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By Alexandra Branscombe
February 10, 2014
Caption : In their Olympic big, Russia promised to put on a "zero waste" show by using the greenest building techniques for construction, but environmentalists, NGO's, and human rights activists have begun to share the devastating reality in Sochi.     

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games began with fanfare and fireworks, but the impacts of two weeks of sports competitions will leave their mark for years to come—and not in an inspiring way.

In the bid for the Olympics, Russia had promised to put on a “zero waste” show and to use the greenest building techniques to date for construction, but these promises have already fallen harder than a ski-jumper missing the landing. Environmentalists, NGO’s, and human rights activists are compiling a picture of the real devastation caused by the Russian Winter Olympics.

First, Sochi is the location of a UNESCO World Heritage site and Sochi National Park, where 8,750 acres of land were cleared to make room for the Games. Olympic contractors promised to plant three trees for every one cut down in the national park, which came out to 1.5 million new trees. But environmentalists point out that planting new trees does not replace the ecosystem value, which contributed to the livelihoods of brown bears, reptiles, and the Black Sea salmon; all species that have suffered population loss or now regionally extinct.

Another ecosystem bulldozed over for Games venues was a sensitive wetlands, the winter home to the vulnerable Dalmatian pelican and other bird species. In its place, the government created the “Ornithological Park,” planted with trees and artificial ponds as a replacement home for the displaced fauna—none of which can be found in the new park.

“The most dangerous and important part of the damage is the biodiversity lost in the area,” zoologist Suren Gazaryan told TIME Magazine. “Parts of the national park have been completely destroyed. This area was the most diverse in terms of plant and animal life in Russia.”

Gazaryan is a member of the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC), an environmental activist group, who is now living in exile in Estonia to escape criminal charges for his human rights works.

Another EWNC activist, Yevgeny Vitishko, was planning to deliver an environmental impact report of the Winter Games but was jailed after being charged for swearing in public. EWNC members have been been charged and jailed consistently for random criminal charges.

The Sochi Olympics are a demonstration on how environmental and human rights issues easily intersect.

The Humans Rights Watch announced that the Olympic construction has cut off a Russian village from a fresh water source for more than five years, and a new road with no exit or entry ramps has completely cut the village off from public transportation.

“The Russian government is building the most expensive Olympics in history, but many Sochi residents have paid a very high personal price for these games,” Human Rights Watch’s Jane Buchanan said. “The authorities cut Akhshtyr’s villagers off from basic services and have done woefully little to restore them.”

EWNC and other environmental groups have also documented illegal waste dumping and construction blocking animal migration routes, and deforestation has increased the risk of avalanches, mudslides, and landslides on the mountain ridges.

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