Russia — Forest case (1998.2.17), Ecojuris` Press Releases

Environmental Impact Assessment

Press-release #1.


February 16, 1998

Hearings began last Friday on Ecojuris Institutes` suit challenging illegal Russian government decrees that withdraw environmental safeguards from over 36,000 hectares of strictly protected "First Group" forest land.

The suit challenges decrees signed by Prime Minister Chernomyrdin converting First Group forests into "non-forest" land which may be clear cut and then used for any commercial or industrial purposes. The decrees were issued without the legally mandated Russian governmental Environmental Impact Review, or "Expertiza." Forests with important watershed protection value, river banks, greenbelts and endangered species habitat are classified as "First Group" forests and are strictly protected. The forest parcels are located acros Russia, from Moscow oblast in the west to Khabarovsk in the Far East.

The complaint is brought on behalf almost 100 plaintiffs from across the country, many of whom packed the courthouse on the first day of hearings. Plaintiffs include Russia`s largest national environmental NGOs, the Socio-Ecological Union and the All Russian Natural Protection Society, region groups such as the Union of Ecologists of the Bashkortostan and the Tomsk Environmental Law Center, several Directors of Leskhoszy (local departments of the Federal Forestry Service), and the Chair of the Environment Committee of the Russian Parliament, Tamara Zlotnikova, among others.

Ecojuris Institute initially filed the complaint in April, 1997, at which time the Supreme Court refused to hear the case claiming that the decrees were "normative," or standard-setting acts that citizens had no right to challenge. Ecojuris Institute appealed to the Presidium of the Supreme court (an appellate panel) arguing that by refusing to hear the case the court was effectively denying Russian citizens access to justice, and that the decrees were not normative, but in fact each had particular, one-time real world consequences — stripping protections from distinct critical forest habitats.

The Presidium agreed, abolishing the first decision of the Supreme Court and obliging the Supreme Court to hear the case as the court of first instance.

During Friday`s hearing Ecojuris lawyers offered the first in a long series of expert testimony from across Russia documenting the unique biodiversity value of these forests, as well as the environmental damage that has already occurred — including clear cutting and chemical plant construction. Neither the original government decrees, nor any of the subsequent commercial and industrial development, received the legally required environmental impact review.

The Russian Government is represented in the suit by the Federal Forestry Service, the agency that prepared all the substantiating documentation for the Chernomyrdin decrees. The Forestry Service refused to make these documents, which specify plans for the reclassified forest lands, available to Ecojuris and its clients, and to date the judge has refused to issue an order compelling the Service to provide these crucial documents. Both the Federal Forestry Service and the State Committee on Environment (formerly the Ministry of Environment) claim that the issuance of the decrees reclassifying the forest lands, in an of themselves, caused no environmental damage and therefore didn`t require and environmental impact review. Yet, when questioned in court, the Federal Forestry Service itself had to admit that over 80% of the reclassified forest land in Chelyabinsk province in the Urals, for example, had already been developed!

Ecojuris Institute is supported in the case by many local departments of the State Committee on Environment (Goskomprirordas) and local Water Protection Agencies, as well as by the Russian Surgeon General and the Institute of State and Law (the legal branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences). Critical support also comes from the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, who testified that a federal Environmental Impact Review is obligatory, and that clearly environmental harm can result from the issuance of these government decrees.

The hearing continues the week of Monday, February 16th.

The "First Group Forest" case, along with Ecojuris Institute`s challenge to the construction of a high speed rail link bisecting a national park and protected areas between Moscow and St. Petersburg, are the first nation-wide environmental lawsuits in Russia. Both cases seek to declare illegal government acts taken without the legally required environmental impact review as required by the 1995 Law on Environmental Expertiza. The environmental expertiza is a cornerstone of Russian Environmental Law, and a critical tool both for building participatory democracy, and for addressing the potential environmental, social and economic consequences of government decisions and commercial development alike.

These cases mark a critical test both of the Russian government`s commitment to environmental protection, and of the ability of the highest Russian courts to uphold the Rule of Law when the interests of critical forest habitats, endangered species, and Russian citizens are at odds with government acts and billion dollar development projects.

For further information, please contact:

Vera Mischenko at Ecojuris Institute:
P.O. Box 172, 103009, Moscow, Russia
Phone/Fax: (7-095) 921-5174

Press-release # 2.


February 17, 1998

After three tense days of hearings, the Russian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ecojuris Institute today, declaring illegal a series of government decrees withdrawing protections from over 36,000 hectares of strictly protected "First Group" forest land. The decrees, signed by Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, had been issued without the legally mandated environmental impact review, or Expertiza.

Forests with important watershed protection value, river banks, greenbelts and endangered species habitat are classified as "First Group" forest. The government decrees would have allowed First Group forest parcels throughout Russia to be clear-cut and used for commercial or industrial development.

This case marks the first time in Russian history that a nation-wide complaint brought against the government by citizens and NGOs from across Russia was heard and decided by the Supreme Court. Moreover the case sets important legal precedent marking the first time that a government act was declared illegal and invalidated by the Supreme Court based on failure to comply with the 1995 Law on Environmental Expertiza, a cornerstone of Russia`s new body of environmental protection law.

Today`s decision paves the way for Ecojuris Institute and lead plaintiffs including Tamara Zlotnikova, Chair of the Environment Committee of the Russian Parliament and national environmental organizations, to file a similar complaint to invalidate additional government decrees, issued while this case was pending, that would strip protection from thousands more hectares of First Group forest.

Although Ecojuris Institute`s case had the support of many government agencies, respected scientists, and even the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, the prognosis looked bleak as last as Tuesday morning. During the hearing, the Supreme Court had repeatedly — and illegally — refused many of Ecojuris` motions, including a motion to add new plaintiffs from Karelia in the Russian North to Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. Additionally, the Court arbitrarily refused to allow many of the plaintiffs` expert witness to take the stand. Ecojuris petitioned to have the Justice removed, but that motion was denied as well.

Thinking the case was lost, and looking ahead to a likely appeal, Ecojuris Institute decided to risk a bold protest move in closing arguments. Russian civil procedure allows representative plaintiffs and key witnesses, as well as lawyers for the plaintiffs and defendants, to make a closing, or summation statement at the end of a hearing. So Ecojuris Institute, lead Plaintiffs and expert witnesses all stood up at the closing of the hearing and condemned the Justice`s illegal actions. Both Ecojuris Institute and the Russian Prosecutor General`s office stated that they, along with the many citizen and NGO plaintiffs in the case, had done their best to protect Russia`s forests and unique biodiversity, as well as citizens` constitutional right to a healthy environment. Now it was the Supreme Court`s responsibility. They reminded the Justices that citizens and press from across Russia and around the world were watching.

The Justices recessed for almost two hours to deliberate their historic decision. A full transcript of their decision will be published in ten days.

For further information, please contact:

Vera Mischenko at Ecojuris Institute:
P.O. Box 172, 103009, Moscow, Russia
Phone/Fax: (7-095) 921-5174