Sun, Mar 17, 2019 - Page 4 News List

Siberians furious over Chinese bottling plant

AFP, MOSCOW

A China-funded project to bottle water from Russia’s Lake Baikal has caused a backlash in Siberia, where people are increasingly angry about what they see as a Chinese land grab.

Ecologists and local authorities have previously touted bottling the water of the world’s largest lake as a “green” way of profiting from Siberia’s natural resources, but a petition calling on Russian “patriots” to demand the removal of an under-construction “Chinese plant on the shores of our Lake Baikal” has gathered almost 1 million signatures.

The water “will be shipped to China,” the petition says, warning that the facility would block local access to the lake and “inflict irreparable damage” to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The campaign to shut down the project has spread across social media in recent months without involvement by major environmental non-governmental organizations.

The plant was already under construction on the southern tip of the lake, which holds one-fifth of the planet’s fresh water, but on Friday, following the backlash, a Russian court ordered that building work be halted until complaints of violations could be investigated.

The company building the plant, previously lauded by the regional government, said that it was surprised by the criticism.

The plant in question, in the village of Kultuk, is built by AkvaSib, a Russian company, which had plans to start production later this year.

However, the financial backing comes from a company called “Baikal Lake” based in Daqing in China’s Heilongjiang Province, Irkutsk authorities said in a statement in 2017, when they gave the US$21 million project priority status.

AkvaSib representative Alexei Azarov said that the project passed through necessary hearings and was given the green light after an environmental assessment.

“Nobody was against it” at the time, he said, adding that the facility would not close off villagers’ access to the lake, and would provide the locals with 150 jobs and authorities with tax revenue.

Siberian environmentalist Alexander Kolotov said that there are some problems with the plant’s location, but the “anti-China factor is very clear” in the protest.

The case “hits the bullseye of the fears and stereotypes of modern Russians that ‘China will gulp down our national heritage.’”

It follows similar protests against China cutting down forests across Siberia, which have led some regions to cancel agreements with Chinese companies.

Chinese presence in the region exploded after the ruble crashed in 2014 and Russia eased tourist visa restrictions. As tourism and business grew, so did local distrust.

Last week, a public TV report titled Baikal on Tap focused on a Chinese hotel for Chinese tourists officially listed as a private home. The TV crew unsuccessfully tried to interview the man in charge, who did not speak Russian.

“Where is your food permit?” the presenter shouted as the tourists consumed their lunch, ignoring her.

“What kind of food is this?” she asked, opening pots.

“For Siberians, there are two things that are like a red rag to a bull and cause an immediate reaction,” said Svetlana Pavlova, chief editor of the Irkutsk-based IRK.ru news Web site.

“One is the Chinese, which ‘have taken over everything and leave trash,’ and the second is encroachment on the lake. And here it so happens that the company building the plant is 99 percent owned by Chinese nationals,” she said.

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