Capitalists poised to strike down Soviets’ great biodiversity repository

Next Wednesday, August 11, 2010, a Russian court will decide the fate of the world-renowned Pavlovsk Experimental Station outside St. Petersburg, Russia. The station is the world’s largest collection of fruit and berries and is run by the Russian Institute of Plant Industry. According to the Independent, June 26, 2010, the collection consists of  “more than 4,000 varieties of fruits and berries, including more than 100 examples each of gooseberries, raspberries, and cherries, and almost 1,000 types of strawberries from 40 countries, from which most modern commercially-grown varieties are derived.” 90% of the species raised at this station are found no where else in the world.

The land on which the station operates has been handed over to the Russian Housing Development Foundation, a state agency set up in 2008 to sell public land to private developers to construct residential units. While the station itself is under threat of imminent destruction by the forces of real estate capitalists, the founder of the station, eminent biologist Nikolai I. Vavilov, was undone by the antiscience ideology of the Stalinist state. Vavilov developed the theory of “center of origin” of domesticated plants, and in the course of his researches, he organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions, collected seeds from every corner of the globe, and created in Leningrad the world’s largest collection of plant seeds. The Pavolovsk Pavlovsk station is one of 11 facilities he established. Over the course of his career, he amassed a collection of 200,000 plant seeds from throughout the Soviet Union, and other places around the world. The collection near Petersburg was considered so valuable by Vavilov and his staff that it was preserved through the great starvation during the seige of Leningrad by the Nazi army, which lasted for more than two years. At least one staff member died of starvation amidst the great abundance of seed and grain contained in the collection.

N.I. Vavilov at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station in 1927, a year after it was founded.

Vavilov was a Mendellian and refused to renounce the scientific basis of genetics even after the fraudster Trofim Lysenko convinced Stalin of the Soviet Realist truth of heritability of environmentally acquired characteristics. When Vavilov refused to accept Lysenkoism, he was arrested and sent to a labor camp, where he died in 1943.

And now one of the jewels of his collection, and one that was saved through pure patriotisms during one of the grimmest tests ever conducted on human will, is now in peril, not from Stalinist obscurantism but from capitalist greed.

“It is a bitter irony that the single most deliberately destructive act against crop diversity, at least in my lifetime, could be about to happen in Russia of all places—the country that invented the modern seed bank,” said Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which aims to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide and supports the operations of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic Circle, according to a release in today’s EurekAlert!

“This is such a valuable collection that we can’t afford to lose it,” said Simon Linington, deputy head of the Millennium Seed Bank, which is based at Wakehurst Place in Sussex. “It is important that it is saved in one way or another, even if that means moving it.” (quoted in the Independent article above.)

But apparently there will be no time to move it, if the court rules for the development authority. According to a release at EurekAlert!: “As Pavlovsk is predominantly a field collection, it cannot simply be moved. Fowler and other experts estimate that even if another site were available nearby—and there is not one—it would take many years to relocate. There are efforts underway to craft an emergency relocation plan, but technical and logistical challenges make it unlikely that more than a small fraction of the collection could be transferred. For example, the most suitable sites for relocation are likely outside of Russia, raising complicated legal questions and quarantine issues that accompany any effort to move plant materials across national borders.”

That apparatchiks still run Russian government offices is shown by the positions advanced to the court: “the property developers maintain that because it contains a ‘priceless collection,’ no monetary value can be assigned to Pavlovsk Station, so, therefore, it is essentially worthless. Furthermore, the Federal Fund of Residential Real Estate Development has argued that the collection was never officially registered and thus it does not officially exist.”

And so having survived the Nazis, human starvation, and Soviet ideology, this monument to disinterested scientific foresight is posed to be destroyed for the benefit of private real estate developers. And it seems like it will happen during the International Year of Biodiversity and in the summer that Russia is facing the consequences of crop loss owing to the kind of droughts that promise to be more widespread and prevalent in the future.

Is there any wonder that some of us, in this era where capitalism has won the battle to end history, have very bleak opinions on the future of the human species?

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    • Elaine Charkowski
    • August 28th, 2010

    If the court rules in favor of the developers, cant funds be raised to pay them off?

    • That’s a very good question. And it appears no international That is a very good question. But as far as I could find out, no organization has yet stepped to the plate to buy off the developers or even to try to raise money to do it. There might be a good reason for that.

      First, the court did in fact rule in favor of the developers. The institute has appealed to President Medvedev who ordered an “investigation.” There is an international “twitter” campaign to shame the Russian government into stopping the sale. That seems to be the extent of international efforts.
      Having an outside organization buy the land would be the logical thing to do if everyone were acting in good faith. The problem is that it looks like no one is. According to a report from the Voice of America in 2007 the Institute sent a letter to the government asking for help funding their operating expenses. The government construed this as a request to sell part of the land, which they proceeded to do. Now if some outside organization buys that property (assuming the developers are willing to sell), what is to stop the government from acting the same way with respect to another parcel? And if the government simply wanted international funds to help the institute, why didn’t it ask rather than try to sell the land to private developers? Plus there is any number of ways a hostile government could harass an organization involved in running the institute, including restricting who the institute could send cultivars to.
      On top of all this, the institute needs operating funds. It would probably be a complicated negotiation for any outsiders to work out who would pay what and who would get a voice in how the thing were run.
      In short the whole situation looks like a corrupt transaction or at very least the first step in the government’s deciding to pull the plug on the whole organization. Anyone getting involved is not likely to be treated with any more consideration than the historic institute was given. In this light is it really reasonable to expect outside money to come flowing in? And even if someone were to step to the plate it’s not likely that everything could be worked out by mid-September, the time during which the President has the opportunity to stop the sale.
      It’s probably an old-fashioned view, but a scientific organization working for the benefit of future generations seems to be one of the better objects of government support. If governments don’t see this as part of their role, and believe that this should be funded by private charity, then there really is no hope for near-term solutions to serious problems like global warming, which requires coordinated action by governments willing to act with foresight and concern for future generations–something not in evidence in Russia’s actions in this simpler case to date.

  1. August 11th, 2010

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