its capacity.
Funds for the Mandach site had been authorized and spent, but then any talks about this project died down. And in 2022, news came about a new landfill in Ezhva.
Activists first heard about it on December 1, 2022, when a report about the new waste disposal scheme was published on the website of the local Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Upon carefully studying it, eco-activists found that the landfill was to be built in Ezhva, not Mandach.
On December 6, they requested explanations from Katerina Kiselevich, Minister of Natural Resources.
“At first she tried to play it down, but eventually admitted that a landfill and a waste-sorting complex will be indeed built there [in Ezhva]," Nina Ananina, a member of the Pechora Salvation Committee, says.
A debate over the future landfill started in the local media and on social networks. Pro-government commentators expected benefits from the landfill. Some government officials assured that they wanted feedback from the community, while others said that since there was a landfill in Ezhva before, there should be no point arguing about the new one - because the land was already poisoned.
Rumors about a new landfill started circulating in Ezhva in early September. Nina Ananina says that back then a local waste management company held an event for government representatives, official media, and members of the local Civic Chamber [a consultative civic assembly] exactly where the new plant is now to be located. The company had brought to the site construction materials and workers, all in new overalls. A company executive talked about a new waste management complex.
Activists got alarmed and approached the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment for explanations. According to Ananina, the answer was that the company had subleased the land, and they worked on a project of a waste sorting complex at their own risk. From this, the activists concluded that the facility might be just a "whim" of the company owners.
Why Komi residents opposed the landfill in Ezhva
Nina Ananina, a member of the Committee for Saving Pechora, says that residents of Ezhva have already had enough trouble with the emissions from the pulp and paper mill and the plywood plant:
“Keeping in mind that garbage will be delivered there [to the new landfill and waste-sorting plant] not only from Ezhva, but also from Syktyvkar and eight other municipalities [of Komi], people are not happy with the prospect of a new polluting facility next to their homes.”
According to her, there are dachas only 800 meters away from the site for the landfill and a compound feed mill a bit further. The social activist wonders how all this would coexist in one small area.
On December 14, at a meeting with Ezhva residents, local bureaucrats asked people to support the new garbage facility. According to activists, they even brought to the meeting a large group of public employees, typically loyal to the authorities. It didn’t help. Most spoke against the project.
Along with arranging public hearings, activists started collecting signatures under a petition to stop the project. By December 16, they had collected more than 2,5 thousand signatures. The petition will be sent to the Komi Ministry of Nature Protection and the Komi Prosecutor's office with a demand to investigate whether the company is connected with the authorities. The activists also asked the public to send appeals to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
Locals also plan to raise the landfill problem with Oleg Mikhailov, a State Duma member from the Communist Party, who had become popular in the region after he strongly supported Shiyes protests. With his help, the public hopes to raise the problem at the federal level.
So far, activists are salient about their further steps. Social networks already called the events in Syktyvkar a "people's riot."
“The regional authorities are simply ignoring the fact that our people had protested in the past. They turn a deaf ear to people's demands. It seems to me that they think that nothing bad will happen. while the consequences [of the protest] might be unpredictable," Nina Ananina concludes.
Komi activists are not going to forgive Vladimir Uyba for calling them "eco-trash." Viktor Vorobyov, lawyer and member of the Komi legislative assembly, says that, from the legal point of view, Uyba's words could be considered an insult to a large mass of people:
“As a lawyer, I assess this statement as an insult to an indefinitely large group of people. I sent a request to the Komi Prosecutor's Office for legal expertise on Uyba’s statement. As a citizen, I consider his words disgraceful. A person who - even if it is by some misunderstanding - happens to be the Head of the Komi Republic should not behave in such a way. By his very position in the modern model of power, he is supposed to unite people. However, during his time in office, Uyba has sown only discord among ordinary people and the republican elite. This shows his arrogance and lack of professionalism. He needs to get back to reality.”
On December 14, according to Vorobyov, it was working people who came to the meeting with officials in Ezhva. The room was packed with those who opposed the landfill. This means that Vladimir Uyba's words could refer to them.
“Why did Uyba use these words? He seems to be proud of being rude, he mistakes rudeness for bravery. And it's not the first time with him. We remember him insulting Mikhailov when he called him a ‘horse’ and then a ‘neo-fascist.’ I think that Uyba just can't control himself. This choice of language by a regional leader is deplorable, it puts his competence in doubt.”
Viktor Vorobyov believes that the republican authorities may have thought something like "Ezhva people got already used to unpleasant odors, so they can handle a landfill as well.”
“Ezhva is not a cesspool. It’s normal working people who live there, and they deserve to be treated with respect," The legislature member concludes.
Just two years ago, another governor, Sergei Orlov of the Arkhangelsk region, paid for disrespecting protestors dearly. In April 2019, he called Shiyes defenders "shelupni" [worthless insignificant people]. The slogan "We are not shelupni" had quickly become one of the symbols of the protest, a phrase that Orlov was being reminded of throughout the entire year before his forced resignation. The new head of the region, Alexander Tsybulsky, promised more than once in 2020 that there would be no landfills in Shiyes.
Anti-waste protests in Russian regions: before and after the start of the military conflict in Ukraine
On January 1, 2019, new legislation on waste management came into effect in Russia. Each region now has a single operator. Confusion with garbage disposal, the raise in tariffs, and the construction of new landfills sparked a series of protests. To rallies in Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, and Omsk came up to 100 people. The organizers of a protest event in Yaroslavl claimed 300 participants. The largest rallies were held in Arkhangelsk Oblast and Moscow.
The garbage reform was launched by the federal authorities, but no earlier than it became dangerous to ignore the critical situation with waste, especially in Moscow. The first mass "trash" protests began back in 2017 in the Moscow region, where the waste from the national capital started to be transported when landfills in Moscow got overfilled. Residents of Balashikha protested because of frequent fires and nasty smells coming from the landfills. Local governor, Andrei Vorobyov, tried to convince people that there was no danger but in vain. The problem was only resolved after people complained to the president’s office. Landfills near Sergiev Posad and several other dumps in the southern part of the Moscow Region were eventually shut down.
But the problem of where to take trash from the capital remained. The Moscow administration made a deal with the Yaroslavl Region about using the Skokovo landfill on the outskirts of Yaroslavl. This started anti-trash rallies and pickets that continued in Yaroslav throughout 2018 until the waste deliveries from Moscow were stopped.
A large protest took place in Volokolamsk. Protestors blocked the road to the Yadrovo landfill, where in March 2018 occurred a substantial discharge of landfill gas. Local authorities introduced a state of emergency, and students from one of the schools near the landfill complained of health issues. Eight thousand people came out to protest. In March 2022, it was reported that the Yadrovo landfill would be thoroughly sanitized by the end of 2023.
What happened next was Shiyes. Since June 2018, people in the Arkhangelsk Region and the Komi Republic with the support of environmental activists from other areas had stood in defense of the territory, not allowing the construction to start. Despite violence from law enforcement agencies and multiple administrative and criminal penalties, they stood their ground. Plans for a landfill and a plant for waste from the national capital were canceled. Both governors, in Arkhangelsk and Komi regions, stepped down.
With the coronavirus pandemic, anti-trash protests slowed down for a while only to resume in 2022. People in Novosibirsk, Krasnodar, Arkhangelsk, Volgograd, Altai, and Ryazan regions, and now in Ezhva fight against landfills.