Poisoned
Rice in the
North Caucasus

  Poisoned
Rice in the
 North Caucasus

 Overexploitation in
Rice Production

Timm Schönfelder

The Kuban river is one of the largest rivers in southern Russia. It originates in the northern Caucasus on Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, flows north towards Stavropol, and then turns west through Krasnodar before flowing into the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea 870 kilometers later. Over the course of the 20th century, the river’s waters were gradually tamed in order to make the Kuban region usable for agriculture. At the behest of Soviet leadership, the area around Krasnodar was intensively developed for rice production starting around 1930. Hydraulic engineers flooded tens of thousands of hectares of farmland, dug hundreds of canals, and built dozens of water barriers. The greatest achievement was the completion of the Krasnodar reservoir in 1975 which, with a volume of over three billion cubic meters, is larger than Lake Starnberg in Bavaria.

Insecticides in
Mothers’ Milk

After initial difficulties, over one million tons of rice were harvested along the Kuban river by 1980. Towards the end of the decade, however, it was revealed that broad swaths of the region were contaminated by herbicides and other chemicals, and a large proportion of the population fell ill. Traces of the pesticide DDT, officially banned in 1970, can still be found in breast milk and agricultural products today. Even the collapse of the inefficient Soviet economy in 1991 gave nature only a brief opportunity to regenerate. A way out of the dilemma between yield maximization and sustainable, but supposedly less productive land management is not yet in sight.

What threatens us?

According to a report from the local environmental protection committee in 1995, “There are two kilograms of pesticides for every inhabitant of the Krasnodar region.” Plant protection agents and chemical fertilizers were found to have a strong link to higher rates of cancer and a significantly higher mortality rate. Since the 1960s, the chemicalization of the Kuban region had increased drastically. But oversight by local party authorities barely existed, and the simple farm workers often lacked the specialized knowledge to critically examine their actions. They rarely knew the proper dosages, and because chemicals could only be sprayed on the rice fields by plane, unfavorable wind conditions often led to entire settlements being covered in chemical fog. Countless scientists knew about the negative consequences of such an overuse of herbicides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers. But they were unable to deliver their threat analyses directly to the farmers – the information policies of the Soviet Union were too restrictive. The connection between the increasing use of chemicals and the increasing rate of illness could only be discussed towards the end of the Soviet Union.

Picture below: »Sovchozdirektor A.I. Majstrenko and group leader I.M. Čaun are getting ready to grow rice «, from the specialist journal» Gidrotechnika i Melioracija «, 1969
COMPARISON The factor of time in
threatened social orders

Who are we?

At the end of the 1980s, retired hydraulic engineer Boris Kosenko wrote a poem about the situation: “To increase the yields (…) / they often blindly applied to the rice / different chemicals by eye / and these poisons were deposited on the grain.” In his poem “Rice Porridge”, Kosenko refers to the invisible threat along the Kuban. The victims were the local populace: They consumed the contaminated drinking water, breathed in the dust from the farmland in the summer months, and ate the polluted crops. The continued use of officially banned substances such as DDT was a “question of philosophy” as the former director of a sovkhoz defiantly put it. In such cooperative state-owned farms, the motto “more is better” usually won the day. And if a field produced less yield, it was just sprayed more. A critical exchange between experts only took place behind closed doors, civic order could not be publicly questioned.

POEM “Rice Porridge”
by Boris Kosenko

And now again: “All of the fields under plow,
Rice on the Kuban – a heroic achievement for the entire people!”

The wheat no longer provides such yields
 and fell out of fashion for awards.

And instead of reclaiming the swamps
rice became the fertile seed
and wrecked plans and calculations
the rice harvest, which was unsuitable for porridge:

To increase the yields and
the number of successes in the Krasnodar region
in work, the scientists’ degrees and awards

they often blindly applied to the rice
different chemicals by eye
and these poisons were deposited on the grain.

“Rice Porridge”
by Boris Kosenko

What do we need?

The public knew little about the dangers from the use of chemicals. The gradual poisoning of Krasnodar’s natural resources remained a hidden threat for them. Only a few scientists expressed criticism. In books and essays, they pushed for tighter controls and called for the targeted training of specialists. But most of these suggestions remained stranded in the chaos of state  administration. And because there were too few local specialists to effectively implement scientific insights, the idea of sustainable agriculture remained nothing but a vague theory in the Soviet Union. As expected, local elites demonstrated little enthusiasm for critical studies that revealed their own incompetence. It wasn’t until the reforms implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the 1980s that a new social rethinking took hold: economic and organizational failings were increasingly criticized, and alternative solutions began to be discussed. Independent and local action groups formed to fight for environmental protection. But such groups are back under the threat of repression today.

Illustration: Paula Radon

What should we do?

For a long time, Soviet citizens were left alone solving their everyday problems. “Moscow is a long way away” goes the laconic saying. Critical education and the open freedom of expression remained empty ideals until the late stages of the Soviet system. Research institutes were chronically underfunded, and political participation by scientists was rarely welcome. But after dissenting voices were no longer sanctioned under Gorbachev, local interest groups began to organize themselves. They found little response from officials, but expressed their views with pamphlets, self-published newspapers, and at discussion rounds. State leadership was unable to keep this public movement at bay. Embarrassment upon embarrassment from the planning and Party apparatus was uncovered and denounced, and it became clear that the Soviet state was not only committing economic suicide, it was committing ecological suicide as well. In the 1990s, many inhabitants of Krasnodar saw an opportunity for change. But in the end, they would be just as bitterly disappointed by their new leaders – ultimately, nobody who makes a profit at the expense of nature wants to stand in the pillory.

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