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Siberia supplies grain and builds dams for Asia's mightiest economy

More than sixty years have passed since Stalin and Mao, leaders of the world's two biggest Comunist countries, parted ways over what the revolution should look like. For the Soviet leader, it was urban and proletarian; for the Chinese leader, it was rural. These diverging views corresponded to the socioeconomic reality of their respective countries. The USSR was industrial and China was agricultural. Today they appear to have switched roles. For years now, China has been seen as "the factory of the world," a stereotype so overused that it's almost no longer true. But as long as China's export-oriented growth model remains in vogue it will need to get raw materials from somewhere. But where? Siberia, of course. Which is to say Russia, the former USSR, which used to be industrial but now exports the commodities needed by other countries to fuel industrialization.

After the fires of summer 2010, the Russian government put a halt to grain exports. The ban will be lifted on July 1. China, which has been plagued by drought for months, is breathing a huge sigh of relief, but so are the United States and Europe. The return of Russian grain should at least in part ease out of control food prices, but experts are divided on the subject.

What seems clear, however, is that Siberia has now become an enormous behind-the-scenes supplier for Asia's emerging economies, above all China. In addition to grain - the Siberian Agrarian Holding Co. plans to ship 5 thousands tons per year to Asia - energy is key.

As reported by the BBC, Oleg Deripaska, one of the richest men in Russia (in 2008 Forbes ranked him the ninth richest man in the world), is investing billions of dollars to construct the enormous Boguchanskaya dam, which will supply energy to China. It is being built on the Angara river, a tributary of the Ienissei flowing out of lake Baikal that already has three dams.
Siberia already produces more energy than it needs and it's a land of many rivers. Peking has requested 60 billion kilowatt hours per year from Moscow, which is enough to light up all of Greece or, to stay in Asia, Hong Kong.

Deripaska's intentions are clear enough: make money off the Chinese boom. The move demonstrates the extent to which China has now become an economic powerhouse that distributes wealth beyond its borders as well.
Reaping the benefits are mostly elites in the countries that supply China, from the Russian Deripaska to the ruling classes of many African states. But the people of Siberia also deserve their share of the pie, which has become the object of controversy.

The construction of dams, for instance, brings with it a number of burdens mostly borne by the local population. Villages around the new Angara dam have already been evacuated of their mostly elderly inhabitants, people who once made a living as fishers and farmers. Their houses will be submerged by the new reservoir. The same story played out in China with the construction of the Three Gorges dam. And other dam projects in southeast Asia along the Mekong river being built in part for the benefit of China have been the source of controversy for years.

Environmental consequences have also been the subject of heated debate. Some argue that the new Siberian dams will enable China to contain its carbon emissions and thereby reduce greenhouse gasses on a global scale. Others point to rivers that will be transformed into swamps and the destruction of forests that will alter the chemical makeup of the waterways.

Other dam projects for the benefit of China are currently being studied in Siberia, which has become an enormous backdoor store for Asia's most powerful economy. For now, the idea excites the Promethean visions of people like Oleg Deipaska: "The GDP of the Siberian provinces could triple in the next fifteen years" and in the process turn Siberia into "the new Canada."

Translated by Gary Cestaro

 

Gabriele Battaglia

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