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Post-Chernobyl recovery in Ukraine's farming communities

"Before the Chernobyl accident," explains farm manager Mykola Mikolaichuk, "Norintsivska farm was very productive and employed many people. Hops, linen, grain and potatoes grew better in this part of northern Ukraine than elsewhere in the country." He also recalls the large flocks of sheep that grazed the expansive pastures in this flat and forested land.

Chernobyl nuclear power station, Ukraine
credit: Vadim Mouchkin/IAEA

But the accident of April 1986 at the nuclear power plant some 100 km to the east, changed everything. Tests revealed that around a third of the 4000 hectare farm was too contaminated with radionuclides for remediation to be viable, and all production on this land had to stop. The remainder was treated, for example by application of lime and fertilizers, to reduce the uptake of radionuclides by crops and pasture grasses, but even on this land farming activities had to change. Labour intensive crops like hops and linen had to be abandoned as the risks of accumulated radiation exposure for the workforce were too high. Grain production on the farm was expanded and increasingly mechanised, but the farm's status as the major local employer was finished.

Similar stories of decline in farm employment and productivity can be found throughout the contaminated zones of Ukraine. To the east of the power plant, the economy of Ripky raiyon, or district, was dominated by vegetable farming and food processing. Prior to the accident, canned and dried carrots and potatoes were exported to markets across the Soviet Union and beyond, but fears of contamination forced the processing facility to close, and with few other job opportunities, most of the young and the trained people left the area, leaving behind a population of which 60 per cent are old enough to receive the state pension. Now, areas that were once the agricultural heartland not only of Ukraine, but of the whole Soviet Union, are drawing from, rather than boosting the national economy. Social benefit payments are made to all who live in these contaminated zones, and while the amount that each person receives is small, the drain on the national budget is crippling.

Options for remediation

How, or whether to restore agricultural productivity to these areas raises complex technical and political questions. In general, plants growing in poorer quality soils absorb more radionuclides than those in fertile ground; this raises the question of whether restoring such areas to safe productivity, through remediation measures, is cost-effective. Should the country instead aim to intensify production on its best lands and, if so, what future will there be for those in marginal areas?

The persistence of radiation in some of Ukraine's agricultural produce is another cause for concern. Valery Kashparov, Director of the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology believes that there are approximately 400 villages in the country where unsafe milk and meat are being consumed by local people. Currently the government provides radiocesium absorbing tablets that are fed to dairy and beef cattle, which render safe both milk and meat. However, according to Kashparov, the amount provided does not meet the demand and extra supplies are either difficult to obtain or unaffordable for poorer farmers. Adequate provision and effective monitoring of usage could, he argues, reduce the prevalence of contamination by up to 95 per cent, but it would require a shift in government thinking and resource allocation which, he feels, is unlikely to occur.

Restoring the social fabric

The long term future of Ukraine's Chernobyl-affected zones, whether an agricultural one or otherwise, will depend not only on specific, targeted measures to address contamination, but also on more holistic efforts to restore the social and economic fabric of the region. Depression, anxiety, and a sense of victimhood and dependency are all much more common here than in other parts of the country, and are widely acknowledged to be the most significant impact of the disaster for human health and well-being. In the last three years, however, significant changes have been seen, in particular the establishment of over 120 community organisations in Ukraine's four most affected regions.

Youth centre in Nedanchichi village, northern Ukraine
credit: Mykola Movchan/UNDP

With institutional and financial support from the United Nations Development Programme, group members have undertaken a wide range of community development projects, aimed at improving local people's access to services, infrastructure and business opportunities. In the town of Zamglai, for example, the health centre and youth centre have been renovated and re-equipped, with the youth centre now producing a newspaper, and providing computer training, seminars, games and fitness classes. Natasha Nasom, a dynamic young woman who was a driving force behind the renovation, believes that progress of this kind is already having an effect; young people are no longer leaving the area as they were before, and the community as a whole has a more positive vision of a future that they can influence.

In early September this year, seven UN organisations and the governments of Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation were hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, in a meeting of the Chernobyl Forum. The event saw the release of three detailed reports, summarising the many impacts of the disaster, including those on human health, the environment and the economies of affected areas. The broad intention of the Forum was to enable the three countries to draw a line under Chernobyl, accepting the scale of the damage, and of the need for better targeted policy to overcome the persisting problems. But for such policies to be implemented will require those governments to share the determination and bravery of individuals like Natasha Nasom.

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1st November 2005