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USAID Media Program in Ukraine helps local media protect a Donetsk community against a radioactive mining operation

Nikolske is a large village with 8,000 residents in the district of Mariupol, near the Azov sea. It is also an administrative center for a community of 25 small settlements with its own schools, kindergartens, an art school, a cultural center, and a market.

In January 2021, a land lot of 100 hectares near Nikolske was put to auction. The plot contained zirconium, a radioactive ore that would have attracted investors interested in setting up a mining operation to extract it. Zirconium mining is hazardous to the environment, and the threat of pollution reaching the village – just one-and-a-half kilometers away – began to concern Nikolske residents. “If the extraction of zirconium starts near our settlement, it will turn into a disaster zone.” said  Valentyna Hrebeniuk, a local resident.

With professional mentoring from Internews Ukraine, Vostochny Variant (Eastern Version), an online media outlet in Donetsk region and a partner of USAID’s Media Program in Ukraine, created a series of reports that focused on providing information about the situation to the local community.  With USAID support, Internews Ukraine provided mentorship assistance to four local media from different regions of Ukraine on content production and distribution. Mentors worked with local journalists to produce nine stories on the topic, which reached a total of more than 84,000 views. One post went viral in Donetsk, reaching 31,279 Facebook users.

 The media outlet produced one particular story entitled “Treasure or powder keg? What could zirconium mining near Mariupol lead to, which laid out the potential impact of zirconium mining on the local environment.  After its publication, Nikolske residents organized local protests, held a car rally, and collected signatures for a petition to appeal to Members of Parliament and local councils to stop the land auction. The story was read by 42,098 people on Vostochny Variant’s website, an unusually high audience for a small local paper.

 

In the words of Mykola Smyrnov, one of the members of the village’s group of activists against the mine, “We held public hearings at seven village councils. We also collected signatures against zirconium mining and handed these documents over to our MP. Now people have calmed down. We are reassured that no one will go against the community’s will. I think that now life in the village will continue its course: no one will sell their houses, take their children, quit their jobs, and move to another place to escape from radiation poisoning. People’s attitude towards zirconium mining has not changed. I believe that it is not in vain that we have made our position clear and strengthened it through the media. Given this whole situation, investors will not take radical action.” The group of activists considered the expert suggestions provided in the media report to involve specialists, to create a public organization that would defend the community’s interests, and to monitor actions of the authorities. In February 2021, the land auction was canceled.

Vostochny Variant reporter Tetiana Zhuk continues to monitor the situation. “My story about the cancellation of the land auction in Nikolske proved that this community has a voice, and this voice is loud, so the authorities must listen to it. If community rights are violated, journalists are ready to act as watchdogs for democratic values ​​and rule of law,” said Zhuk.

The media team is keeping a close watch on the situation and further developments. Nikolske community has an ambitious goal: to remove Nikolske from Ukraine’s Investment Map of State Geological Services and Minerals of Ukraine, so that the problem of dangerous zirconium mining in the area can never occur again.

 

Photo: Vostochny Variant