Russian ecologists have launched a last-ditch legal battle to save one of Europe's most pristine national parks from being turned into a sprawling winter sports complex for the country's rich.
Greenpeace Russia accuses the Kremlin of putting profits and sport before the environment by approving a £6bn project to turn the area surrounding the Black Sea resort of Sochi into a ski resort fit to host an Olympic Games.
The area includes one of the few large mountain ranges in Europe - the Western Caucasus - that has not experienced significant human impact.
Its subalpine pastures have only been grazed by wild animals, many of which are unique to the region, and tourist numbers to the area have been restricted. But all that looks set to change after President Vladimir Putin, who famously uses Sochi's snow-covered mountains for skiing and its subtropical climate for sunbathing, threw his weight behind the city's bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
In an attempt to edge out its rivals - Salzburg in Austria and Pyongchang in South Korea - he has sanctioned an ambitious building programme that will transform the region and appears set to go ahead regardless of whether or not Sochi's Olympic bid is successful. Some of Russia's richest oligarchs and most powerful state-controlled corporations have been given the green light to develop huge swaths of land that were formerly considered sacrosanct.
Oligarchs participating include Oleg Deripaska, who is Russia's sixth-richest man and is worth almost £5bn according to Forbes magazine, and Vladimir Potanin, who, with an estimated £4bn fortune is the country's ninth-wealthiest individual.
The state-controlled firm Gazprom, the world's largest gas producer, is also heavily involved in the development plan. About 52,000 hectares of Sochi's 190,000-hectare national park have been earmarked for development and the entire area is on the brink of a radical transformation. Construction of one of several ski resorts has already begun and a high-speed rail link and a hydrological power station are also planned, not to mention an Olympic Village.
But Greenpeace Russia, which is suing the government in the Supreme Court in an attempt to halt the project, argues that an environmental impact assessment has not been carried out and says that the law has in effective been broken to fast-track a development which has the personal imprimatur of Mr Putin. The stakes are high, as environmentalists regard the area as unique.
It is home to about 300 endemic plant species, 160 of which are endangered, as well as wolves, brown bears, lynx, a population of European bison that has been reintroduced, and endangered leopards and bats. But Greenpeace warns that one quarter of the Sochi National Park will be destroyed in the building frenzy. The group is also concerned that developers are being allowed to build in a precious "buffer zone" bordering the Unesco-listed Kavkazky nature reserve.
"We're talking about virgin territory where agriculture and other economic development has not been allowed in the past," Greenpeace's Mikhail Kreindlin said. "It [the development] is a very serious threat. The construction would cause significant damage to the area. The government is aware of all this but is under too much pressure from powerful real-estate developers and big corporations."
Greenpeace also argues that the area where most of the building will take place - the Sochi National Park - would be classed as a Unesco World Heritage site were it not for a technicality and the incompetence of previous governments.
Dmitri Chernyshenko, the general director of Sochi's Olympic Bid Committee, stressed that no development would take place in the Kavkazky reserve itself. "All our plans have been agreed with the pertinent authorities and won't damage the environment," he said.Reuse content