Vyacheslav Bakhmin: How to win an environmental or town-planning dispute

posted 15 May 2017, 01:32 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 15 May 2017, 01:40 ]
4 May 2017

By Vyacheslav Bakhmin [Extract]

Vyacheslav Bakhmin is a member of Moscow Helsinki Group, an expert of the Committee for Civic Initiatives, and a member of the organizing committee of the Nationwide Civic Forum, who has studied Russian and foreign experience of conflicts in this area

Photo: Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Committee for Civic Initiatives]

Environmental and town-planning disputes are becoming increasingly common in many Russian regions. As the number of such conflicts has risen, so too has citizens’ self-organisation. Sometimes citizens manage to defend their position and protect their city or region. Often, however, they lose their fight for the public interest. But even in such circumstances, it is possible to speak of a certain success, since the problems of green zones, infilling construction and environmental pollution are beginning to be actively discussed in society.

Researchers distinguish two basic conflict models. In the first model, the authorities seek to mediate between the various stakeholders in the conflict, to respect as far as possible the interests of all significant groups, and to find a compromise solution. Such a model requires the active involvement and interested participation of citizens.

In the second model, the authorities side with one or other party to the conflict; often, these are developers or interested companies. In such cases, administrative pressure on protest groups, manipulation of public opinion by means of the mass media and social networks, and intimidation of civic activists are used to manage the conflicts. This happens particularly often with regard to locations that are attractive for investors and where land is a valuable resource. Unfortunately, the second model is the more common form of behaviour practised by the authorities.

What should you do if there is an environmental or town-planning conflict where you live? How can you find out what is going on? How can you best mobilise and unite residents in order to protect their interests? How can you win the fight?

Unfortunately, experience shows that there are no universal mechanisms for achieving victory. Often, it is hard to understand what decided the success of a campaign, or what led to the defeat or prolongation of the conflict. Much depends on specific conditions, the particularities of the situation, the position of the authorities and the potential for mobilising activists. While is possible to recommend certain important measures and steps that are found in most successful cases, it is not possible to guarantee that they will prove sufficient and lead to success. Analysis of conflicts over town-planning and the environment suggests that a positive result is most likely to be achieved if:

· The vital interests of local residents are affected, and there is awareness of a clear and tangible threat that will have a negative impact on the local population;

· There is a strong and highly-motivated group of activists who are confident of the rightness of their cause, and there is general support from the majority of local people;

· There is some support from the local authorities, even if it is passive or adopted under pressure;

· There is an idea that unites people with different resources and capabilities, including academics, lawyers, journalists and other professionals.

To be successful, it is also necessary:

· To monitor the situation regularly and to maintain civic vigilance;

· To draft and use expert opinions of professionals that support your position;

· To study the legal aspects of the situation, including all available official documents;

· To prepare a simple, understandable (for example, in the form of an infographic) and illustrative description of the problem, explaining the dangers of the situation for residents and the environment;

· To collect as many signatures of residents as possible in support of your argument, which will not only help to inform them but also to mobilise more supporters;

· To be able to listen to the opposite point of view, and to hold a dialogue with your opponents;

· To work actively in social networks, and to hold regular creative actions that attract media attention;

· To be able to utilise the mechanism of public hearings, where this is mandatory;

· To require supervisory and law-enforcement agencies to meet their obligations to protect the environment;

· To seek support from major human-rights and environmental-protection organisations, the federal government, the president and other official bodies;

· To appeal where necessary to the courts, with the support of lawyers;

· To be ready to take direct action, and also for possible provocations and repressions, and to be able to conduct oneself in a threatening situation;

· Not to trust verbal promises, but to insist on receiving formal documentation.

Above all, it is useful to study the experience of other campaigners and groups that have resolved problems similar to yours, to try to use their recommendations, and to take note of their mistakes. There are also many studies, publications and even services for civilian activists who are committed to defending environmental and social rights in their local neighbourhoods.

See below for an annotated review of some of these materials, including both successful and not entirely successful cases of environmental and town-planning disputes, as well as useful advice and expert recommendations. [Read more in Russian here]

Translated by Elizabeth Teague