We highlight the inspiring interview with Ukrainian environmental and social activist Iuliia Markhel, founder of the organization LET'S DO IT UKRAINE, who was present at the event to speak about urban clean-up actions in wartime:
Sotkon - Tell us more about “Let's do it Ukraine”. When did it start?
Iuliia Markhel - It's been a long trip. We started in 2015 with our “eco movement." It's the biggest environmental movement in Ukraine now, and after nine years, we've activated 3.5 million Ukrainian people. We have many information campaigns, uniting people to do cleanups and work with municipalities, the government, the media, superstars, and civilians. And we work with "eco-culture."
Sotkon – What is “eco -culture”?
Iuliia Markhel - Yes, eco -culture and recycle culture. When we started, we understood that it was just the first point that we could do together. And after that, of course, I opened a new movement fully geared towards recycling, where we understood how 5 million schoolchildren could be involved. They are like our ambassadors, because if you work with schoolchildren in the school, and they are preparing some exercises at home (recycling at home and collecting secondary raw materials), when their family asks them, "What are you doing?” they just tell them it’s about exercises from school!
And when they do this for 6 months or one year, then their families start understanding how we can recycle.
Sotkon - It’s very interesting that you talk about the eco-culture as the kind of culture that we must engage in the future. But how difficult and different is it to foster this Eco -Culture in a country that is living in peace (like Portugal) and the eco-culture right now in Ukraine, a country at war?
Iuliia Markhel - You live for today, and you do what you can today. But now it is different because we have big security protocols. Officially, like a leader of an NGO, I can't invite and unite people in one place because it's dangerous. I can do some events, but security protocols must be followed. And that’s what's changed since the war started. When you have an air-strike alarm, you must go. You stop everything and go underground. And this is what we do.
And we understand when, for example, Russia destroyed our Kakhovka Hidroeletric Power Plant…
Sotkon - Please tell us more about the consequences of that disaster. It happened this year, right?
Iuliia Markhel – Yes, it was in June 2023 and when it happened in the first week I travelled a lot in this region, Kherson, to look around because we did our humanitarian mission Let’s Do It, Ukraine SOS and brought help to civilians who lost everything.
But it was an Eco-Catastrophe! It is about 200 km of water stream all travelling to the Black Sea carrying all this garbage, these toxic metals, everything from landfills, from oil stations, from factory plants, from everything now travelling to the world ocean via Black Sea.
With serious consequences to our flora and fauna, yes of course they destroyed this ecosystem. And we need 50 -70 years to rebuild everything, restart everything. We must understand, these toxic metals from Kakhovka HPP killed our flora and fauna.
It impacted about 63.000 hectares of forest in three regions, it is like 3 times the size of your forest in Portugal! And we must understand, we can’t stop because it also impacted about 60.000 buildings where people lived in those regions.
And when they are back to their houses, then the water may be running, but they need help because they need pest controls and other options to live normally. They can’t live normally anymore and as an activist our eco-mission is in all the regions. We must field scientists and set up laboratories working to supply drinking water to the population.
Sotkon – What can be done now to recover some of the damage?
Iuliia Markhel – We have arsenic, we have zinc, we have cadmium and many other toxic metals in the water being used by civilians and it is very dangerous for the human body. All these toxic metals will go in our body and then never go out! Yes, and it’s very dangerous and now it’s in the world ocean – so these war crimes really killed our ecosystem, and it is one of the biggest environmental problems now to all countries in Europe and in the world.
Sotkon – It’s not just Ukraine’s loss, it’s the world’s loss with this accident and with the consequences of this accident?
Iuliia Markhel – Yes.
Sotkon – Do you think that people under a war scenario, they are more committed to recycling or less committed to recycling because they are afraid, they are insecure?
Iuliia Markhel – So if we have infrastructure, NGOs and the municipality working together to inform why it is important and why we must build this recycling system every day. But we have many territories in Ukraine where we have no roads because they destroyed our roads, they closed our landfills. We can’t clean normally and rebuild normally and fix it normally.
And we have territories where we must wait, for example in occupied territory, there’s a big territory where we don’t know what’s happened after this disaster with Kakhovka HPP. We don’t know what’s happened there because war is going on for two years and we don’t have connection with people there, with the local people.
And that’s why I, like other activists, we are always waiting for when we can go to our occupied territories to, of course, immediately bring help to people and immediately bring some materials and scientists with laboratories to understand what happened and how long we need for rebuilding.
Sotkon – You must be familiar with the pay as you throw mechanism. With a PAYT system the polluter pays for the waste that he or she produces. Do you think that if people need to pay for the waste that they deposit in undifferentiated waste containers, they will recycle more? Do you think that money is a motivation?
Iuliia Markhel – I think that here we have a lot of points. If we’re talking about a country with a sustainable economy and normal life, such as Portugal, maybe PAYT is better, because when you pay for something, you understand why you must do that. And of course, it is about building a recycling system quickly because when you have resources and money, businesses are motivated, municipalities become motivated, and people don’t want to have landfills around them.
Sometimes, we just live, go to work, bring some food, and make children smile, but it is about our body, it is about life, it is about food, it is about water, it is about everything. That’s why business, municipality, NGO, citizens, and media of course must work every day together, every moment. The environmental topic is the priority topic, because if we don’t care about the environment, we don’t need the economy – we will have died by then!
Sotkon- What do you think is the role that technology can perform in convincing people to recycle more? What is your view on new technologies?
Iuliia Markhel – I think new technologies will help us all, they will help to make recycling systems stronger and enable more immediate results. Because we have no time for any long roads ahead of us.
Sotkon - I also would like to ask you what are the best ways are to provide humanitarian aid and support to "Let's Do It Ukraine"? How can Portuguese people contribute?
Iuliia Markhel – We always need food and water, and we understand that we must have these resources in the country because it's about environmental humanitarian aid. It's not about big trucks from Portugal to Ukraine because it would pollute our world further. Yes, it's about resources. And really, we need help with resources, for example, for our monitoring, for programs, and for rebuilding. And our reality, we can’t do it alone because sometimes people have no chance to work normally, and businesses have no chance to be run normally.
I propose that people don't wait for the day when we will have victory, because we don’t have such a long time. We hope for victory day, and we believe in that. But we need help today because now Russians are doing ecocide; they have destroyed our ecosystems, and now we must immediately do something for our environment and to help the people. And I’m so lucky because today I am in Portugal, and I don't need to go immediately underground if the air strike alarm goes off!
Sotkon - Well, thank you for coming to Portugal. Thank you for your efforts in making our planet a little bit better. I hope you enjoy the rest of the day.
Iuliia Markhel - Thank you so much for inviting us!