Outrage as priceless Russian seed bank faces destruction
Europe's largest field genebank of fruits and berries is facing destruction by court permitting cottage building on the site.Pavlovsk -- "I could not imagine that this no longer exists. I've spent my whole life here," cries botanist Alexandra Kondrikova, looking out over the fields of Russia's Pavlovsk seed collection.
The fields of crops outside Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg contain Europe's largest field genebank of fruits and berries and dates back almost 90 years.
But within months the Pavlovsk Station could be reduced to a building site after courts gave the go-ahead to for the land to be handed over to a federal construction agency that plans to build cottages on the site.
The plans have already prompted international crop diversity groups to appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev to halt the planned development and save one of the world's most valuable crop collections.
"You would need years to move this collection and this would be fatal for the plants. This is clear," said Kondrikova, who has worked at the collection since 1981 and has already identified 28 new types of honeysuckle.
She earns just 8,000 rubles (260 dollars/204 euros) a month.
Two fields from the station covering a total area of 90 hectares have already been ceded to the federal construction agency and one of them will be auctioned off as soon as this month.
"Officials are showing that they do not care about a collection that was formed in the last century and 90 of whose species are unique," the Pavlovsk station's acting director Fyodor Mikhovich said.
"The main thing for them is that they can earn one billion rubles (USD 30 million) by selling off the station's fields," he added.
To make matters worse, the law is stacked against the station's case, Mikhovich admitted. He said the law states that land can be ceded if it is disused -- and officials are claiming the Pavlovsk Station is disused land as "there is nothing but grass".
"But what to they want to see? Coconuts?" he asked. Under another mind-boggling quirk, the fact that the land is deemed as "priceless" also gives developers a right to build there.
"To legally prove that we are using these lands, we need to put a value on the collection which is impossible. There are no methods for that. How can we put a price on a collection that is unique and only exists here," he said.
From the outside, the vast fields of grasses, bushes and trees do not look particularly remarkable and contrast with the glitzy weekend homes being built in Pavlovsk by rich Petersburgers.
But the 500 hectares of the station contain 12,000 varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants and other crops.
Leading crop diversity group the Crop Diversity Trust has called on the Russian government to halt the planned development and the complaints have already brought acknowledgment from the Kremlin.
After receiving an appeal from Russia's civic chamber, Medvedev "gave the instruction for this issue to be scrutinised," the president wrote on his Twitter feed. However, it remains to be seen how this will be pursued.
Ironically, the controversy has collided with Russia's worst drought on record which has seen one quarter of its crops destroyed and again underlined the importance of seedbanks.
"This land is gold and I do not believe that scientists will be able to defend themselves against officials who are only worried about filling their own pockets," said Pavlovsk resident Anatoly Kurpoatkin.
"I would not be surprised if they declared the Hermitage Museum unused to sell its land," he said, referring to the famed art museum and imperial palace in Saint Petersburg.
The Pavlovsk seedbank was established in the 1920s by Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov. In the siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany in World War II its scientists, according to locals, starved to death rather than eat the seeds.
Marina Koreneva / AFP / Expatica