Story #132: An Environment Defender on the Dangers of War and Hardships of Work

January 19, 2024
Environmental lawyer Olena conducts field studies to forecast the war's aftermath on Ukraine's nature before it's too late.

A single misstep in the tense atmosphere of being under surveillance from the Russian side in Kherson Oblast resulted in Olena injuring her leg. As we spoke, Olena was using crutches. Working in the field demands heightened awareness and agility to evade potential enemy attacks.

"The area in the south where we collect samples is mostly steppe. From their positions on the right bank of the Dnipro River, we are easily visible on the left bank, and we occasionally spot them when we're there."

At one point, Olena and her colleagues even came under mortar fire. Luckily, no one was hurt.

After many Ukrainian territories were liberated from Russian occupation, groups of ecologists, volunteers, journalists, and scientists rushed to the areas to see if their worst predictions had come true. Olena was among them.

As an environmental lawyer and the executive director of the organization Environmental People Law (EPL), she has followed the war's impact on Ukrainian environment since 2014.

"We learned what carpet bombing brings back in 2014. Before the full-scale invasion, one of the most severe large-scale carpet bombardments occurred at the Savur Mohyla. We analyzed its effects using high-quality NASA space images, counting all the eruptions, taking soil samples, and conducting laboratory analysis. Of course, it revealed a staggering level of chemical pollution across just several square kilometers. Consequently, when the full-scale invasion began, we understood that it would be of a much greater magnitude, resulting in the complete destruction of our environment."

At the same time, the expanded scale of the war changed not only the amount of land affected, but also society's  priorities in responding to the catastrophe.

"It quickly became obvious that while Ukrainians are being raped, tortured, and killed, no one will care about the environment, and we would look quite strange talking about it."

A photo from EPL's August 2023 expedition.

However, this did not stop Olena and her colleagues from continuing their work, albeit out of the spotlight. The only change was in their approach, as they traveled to liberated regions both for research and as volunteers delivering humanitarian aid.

The EPL team has so far conducted up to 40 expeditions into liberated territories of Ukraine.

"In areas affected by the offensive, counteroffensive, or those previously under occupation and subsequently liberated, we initially collected soil samples due to the challenges of obtaining water samples. The riverbanks are mined, which has prevented us from accessing water samples."

The most dangerous frontline areas are especially crucial to observe due to the extensive machine pollution, mining, and fires they have experienced. These have undoubtedly caused  flora and fauna to suffer there. But the enemy is always watching, making it hard to discover and document the truth.

"In Kherson Oblast, national park workers, alongside military and emergency services personnel, are working on demining and clearing the liberated sections of national parks from hazardous elements so that we and scientists can examine the lands. In one instance, soldiers cleared everything in the evening only to find white petal mines on the ground again the next morning. Clearly, the enemy adjusted our survey plan, making it impossible for us to proceed there."

Russia's menacing only fuels Olena, who remembers well why she decided to join the EPL. As a child, she watched the organization come into being and realized that some transformative power had appeared in Ukraine.

"When I returned from university, I often visited the headquarters of what at the time was this small but powerful team. Each visit left me incredibly enthusiastic about their ideas and discussions. Ignited by their passion, I asked myself, 'Do I want my life fulfilled with purpose?' If so, this is where I should be."

As an environmental lawyer, Olena not only operates within the matters of law but but also knows how to collect evidence of crimes. She knows how to take necessary measurements and is well aware of possible chemical reactions different pollutants may cause, and, of course, their aftermath.

What is happening now is a massive disaster that will take a century to recover from. The forests, landscapes, and unique steppes with their distinct ecosystems which our team members witnessed will not be seen by our children, nor even by our grandchildren. This has been clear to us from the first days.

Several of Ukraine's crucial nature reserves have been under occupation since the start of the full-scale invasion. Therefore, as the scale of war has increased, the methods available to explore the territory affected by it have decreased.

"What other sources do we have? Currently, only satellite images remain. As professionals, we analyze photos sent by colleagues, friends, or military personnel in temporarily occupied territories. However, this is not a reliable source due to clear requirements even for photo documentation in the Criminal Procedure Code. Therefore, when it comes to proving Russian war crimes, we cannot use them. And the reason we are recording the effects of military operations on the environment is to conduct further analysis and provide evidence that events have indeed happened as documented."

Being on nature's side isn't easy, especially during the ongoing war, as more and more environmental harm accrues with every day of fighting. Ukrainian environmental law imposes no limits on documenting the consequences of war, yet in practice those limits exist. 

"Last fall, we collaborated with the State Emergency Service to collect samples in Kyiv Oblast. A missile fell in an organic garden, but did not explode. The District Environmental Inspection also worked on the site, and employees of the State Emergency Service had to detonate the rocket, which contained incredibly toxic fuel. The missile didn't explode due to landing on our soft, fluffy Ukrainian soil.

Had we not noticed it later, the risk of this toxic liquid dispersing into the soil would have been high, and we might have unknowingly consumed food grown in that contaminated soil."

Therefore, Olena, whose aunt, Dr. Svitlana Kravchenko, stands at the origins of EPL, is actively pursuing every available legal avenue to safeguard Ukrainian nature now, before it's too late. The expeditions Olena goes on with her colleagues are crucial on this path.

Despite most of Olena and her colleagues' worst expectations coming true, there was a positive surprise---some recovery, noticed on the lands affected by the Kakhovka dam explosion. The EPL team has visited several times since the waters fell and seen promising signs of forest emerging in areas where water used to be.

Drained lands as a result of the explosion of the Kakhovka dam, photo by EPL.
Drained lands as a result of the explosion of the Kakhovka dam, photo by EPL.

"It was such a huge tragedy... This disaster led to spontaneous landfills, with household waste sites entering the Dnipro River. As this is an agricultural area, warehouses of pesticides and agrochemicals were also washed away. A considerable number of domestic animals and livestock, not to mention people, were killed. Witnessing this devastation broke our hearts. However, in terms of local ecosystems, we visited the site a few times, came back there, and observed the water receding, with nature beginning to recover. Scientists are very pleased about it."

Still, there are many more discoveries to be made, many of them expected to be unpleasant. Thus there are numerous reasons for Olena to preserve her fire inside for further investigations.

It is precisely now that Ukrainian nature needs people's attention and care the most. Having traumatized her leg during expeditions for n-times, Olena proved her devotion repeatedly. And thanks to the dedication of her and her team, Ukraine has the opportunity to prove the unconscionable and precise extent of the harm inflicted upon its environment.

Lisa Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld