RIGA - Ask a Latvian for a stereotype of his compatriots, and he'll probably tell you, "We love our countryside." Latvians' relationship with the land is intimate, and mushroom-picking, forest walks and country cousins bearing sacks of potatoes when visiting their city relatives are all recognized features of local life.
Careful observers, however, might think that the phrase "We love our countryside" is missing a few words, such as "dump." A trip into the Latvian wilderness combines natural and industrial history. Latvia's forests are rich in plants, birds, fungi and flowers. They also produce a rich crop of plastic bags and bottles, truck tires, tin cans, bricks, and even abandoned Soviet bunkers, though you can't really blame the Latvians for that. The bird-watchers' paradise of Lake Engure is generally strewn with spent shot-gun cartridges. In fact, Latvia's forests and lakes are beautiful, but it's hard to see them for the litter.
This is ironic, because the surge for independence from the Soviet Union was partly led by environmental protesters. In the late 1980s, the Latvian Environmental Defense Club organized mass protests against Soviet plans to build a hydro-electric power station on the Daugava and a metro system under Riga. The movement became a rallying-point for pro-independence forces, and within five years Latvia was a free country once more.
It was a Pyrrhic victory. As the club's Web site, www.vak.lv, declares: "The Club became one of the most powerful political forces in the ruin of the Soviet empire and the renewal of Latvian independence. When independence came, a very large number of activists left the club to move into politics." The club became more of a political than an environmental organization, and in the process, much of its environmental focus was lost. Even today, the main supporters of the club and the Latvian branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature are governmental organizations and foreign multinationals: public opinion does not rate "environmental responsibility" among local companies' chief assets.
However, gradually the environmental landscape is beginning to change as grass-roots organizations make their presence felt. As well-being increases, more and more Latvians are turning to the glamorous side of outdoor pursuits, and in the words of one nouveau-riche property developer: "Last year's fashion was alpine skiing, now it's scuba diving." Scuba - represented in Riga by three dive clubs under the banner of PADI, the Professional Association of Scuba Instructors - has a long tradition of environmental activism. In the words of PADI instructor Kamila Solodovnikova: "We spend most of our time in the water, that's where we do all our training, so it's most important to protect it."
Protection, in this case, means cleaning up. Twice a year, in June and September, Kamila's dive club, Big Fish, organizes a clean-up dive at their training venue, Lake Slokas, near Jurmala. Divers go into the water with an empty plastic bag, and try and come back with a full one. "This year we had over 40 divers down at once, and we collected eight huge bin-bags full of rubbish," she explains. "Mostly it was bottles and bags, but there were shoes, clothes, building materials, hockey equipment, even a golden ring!" (Tolkien fans, beware).
Riga's two other dive clubs, Juras Vejs and Aquatex, also organize clean-up dives. "From what I see, more people are showing interest in diving every week. At the beginning of the season, we were getting four to six students per week, now it's more than doubled," Kamila says. The scuba community, small but active, is one grass-roots movement which is likely to have an impact on the environmental debate in the future.
The same is true of other leisure organizations. Scuba is a high-cost sport, and the 40 divers assembled for the Big Fish clean-up drove more BMWs and Mercedes than you would see in the average Riga car-park. Fishing, on the other hand, is relatively cheap, and in the words of Yuri Kondratenko, an environmental management consultant: "Anglers are quite active in cleaning up river-banks and lake-shores in some areas of Latvia, such as the Salaca River." Kayaking and orienteering, traditionally known for their strong stance on environmental issues, are also growing in popularity, and Latvia's ornithologists celebrated World Birdwatching Day on Oct. 1 with a gathering of almost 700 birdwatchers across the country. At present, these groups and their environmental projects are small-scale, local and largely unpublicized, but they are likely to gain increasing awareness and recognition of their activities soon.
Two organizations in particular are liable to head the charge. One is a voluntary, grass-roots organization called "Pedas" ("footprints"). This non-profit club was founded in 2002 after, according to its Web site www.pedas.lv, "Its leader Vita Jaunzeme realized that the problem of rubbish was not caused by aliens." Its goal is "to change people's attitude to themselves and their surroundings in the broadest meaning - our planet," and its method is to organize local environmental clean-ups with the help of local schools. Success has been remarkable: in the last two weeks of September, six clean-up operations collected almost 200 cubic meters of rubbish. The largest operation involved 340 volunteers, the majority of them students. This is the kind of grass-roots activism which began the environmental movement in the West.
The second organization, at the other end of the scale, is the State Forestry Department. Broadly responsible for the use and conservation of all state-owned forest in Latvia, the Department this year launched its very first mass campaign aimed at highlighting the problem of litter in the forests; tellingly, it, too, focuses on schools and young campaigners. Based on a vivid cartoon-like character, Cukmens ("pig-man") and the motto "Don't litter the forests: you'll turn into a pig!", the campaign has sparked a wave of media interest, with leading newspaper Diena carrying regular stories on the worst instances of littering in the country. The campaign's Web sites, www.cukmens.lv and www.lvm.lv, both offer galleries of photos of the excesses of Latvia's illegal tippers, and at the end of September it organized a meeting and clean-up campaign by Lake Engure whose star guest was Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis.
The motivation behind the Cukmens campaign highlights the change in Latvia's environmental scene. According to Tomass Kotovics, head of PR at the State Forestry Department: "Illegal dumping is the biggest and most visible problem affecting the forests today, and a well-protected and healthy environment is the chief precondition for the successful development of rural tourism." This is not his only concern by any means - equally important in his department's eyes is the cost of cleaning up the forests - but the esthetic factor is still a major concern. Quite simply, rubbish is unattractive, and Latvia's inhabitants and visitors are increasingly becoming aware of the ravaged appearance their littered forests present to the world.
This is the great change. Both Pedas and the Forestry Department see their key goal as changing Latvians' attitudes to the environment. In its own way, the outdoor-leisure industry is helping to achieve that goal. For an increasing number of Latvians, the countryside is a place of beauty, there for enjoyment and relaxation, not to serve as a convenient dumping-ground. As that perception grows, the environmental movement is likely to take on a new lease of life.