Further beyond the tarmac of Gatwick’s terminal five I could see a dilapidated wooden barn, and I wondered whether the owner felt the same way about its neighbour as I do mine. Living in the shadows of industry is never easy.
But then again maybe the barn wasn’t actually there, perhaps it was a just palimpsest, a shadow that had long since disappeared. I was tired, after all, the last seventy two hours had been exhausting.
I had travelled two thousand kilometres from my home in Moshny, a rural village south of Kyiv, population 5000, to London for the annual meetings of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The EBRD is funding one of the largest poultry producers in all of Ukraine, Myronivsky Hluboproduct, or MHP for short.
I had come to represent the voices of my community, who like that barn at the end of the runway, are at the edge of disappearance.
In the beginning
I am not originally from Moshy, but my family and I have called it home for more than twenty five years. I had finished my university studies in agricultural sciences in Kharkiv and was set to join one of the country’s leading researchers of winter wheat at the Myronivka selection station. We worked on a crop which grew abundantly in the region’s world famous chernozem, or black soil.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent, and like much of the rest of the country’s institutions, the agricultural centre and industry fell into disrepair and neglect.
We had moved to Moshny in 1989. At the time, Moshny was a flourishing village: home to dairy and bread factories, a vegetable canning plant and other agricultural industry, with its own hospital and sanatorium.
The community has since remained dedicated to the land, with most making their living as small farmers, selling animal products, milk, vegetables and fruits at the local markets. I’ve stayed on with the local council, advising on agricultural and land issues.
But the stability provided by subsistence agriculture is being threatened with extinction.
A brief history of conflict
The reason for my trip to London begins with a promise made more than two decades later. In November 2014, the managing director of Peremoga Nova, a subsidiary of MHP, came to Moshny and informed the village council that MHP planned to build 144 poultry rearing houses at the edge of town.
MHP was no stranger in the community. Throughout the 2000s, it had constructed a number of poultry houses across the region, so we had some idea of what to expect. But the size of this expansion – and its potential impacts on our soils, the water and the overwhelming odour – would significantly alter the land and the quality of life for those of us who call the area home.
News about these plans spread quickly, and later that month at a public meeting organised by MHP, opposition to the project was rampant. We were well organised in our dissent, and MHP’s director, Viktor Grynyuk, said that the project would not go forward if there was not full community support for the project.
In spite of this, MHP began making secret deals with residents to lease their lands so that construction could move ahead. Ultimately, this approach was unsuccessful.
But the pressure didn’t stop there. Over the next few months, beginning in early 2015, instances of harassment, intimidating threats and pressures to lease our lands continued. Still, more than 400 people voted down the project again during a town council meeting that February.
The following month, another 600 people in the neighbouring village of Yasnozirya joined in the fight against MHP by collecting signatures against a portion of the expansion that would impact their village.
As the member of the rayon council, I was personally attacked, with the leaflets aimed at discrediting my standing in the eyes of my community.
With no real alternatives, in May 2015 we organised the first in a series of direct actions to stop construction moving forward. After a second blockade of a road leading to the proposed rearing site, President Poroshenko cancelled his visit to the region, and dialogue with authorities began (even though the State Security Service threatened the community with criminal proceedings).
Later that summer, we brought our protests to the capital, and demonstrated outside the presidential palace, demanding that our grievances be met.
In May I even managed to arrange a meeting with Yuri Kosyuk, the billionaire who owns MHP. He reassured me that the construction would be stopped. But by year’s end, that proved to be another broken promise.
In November 2015, the first physical attacks against protestors happened, when an activist was beaten in the Ladyzhyn city market. Ladyzhyn, in the neighbouring Vinnytsya oblast, is home to another MHP poultry farm, which it claims as the largest in Europe. Production there is set to double by 2018, so communities are therefore alert.
The following month, in Yasnozirya, the chair of the village council was severely beaten in what many thought was an attempt to scare local leaders from protesting against MHP. He spent more than a month in the hospital.
Both instances were reported to police, but in the end nothing was to come of it, unfortunately.
It was during these days that I first met with the NGO, the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine (NECU). Their experience in dealing with banks like the EBRD could help bring our case to the people bankrolling MHP.
After all, MHP had approached the EBRD and two other public banks – the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the European Investment Bank – for nearly half a billion euros worth of development investments to fund the expansion.
To the boardroom
Initial attempts to speak with the EBRD failed. The bank was set to visit MHP in November 2015, and NECU had tried to broker a meeting for villagers in Yasnozirya that we would have also been able to join. That meeting however ultimately did not happen, as far as I know. So the only conclusion was that the bank had no interest in talking to us.
If that was the case, then the best thing I could do was travel to London and make our concerns known to the shareholders who can pressure MHP to do better business. This was no small task, one that I approached with an equal dose of anxiety and excitement. For an activist from a rural Ukrainian village to travel to the boardrooms of Liverpool street with the weight of her community’s concerns is a strong emotional burden to bear.
During the meetings however, it quickly became unfortunately evident that bank staff remained unconvinced by our objections.
The EBRD continues to believe in the infallibility of its client.
After that abbreviated November visit, the bank produced a report outlining the steps that MHP must take in order to right the wrongs it has made so far. That the report reached us, and translated in Ukrainian so that we could better understand, is also thanks to the work of NECU. It remains to be seen whether MHP will actually implement those measures, however.
On my final day, I put the case of Moshny before the bank’s shareholders:
‘We have the right to live in a clean and safe environment.’
I am not sure whether they’ll listen. But our hopes remain high. As I sat in the airport terminal waiting for my flight to Kyiv, my phone rang without end. Excited neighbours asked if our concerns would soon have answers. Only time will tell.
This story is a contribution to the IFI and human rights defenders project. For more information visit the Bankwatch website.
All photos © Niels Ackermann / Lundi13 / NECU, except EBRD image