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In Barents Cooperation, a question about environment

Bellona leader Nils Bøhmer is concerned about the role of environmental NGOs in the Barents Cooperation.

The new Kirkenes Declaration has environment as a top priority. Still, environmental NGOs fear for green cooperation in the Barents Region.

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The document presented at this week’s Barents Summit in Kirkenes, Norway, promotes environment as one of six priority fields for the Barents Cooperation. However, environmental NGOs still believe that green projects between civil society entities might be about to lose ground in regional cross-border cooperation. They argue that the new Declaration fails to address the key role of non-governmental stakeholders in regional development and instead places the bets on economic interests and state institutions

At the same time, they fear that the new Russian legislation on “foreign agents” will seriously hamper cooperation across the borders.

“20 years ago the expectations were very high about a democratic and free interaction between people. What we see to day is maybe the opposite, especially in Russia, where the new NGO law labels people and organizations foreign agents if they work with neighbors from northern Sweden, Finland or Norway”, leader of Bellona, Nils Bøhmer, says to BarentsObserver. “This is a challenge for the Barents Cooperation over the next years, at least on the level of people-to-people cooperation”, he underlines.

According to Bellona, the law is creating fear among civil society entities in the region. “Nobody wants to cooperate with you anymore if you are suspected of being a foreign agent”, Bellona Murmansk representative Anna Kireeva says.

While the Bellona Foundation in Murmansk has been checked by Russian authorities and found not to be a “foreign agent”, the Nature and Youth movement has got a warning by prosecutors and will end up on the little flattering list unless it changes its statutes.

For the past two decades, the Norwegian Nature and Youth and its Russian sister organization Priroda i Molodezh have been working actively to get young people engaged in environmental activities. Today, however, the organizations are worried about ruling trends. “It has become increasingly hard for young Russians to get engaged in environmental activities”, Olga Abilova, representative of Nature and Youth, says. “If you are young and care about the environment, it may not be so easy. We experience that the new law on foreign agents is making many young and engaged people abstain from participation in environmental work”, she adds.

“Environment is a global affair and must therefore be handled internationally”, Abilova underlines. “However, if we are to address environmental challenges, people must have the opportunity to speak out”, she adds. 

Both Bellona and Nature and Youth are today involved in a variety of activities, among them combating nuclear power and promoting solutions for a shift towards alternative energy sources.

The six-page Kirkenes Declaration, which was presented by government  leaders at the Summit, only once mentions the words “non-governmental organizations”, while it in the section about “key actors” includes no civil society entities at all. Similarly, in the section about environmental priorities, the document highlights the need to combat climate change, but does not mention the region’s huge potential within alternative energy sources, nor any possible contributions from civil society stakeholders.

Over the last twenty years, environmental authorities in the Barents Region have established wide-reaching cross-border relations and engaged in numerous joint projects. The environmental cooperation is today institutionalized in the Barents Working Group on Environment, as well as the Regional WG for Environment and bilateral arrangements like the Norwegian-Russian Environment Commission.