Ukrainian women fight for environmental justice, in the shadow of Chernobyl

In Odessa, Ukraine, we met with MAMA-86, a women's environmental health group founded in response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Odessa-based director Svetlana Slesarenok told us the story. When the nuclear meltdown occurred, the government kept mum about what was happening, working hard to downplay the danger; foreign sources like Voice of America were more reliable. As the years passed, a group of Kiev mothers, concerned about their children's health, got together to organize, and MAMA-86 was born. The Soviet citizens didn't find it easy to organize: "People said you if you went into the street with a sign saying 'I support the Soviet Union' you'd be taken away. No initiative was allowed." But concerned mothers are hard to say no to.

Svetlana's own initiation into women's environmental health organizing in her district against the expansion of a dangerous oil processing facility that had been killing locals since the 1960s. When the Ukrainian government wanted to rebuild the plant, residents opposed reconstruction, making their demands heard through women's street actions, and later, lawsuits. Svetlana laughs. "We gave grandmothers the politicians' home phone numbers, and they kept calling and calling. They had a lot of time on their hands."

Today, MAMA-86 works on a wide variety of environmental health issues, often building partnerships with public and private institutions. "We like to work for results, that's why our strategies are about action." They've worked with local governments to implement high-tech compost toilets in rural schools. "In the big city, you open your tap and water comes"; urbanites often have no idea about Ukraine's depleted groundwater and disappearing rivers (in Odessa alone, 57 rivers have vanished in the past 20 years). The team ran a contest, offering money-saving green consulting services to apartment complexes with the highest level of interest. The winning apartment complex ended up installing water meters in every apartment, which helped identify waste and cut building-wide water bills by about 80%. Svetlana's excited about her model projects. "People are ready for this, we just need smarter systems." The group's been evangelizing the benefits of using water meters to cut wastage with the help of local journalists and supported new legislation to allow more competition in the water meter industry, while exploring ways to increase youth awareness of Ukrainian water issues.

The Odessa office is full of the buzz of two generations of women environmentalists. "Ukrainian women are like Amazon women," Svetlana tell us. "We may not be able to change rising sea levels by ourselves, but we can change something in our communities. Cossack women managed everything while the men were away. When the country was in transition, many men fell victim to depression. In families, someone had to make things work all the while." MAMA-86 takes in many student volunteers, some of whom become staff members, while others remain allies, some working in business, civil society, and government.

MAMA-86 is active in a wide variety of local and international networks, around climate change, water issues, homelessness. Svetlana attended the Copenhagen climate conference with a larger network of allies, but came back disappointed: "it was the worst conference I've been to" -- but she sees hope in continued grassroots local action, the only thing that's ever really worked. When we told Svetlana we were headed to Turkey, she asked us to help connect her to Turkish groups interested in working on Black Sea area projects, including climate change, anti-militarism, and public space. We promised we'd try to help.

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We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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