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Belarusian industrial enterprises: authorities invest, citizens protest

The construction of a new factory in the town of Svetlahorsk sparked protests at the beginning of January.  Authorities’ support for the pulp-bleaching plant in Svetlahorsk has ignored concerns about damaging health effects and residents’ opinions. Environmental activists have...

The construction of a new factory in the town of Svetlahorsk sparked protests at the beginning of January. 

Authorities’ support for the pulp-bleaching plant in Svetlahorsk has ignored concerns about damaging health effects and residents’ opinions. Environmental activists have little influence on the situation, meeting with disregard and being prevented from access to local people.

In pursuit of job creation and foreign investment in the economy, the Belarusian authorities increasingly ignore issues of environmental protection and public health.

Why is the pulp-bleaching factory near Svetlahorsk dangerous?

The Belarusian-Chinese factory near Svetlahorsk. Photo: belapan

The constructors planned to open the pulp-bleaching factory near Svetlahorsk back in 2015. The plant became a joint project between China CAMC Engineering and the Svetlogorsk Pulp and Board Mill. It aims to process 2.5 million cubic metres of timber and produce 400 thousands tons of pulp per year. However, due to construction delays, the factory only started to work in January 2018.

The plant has already drawn much criticism from environmental activists. The NGO Ecadom describes the method of pulp bleaching used as dangerous. Greenbelarus writes that authorities prefer this method for cost-saving reasons and remain reluctant to conduct progressive industrial reforms. 

Since Soviet times, Belarus has prioritised profit over environmental and health issues in industrial construction. The Svetlahorsk pulp bleaching plant will involve chlorine dioxide bleaching, which the EU banned back in 2006. This type of pulp processing strongly pollutes the air and water through its use of poisonous materials, such as vitriol acid and methanol. The constructors and authorities disregard the fact that WHO statistics list Belarus in third place in the world on the death from air pollution per 100,000.

Citizens’ voices fall on deaf ears

At the end of 2017 discontent about the factory’s construction became visible again when testing work started. During recent years, construction workers have shared stories about construction violations and the poor quality of equipment, reports greenbelarus.info. On 25 December, the residents in the village of Yakimava-Slabada, the closest residential area, protested and complained about the ‘horrible smell and air’ that the factory generates. In interviews with Belsat, an independent Belarusian television channel, people say that they have to go into the city (Svetlahorsk) for walks with their children to escape the smell.

The reaction of the local authorities in the Svetlahorsk region complicates the situation. In 2012, when 10,000 citizens appealed against the construction of the plant, the authorities displayed a reluctance to compromise or agree to hold a public hearing. Since then, locals have applied to various agencies with complaints about the smell, environmental damage and smoke emissions from the plant. At the beginning of January, someone from the construction firm claimed that the plant operates with the latest technologies and that the smell should disappear within one month. 

Environmental organisations wield no real influence, being restricted by state legislation and often working while unregistered. In 2013, the environmental organisation Ecadom filed a suit against the constructor building the pulp-bleaching factory. However, the court found that the construction complied with environmental laws. The NGOs Ecadom and Green Network have received few results from their attempts to influence the construction of the polluting Belarusian-Chinese industrial park. Since the Svetlahorsk plant project will bring economic profits, the authorities step back from any compromise with citizens and decline from reviewing the technologies used at the plant.

Why does Belarus continue to use dangerous industrial technologies?

Belarus lacks resources for economic development, and so the government banks on attracting foreign investment. Environmental-friendliness is a secondary consideration. One of the largest investors in Belarus remains the Austrian company, ‘Kronospan’, which invests in timber processing. In 2015 the company received four fines for environmental pollution according to t-styl.info. This was despite the fact that the population in the nearby town of Smarhon repeatedly complained about pollution of air and water by the factory.

Top-8 foreign countries investing in Belarus. Data: National Bank of Belarus

The economic interests of Belarusian authorities still dominate over issues of nature protection and human health.  It allows the creation of new jobs and mitigates social tensions linked to unemployment and low wages.

It also puts extra money in the budget at the expense of taxes, and sometimes at the expense of exports by established foreign-owned enterprises. Western investors fear an unstable business environment in “Europe’s last dictatorship” and do not appear eager to invest in Belarus.  Thus, the Belarusian government tries to attract investors from Russia and Asia.

More than a half of the total amount of foreign direct investments in the Belarusian economy in 2017 came from Russia ($10.586 bn). The largest Chinese investment ($1,5bn) in Belarus funds construction of the “Big Stone” industrial park. However, China is investing not only in the development of Belarus’s high-tech sector but also in environmentally-questionable enterprises, as in Svetlahorsk.

Profit vs. environment – what wins?

Solar farm near Brahin. Photo: TUT.by

While prioritising nuclear power and high-polluting plants, Belarus also works increasingly on developing its alternative energy sources. For example, the Belarusian company Velcom invested $25 million in the construction of a solar plant at Brahin, the town most contaminated by Chernobyl.

The plant, opened in 2016, became the largest environmentally-friendly plant in Belarus. The solar farm aims to bring more jobs to a region that offers poor conditions for agriculture while improving the environment.

In spite these positive developments, the share of high-polluting factories remains much larger. Looking for profits, both Belarusian companies and authorities ignore safety aspects of construction.

Accidents at the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant have caused death and injuries. In July 2016, an accident at the ammonia production factory in Hronda killed two people and seriously injured three others. Local authorities and constructors, however, conceal this information and avoid admitting the dangers, and sometimes even the accidents themselves. Many plants remain situated in urban areas, which seriously increases the potential damage in the event of accidents.

Despite the active participation of local citizens in protests in small towns like Svetlahorsk, so far the profit motive wins arguments for environmental protection. 

Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik – is a PhD candidate in political science at Karlstad University (Sweden) and a research fellow at the Belarusian think-tank 'Center for new ideas'.
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