Estonians stop toxic phosphorite mining, 1987-88

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Timing
Time Period:  
Febrary 25,
1987
to
September
1987
Location and Goals
Country: 
Estonia
Goals: 
To stop the opening of new phosphorite mines in Northeast Estonia
 

Since the 1920s, phosphorite mining has polluted the air and water of Estonia. The former Soviet Union republic is rich in phosphorite deposits, which can be used to make phosphorus fertilizers. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union began exploiting Estonia’s deposits with large-scale mining operations. The ensuing problems were caused not by the phosphorite, but by the layers of oil shale that were removed in the process of extraction. The excess shale was typically dumped close to the mine, where it would continually catch fire and pollute the groundwater.

When Soviet contractors found new deposits in northern Estonia in the 1970s, the All-Union Ministry of Fertilizer Industries started planning a trial mine and set the construction date for 1987. Although the Estonian population did not have a formal channel to voice their objections, a group of scientists from the Estonian Academy of Sciences led by Endel Lippmaa published a report on the dangers of such a project. By selecting the Pandivere region, which was located on a watershed, the Ministry posed a grave threat to the area in which the majority of Estonia’s rivers originated. By excavating radioactive materials, the Soviets risked contaminating up to 40 percent of Estonia’s water supply. Beyond this immediate concern, resistance to the mining project was also fueled by ethnic fears: many Estonians believed that the mine would attract an influx of Russian immigrants, further exacerbating a perceived demographic threat.

On February 25, 1987, the deputy minister of the USSR Ministry of Fertilizer Industries announced the ministry’s decision to begin a large-scale mining project in the Virumaa region of Estonia. The minister’s statement, which was broadcast on the popular Panda TV program, directly contradicted previous statements made by the Estonian Communist Party (ECP) leaders. The ECP, lead by Karl Vaino, had stressed that no decision would be made until the Estonian people had the opportunity to weigh in on the mining issue. The deputy minister’s announcement galvanized public awareness of plans that were previously kept secret.

One of the first vocal opponents was Vladimir Beekman. Beekman, chairman of the writer’s union, gave a speech in which he challenged President Gorbachev during his visit to Estonia in February 1987. The speech was soon published in Sirp ja Vasar, Estonia’s main weekly.

On April 2, 1987, students at Tartu University organized a conference in the main hall of the university (aula), which was later known as the aula meeting. This meeting began the student resistance movement. On April 24, the Tartu University Council followed suit with a resolution that accused the Ministry of Fertilizers of neglecting the ecological and social effects of mining. The resolution also included an opinion survey showing three-fourths of the local population opposed to the project. On May 1, students held their first demonstrations in Tartu, parading through the streets with signs and yellow tee-shirts that read “Phosphorite- no thanks.” The students hung banners bearing anti-phosphorus slogans throughout the town. In response, Soviet censors forced the Tartu University weekly to refrain from printing articles about the May 1st student demonstrations.

During the spring and summer months of 1987, the campaign spread from Tartu to other towns, where citizens staged their own anti-mining demonstrations. Although the students were the first to mobilize, other factions and civic groups were soon involved in the fight against mining. The yellow shirts and slogans became symbolic of the campaign, as were “phosphorite songs” performed by resisters at demonstrations. The movement attracted the support of several key leaders in the ECP, such as Edgar Savisaar and Arnold Ruutel.

In September 1987, Soviet authorities officially cancelled the Viruuma project. Subsequent developments cemented the decision: in an October meeting of the CPE Central Committee, Bruno Saul (ESSR premier) announced that the USSR Council of Ministers decided to reject proposals for future mining projects in Estonia altogether.

Besides achieving its immediate goals, the campaign marked a radical shift in Estonia’s political atmosphere. Before the anti-mining campaign, resistance efforts had been limited in their scope and influence. Most people chose not to take part for fear of the inevitable Soviet repression, and those who participated in demonstrations were incarcerated (for more information, see the Baltic Helsinki group’s failed resistance efforts in 1977.) The success of the anti-mining campaign helped dissipate the culture of fear that had kept Estonians locked in the grip of Soviet control. The campaign’s success can be partly attributed to Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness), the reform that allowed for greater political expression in the Baltic states after 1985. After September 1987, Estonian demands for political autonomy increased (see, “Estonians campaign for independence (The Singing Revolution), 1987-1991”).

Research Notes
Influences: 

Estonian university students were very much influenced by Gorbachev's implementation of glasnost, in which he invited criticism of Soviet shortcomings and reform proposals. (1)

The Phosphate Spring protests marked the beginnings of Estonian mobilization, as citizens tested the boundaries of glasnost. The anti-mining campaign served as a catalyst for the 1987 demonstration against the Molotov Ribbenstrop Pact, which happened shortly after the Soviets made concessions on the mining project. The environmental protests of 1987 cleared the way for open public debate on a number of issues that were taboo before glasnost, such as Estonia's right to retain its cultural heritage as a Soviet state and the need for economic self-determination (see "Estonians campaign for independence (The Singing Revolution), 1987-1991"). (2)

Sources: 
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“Estonia’s return to independence 1987–1991.” Estonia.eu. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2011. <http://estonia.eu/‌about-estonia/‌country/‌estonias-return-to-independence-19871991.html>.

Miljan, Toivo. Historical Dictionary of Estonia. N.p.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Google Books. Web. 23 Sept. 2011. <http://books.google.com/‌books?as_brr=3&id=XKWRct15XfkC&dq=%22phosphate+war%22&q=phosphate+war#v=onepage&q=phosphate%20war&f=false>.

Raun, Toivo. Estonia and the Estonians. N.p.: Hoover Press, 2001. Print.

A study on the EU oil shale industry – viewed in the light of the Estonian experience. EASAC.eu. European Academics Science Advisory Council, May 2007. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://www.easac.eu/‌fileadmin/‌PDF_s/‌reports_statements/‌Study.pdf>.

Subrenat, Jean-Jacques. Estonia: Identity and Independence. N.p.: Rodopi, 2004. Print.

Taagepera, Rein. Estonia: Return to Independence. N.p.: Westview Press, 1993. Print.

Vogt, Henri. Between Utopia and disillusionment: a narrative of the political transformation in Eastern Europe. N.p.: Berghahn Books, 2005. Google Books. Web. 24 Sept. 2011. <http://books.google.com/‌books?id=nI73PdnqQlcC&pg=PA20&dq=phosphorite+war#v=onepage&q=phosphorite%20war&f=false>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Carmen Smith-Estrada, 25/09/2011