ABSTRACT. The use of e-mail by a grassroots activist group that
straddles the Estonian-Russian border transcends political boundaries and
provides ready connections to people in distant places. Activists create a
perceived space of resistance in a supportive network that is stretched
across space. This network of concern, defined by the physical space in
which these activists work and by the strong communicative connections
among them, was created to overcome continued environmental mismanagement
and remove cultural barriers to cooperation. E-mail communication has
enabled an ongoing influence on environmental policy in Estonia and
Russia. This circumstance of a collaborative e-mail network created by
grassroots activists to aid political work is a testament to how
communication technology has expanded for the purpose of strengthening
previously silenced voices in a regional and political context. Keywords:
e-mail, environmental policy, Estonia, former Soviet Union, Internet.
On 11 January 1996 Russia and Estonia signed a policy agreement that
expresses commitment to improved joint management of Peipsi-Chudskoye
Lake, a water body that constitutes a substantial portion of the boundary
between these two countries (Trumbull 1996). This is the first
environmental agreement between Estonia and Russia, a significant
accomplishment considering that border disputes remain between these
former Soviet republics. Equally significant is the function of grassroots
activism, aided by e-mail communication, that was instrumental in bringing
about this policy agreement.
In this article I examine how electronic communication has enabled an
international group of activists, the Peipsi Lake Project (PLP), to extend
their social geography across an established political boundary in pursuit
of an agenda at once political and environmental. This case demonstrates
how communication technologies may create perceived spaces of resistance,
as grassroots groups strengthen previously silenced voices in society. At
a time when grassroots political activism is increasing around the world,
it is useful to attempt to understand how grassroots groups and
organizations can use advanced communication technology to gain a stronger
presence. The reach of global computer networks continues to expand at the
grassroots level and in less developed regions through the Internet,
FidoNet, local area networks (LANS), and various private networks such as
America Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe. Around the world, activists are
using computer linkages to support nontraditional agendas, such as human
rights, labor rights, and women's rights, and to take decisive stances on
ecological issues (Young 1994). The activity demonstrates long-distance
political linkages that help to overcome place-specific constraints.
The newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union present a
striking practice in the use of Internet communication. Under the Soviet
regime, communication among citizens was restricted, and nontraditional
political views circulated primarily underground. Now that the Soviet era
has ended, unprecedented opportunities exist for citizens in the former
republics to promote alternative ideas and to approach new social
strategies. Activity once conducted underground emerges to gather more
public support and exposure. With the use of e-mail increasing, activists
in former Soviet republics have contact with more people in distant places
with greater ease than ever before. A high-speed, long-distance
communication, e-mail differs from telephone communication in its capacity
to reach multiple people at one time. As Nigel Swain argues for Eastern
Europe, the introduction of such technologies is most valued because it
enables social changes at a more rapid pace (1992). An interesting
question is how people utilize e-mail along with other forms of
communication to develop alternative forms of social structures. Jurgen
Habermas stated that one aim of social movements is to develop
communication structures to support their struggle and to try "new forms
of cooperation and community" (1981,35). Grassroots organizations turn to
innovative communication structures that suit their particular
organizational forms and informational needs. E-mail provides one Such
I adopt a structurationist perspective of collective action similar to
that of other geographers (Pred 1982, 1984; Thrift and Forbes 1983; Thrift
1985, 1986; Jackson 1988; Smith 1993; Staeheli 1994; Adams 1995, 1996).
Spaces of resistance are created to challenge social structures that
provide little or no room for alternative viewpoints and values (Steinberg
1994). The structuration of spaces of resistance is a factor of political
change, insofar as it allows the support and development of minority or
nondominant voices. If we view politics as a struggle of multiple voices
to be heard (Gaston and Kennedy 1987; Brunn and Jones 1994; Mitchell
1995,1996), then spaces of resistance allow previously silenced voices to
rally and be heard. Such mobilization and activity is closely related to,
but not necessarily determined by, its place-specific context.
Illustrating this view of the political process are "spaces of
resistance" used in support of activism, affected by the context of place.
A sociospatial dialectic (Soja 1990, 1989; Wolch and Dear 1989) may be
useful in understanding the relationship between place and activity. I
treat e-mail communication as it extends a space of resistance beyond the
local, supporting organization through the exchange of information and
ideas, specifically with regard to the PLP. Finally, I conclude that
e-mail communication, has proved to be both a vital and an effective means
by which to maintain a transboundary ecological organization, and I argue
that this case is indicative of how other grassroots organizations around
the world may be able to take advantage of advances in communication
Nigel Thrift and Dean Forbes have argued that "[a]ny satisfactory
account of politics and the political must contain the element of human
conflict; of groups of human beings in constant struggle with each other
over resources and ideas about the distribution of resources" (Thrift and
Forbes 1983, 247). They emphasize the importance of political struggle in
the context of place and point out that "[c] onflict always takes place in
determinate spatial settings; indeed it is moulded by it" (P. 247). Vaclav
Havel (1988) lends depth to this model by calling activism "anti-political
politics," a phenomenon of politics "from below" and a politics of people,
not the apparatus. Politics is a way to seek and achieve meaningful lives
and to protect them.
Philip Steinberg defines margins as "places which, while within the
territory of the world-economy, are not fully integrated within its
constitutive organizations of power" (1994,462). He explains that from
these margins "`new' social movements are seen as struggling for
`de-centered' power or for `identity-oriented' empowerment" (p. 462).
Political struggle aims not to gain power directly but to promote
alternative values, ideas, and social structures. The same phenomenon has
been described as the creation of "spaces of resistance" with which
alternative values, lifestyles, and ways of thinking may be developed
(Harvey 1989, 213; Staeheli 1994). Local opportunity structures shape
mobilization and can limit effectiveness from place to place (Kirby 1989;
Don Mitchell demonstrates that public spaces may serve as
representational spaces for struggles that may then be expanded beyond
local confines (1995). Interaction and. collective action often transcend
bounded areas, forcing either a redefining of place or acknowledgment that
place is only one arena for collective action. An illustration of this is
found in Peter Jackson's work on Carnival. Although Carnival as observed
in London's Notting Hill is shown to be an "intensely spatial event " this
form of resistance and celebration is without spatial boundaries (Jackson
1988, 225). It draws identities of the West Indies into confrontation with
identities of London, reflecting freedom and mobility beyond the
constraints of racism, as sometimes experienced in a particular place.
Space and social systems have interreactive and place-specific
characteristics, including location, scale, and locale, that make for
transcendent social action, defined by Jennifer Wolch and Michael Dear as
"a purposeful change in the structure of social relations, sufficient to
alter the practices of reproduction" (Wolch and Dear 1989, 8). This change
creates a new space that is dependent not only on local opportunity
structures and historical circumstance but also on media that physically
transcend borders (Thrift 1986).
Mitchell presents an example in his work on agricultural labor
resistance in California in the 1930s (1996). He describes how migratory
farmworkers successfully organized campaigns protesting regional power
structures by linking local events together as a visible result of
larger-scale issues. This took place simultaneously with widespread
propaganda promoting local communities and discouraging migratory
"outsiders." Mitchell elaborates on how this collective action operated:
"The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), for example, connected various
place-based struggles together by making the union local itself migratory.
Organizers `carried the local under their hats,' setting up shop wherever
migratory workers could be found, assuring [that] the riots in the
northern part of the state were understood to be connected to protests in
the southern--and to events in the Northwest, South, Midwest, and
Northwest" (Mitchell 1996, 29). Rather than limiting themselves to local
identities, these migratory workers linked struggles in several locations
and created a new scale on which their struggle against regional
structures could be expressed. In so doing, they transcended local scale
and social structures to develop new symbolic and spatial phenomena, in
effect constructing geographical scales in ways conducive to their
Electronic linkages represent intersections between individual daily
lives and shared projects (Pred 1982). They take place in a particular
time but not in a single, physical place, as would face-to-face
interactions. In his work on grassroots communities and communication
technology, Paul Adams demonstrates how, through the use of electronic
communication, various organizations have managed to create networks
stretched out over space (1996). These communities are able to develop
extended networks of support beyond any one particular location. By
exchanging information and ideas electronically, organizations maintain a
communication flow that gives them influence on a particular,
Advances in communication technology affect the "geography of
knowledge" on which collective action operates (Thrift 1985). Political
struggles proactively use communication technology to develop an
electronically mediated space of resistance. Such connections are not
necessarily described by preexisting boundaries but can amount to a new
form of socially produced spatial structure. Social relations formed
through e-mail can enable the creation and reproduction of extended spaces
In his work on virtual communities, Howard Rheingold notes that
"politics is always a combination of communications and physical power,
and the role of communications media among the citizenry is particularly
important in the politics of democratic societies. The idea of modern
representative democracy as it was first conceived by Enlightenment
philosophers included a recognition of a living web of citizen-to-citizen
communication known as civil society or the public sphere" (Rheingold
1994,13). Beyond the reigning model of politics as struggle, politics also
requires communication. If grassroots, activists can develop electronic
linkages to other organizations or sources of support and information,
they develop support for their political agenda. Although a focus of
activism maybe place-specific, networks built through electronic
communication allow development of extended spaces of resistance in which
they may ground and inform their struggle. Timothy Luke states that "[w]
ithin the [information] flow ... there are new particulars being created
by the networks ... of exchange ... fresh identities, unities and values
emerge" (Luke 1993, 240). Such linkages and communicative networks foster
spaces of resistance wherein alternative, or nondominant, values and ideas
may be explored at the margins of society. In less sophisticated terms,
Rheingold recognizes that "[g]rassroots groupminds and their impact on the
material world could grow into one of the surprise technological issues of
the coming decade" (Rheingold 1994, 111).
Amid speculations of the impact of advanced telecommunications
technology, John Gold remarks:
If we are to make better sense of the patterns that are arising,
however, it is essential to move beyond simply looking for the impacts of
technology and start showing the role of human agency in the process: why
people choose technology and how they choose to use it. Only by doing so
will it be possible to move beyond seductive utopian images of social
redemption through technology towards an understanding that reflects the
true complexity of the relationship between technology and society. (Gold
Activism is shaped, constrained, and encouraged by its place-specific
context. Yet the notion of place as a bounded area formed on face-to-face
interaction can be called into question, as the remainder of this article
demonstrates through an empirical case study of the PLP in Estonia.
Motivated by an ecological concern in a boundary area, this grassroots
organization has used e-mail as a tool directed at social and political
The technology of e-mail itself allows text-based messages to be
exchanged between two computers via modems and compatible software, or
messages may be "broadcast" from one person to many computer addresses.
Unlike electronic media such as radio and television, e-mail enables
two-way (or more) interaction like a telephone. However, e-mail
communication may also be asynchronous, allowing people to read a message
and respond at their convenience.(n1)
In former Soviet republics, e-mail access is not universal and may be
costly unless it is obtained as an employment benefit. Like grassroots
groups in many places, the group I examine pays for much of its own e-mail
communication, including the cost of the telephone line and the computer
equipment. Growing access to computers, modems, software, and so forth are
rendering e-mail communication less difficult in Estonia and Russia, but
problems with connectivity and compatibility remain (O'Lear 1996).
A major factor in the environmental legacy of the former Soviet
republics was an environmental policy that might best be described as
anthropocentric and functionalist. Nature was viewed as a stockpile of
resources, and ecological balance and preservation were unvalued in
themselves (DeBardeleben 1985). Marxism's declining to acknowledge any
determinisms except those of mode of production made environmental
concerns appear politically regressive. Leninist philosophy legitimized
various environmentally devastating actions taken in the interest of
economics and politics.
Recent years have seen increasing acknowledgment of the extent and
degree of environmental damage wrought on the vast territory of the former
Soviet Union in the pursuit of industrialization (Ziegler 1987; Pryde
1991, 1995; Feshbach and Friendly 1992; Peterson 1993; UNECE 1993; Wolfson
1994). For decades environmental problems were explained away but not
taken seriously. Not until the Gorbachev and Yeltsin administrations was
concern for more sustainable use of natural resources addressed (Green
1989; USSR State Committee for the Protection of Nature 1989; Bond and
Sagers 1992). Limited financial and technical resources are available to
the national and local governments to implement measures to slow or even
halt the industrial and infrastructural processes that are taking a toll
on the environment.
Government sources of environmental data in the former Soviet
territoriesoften unsystematically collected and stored-continue to reflect
the legacy of centralized secrecy and bureaucratic inadequacies (Mikhova
and Pickles 1-994). This renders current issues of environmental quality
and security in the newly independent states all the more pressing.
Environmental conditions are still poorly understood and continue to be
neglected at a time of political and economic flux (DeBardeleben and
Hannigan 1995). In this vacuum of effective policymaking and
implementation, ecological grassroots activism has emerged as a channel
for voicing; a nontraditional perspective on human-environment relations.
In response to this situation, the environmental movement in the former
Soviet republics is growing in both size and diversity (Yanitsky 1993).
Western experts view the severe ecological situation of the former
Soviet republics as a multifaceted challenge that will require immediate
and extensive attention if the newly independent states are to be brought
into the world economy (Pryde 1995). Observers have suggested that massive
environmental cleanups and technology transfers are necessary first steps
in overcoming the economic deficiencies of the former Soviet Union (French
1991). Circumventing past practices and shaping new trends--economic as
much as environmental-may well begin at this, the grass roots, in an
ecological domain. For example, if a multinational or governmentbased
corporation proposes to establish a branch in a Russian city, the citizens
there may, with the use of e-mail and international contacts, check the
environmental record of the business before agreeing to allow the business
to proceed with its plans. No longer must citizen groups rely on the
information provided to them by a single party, either government or
industry. They search for relevant information that they cart use to their
own advantage (Szasz 1994). Although this type of activity at the grass
roots parallels similar action in the United States and elsewhere, it is
close to unprecedented in former Soviet republics, with their history of
government control of information.
In recent years higher numbers of people in Russia and the other former
Soviet republics have become involved in grassroots activism (Hahn 1988).
Issues were increasingly being addressed with citizen participation at the
local level even before the Soviet Union collapsed. The percentage of the
population that is politically involved is probably comparable between the
former Soviet republics and the West (Yanitsky 1993, 31), and much
activism focuses on issues of environmental safety and preservation.
Ecological activism in the former Soviet republics does not seek
territorial control as much as alternative viewpoints that challenge the
status quo. These spaces for alternatives are not necessarily contiguous
regions on the earth's surface; they may be social contexts "built" in
electronic media. Response to environmental threats and challenges
provides an opportunity for involved citizens to reconsider their role in
the decision-making processes that influence daily life. The creation of
new (virtual) places allows a reconstitution of social processes. A
structurationist premise of a sociospatial dialectic is borne out, but in
a way that challenges extant notions of space and place.
The history of ecological neglect and damage in the former Soviet
republics contributes to a shared sense of place among activists. In the
former Soviet Union there is little tradition for including citizens in
decision-making processes, and this lack restrains people who are
interested in changing a pattern. It also contributes to a larger shared
sense of identity, if people in any given republic are aware that others
in the former Soviet republics face similar difficulties. The Soviet
environmental legacy can motivate if activists in one area realize that
they are not alone in trying to influence local or regional environmental
On the border between Estonia and Russia lies a water body known
formally as Peipsi-Chudskoye Lake. Its watershed and the villages that
surround it are the focus of the PLP (Figure 1). Working for improved
environmental management is difficult anywhere in. the former Soviet
Union, but working on a boundary poses particular challenges. Tension
between Estonians and Russians continues to render relations between these
two countries unstable. Social and cultural differences in this border
area were a significant obstacle to environmental work, especially at
Yet the differences between Estonian and Russian management of the
watershed motivated the founders of the PLP to encourage communication
between the two sides. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, proposed
foreign investment in development of both sides of the lake has arisen as
another potential factor in the management of the watershed. This area may
indeed be attractive to foreign industrial interests if they assume there
are only limited environmental standards and poor enforcement, whereas it
may attract a rather different type of investment if international
cooperation appears to create a stable political environment.
The PLP founders-both Russians and Estonians-anticipated such
developments and wanted to bring local opinion and input into
decision-making processes. A boundary region is an especially difficult
setting for environmental activism, but in this case the ability to choose
national affiliation and garner international grant funds worked as
enabling forces. As one of the organization's founders put it:
We registered the organization in Estonia because in Russia it is just
too much of a headache to register, especially to register an
international organization. There is a lot of bureaucracy connected to it,
especially with the political problems between Estonia and Russia. So we
started as an Estonian organization, and we are also registered with
people on the Russian side of the organization. Foundations fund
separately, but MacArthur is one of the very few organizations who give to
boundary projects, (Ishkuzhina 1995)
Although the PLP does extensive work at the local level in villages
near the lakeshore, its focus is regional, and it collaborates with groups
on both sides of the lake. PLP staff members are distributed mainly in
four cities: Tallinn and Tartu, Estonia; and Pskov and Saint Petersburg,
Russia. The distribution of the staff helps the organization coordinate
transborder activities and maintains a more regional vision of
E-mail, which was introduced into the region just as the PLP was being
organized, is critical to communication among the staff members, who often
work in different cities from one another. E-mail makes this work
practical in a fluctuating political environment, because it facilitates
the free exchange of information among the staff and keeps them abreast of
local and national situations. Exchange of information increases the PLP'S
potential for effective action by allowing the organization's staff to
take advantage of positive political situations or to lie low when
political tensions are high. Between ten and fifteen e-mail accounts
connect active PLP staff members and supporters, including outlying
limnological stations in Tallinn, Estonia. Face-to-face staff meetings,
telephone conversations (considerably more expensive than e-mail), and
faxes are also utilized, depending on the audience or purpose.
Because the PLP includes people in both Estonia and Russia, e-mail
messages are written in either language or in both English and Russian
(using a Cyrillic keyboard map), because these are the languages most
commonly used by PLP staff and supporters. Within the PLP, e-mail is used
to keep disparate staff members updated on activities, to solicit
suggestions and ideas within the group, as a format for ongoing
discussions of project development, to follow up on previous conversations
or staff meetings, to discuss and coordinate responsibilities of various
staff and supporters, and to circulate pertinent information to all staff
members. It does not replace activities such as work with lakeshore
village residents and appeals to government offices, which are conducted
Developing an effective organizational structure for this activist
group is a particular concern to the founder of the PLP, Gulya Ishkuzhina.
A native Russian now living with her Estonian husband in Tartu, Ishkuzhina
had the opportunity to participate in a conference on the Great Lakes in
the United States. There she learned about transboundary (United
States-Canada) organizations working on lake-management issues similar to
the issues surrounding Peipsi-Chudskoye Lake. She returned to Estonia with
this information and was eager to implement what she had learned, but she
soon discovered that the U.S. model of activist organizations could not be
transferred to the Estonian-Russian organization she was trying to
establish. She explained:
I tried to organize a retreat like the kind that I saw when I was at
Lake Michigan, but it doesn't. work this way here. We have this history of
communist youth organization meetings or collective farm meetings, but the
States doesn't have this. Here we have only one pattern of meetings, and
people think I'm trying to replicate this. This is why it doesn't work.
They feel like they're going off to pioneer camp or something. I want to
have a retreat in three or four months, but I really don't know what to do
because the ways I saw in the States won't work here. I need to find
another way. (Ishkuzhina 1995)
The development of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the former
Soviet republics is a slow process that must take into account local and
regional particularities. Borrowing models directly from other situations
neglects the importance of hard-won local experience. Nevertheless, using
e-mail to coordinate the PLP staff is an example of a productive
adaptation of a recently introduced technology to address the challenge of
spatial fragmentation within an interest group. E-mail communication helps
to overcome the distances among staff members in different cities, to
bring all participants to the same "place" to discuss their work, and to
strengthen interdependence and political power. Additionally, e-mail link
ages within the group and with other organizations help PLP members extend
their "geography of knowledge" (Thrift 1985,367). Although knowledge tends
to be geographically specific, the high-speed, long-distance reach and
rapid turnaround of e-mail communication enable these environmentalists to
develop their "stocks of knowledge" (P. 367) and respond appropriately
within their specific political, social., and cultural contexts. This
sensitization to current events and shifting structural conditions in
itself demonstrates an interpretation of knowledge as being political and
as being used for political purposes.
E-mail is most important for the PLP for internal organizational use,
but it is by no means the only form of communication this group employs.
The nature of the PLP'S work requires several forms of communication. As
Ishkuzhina described it:
We work with environmental education, we work with environmental
decision issues, we do some sustainable development work. Sustainable
development is a very local thing. You have to work on the local level and
know what people think about a situation. We are sending students into the
field this year because we hope they will become acquainted with local
communities, with people, and they will see what the local problems are.
Then we will bring some of these students in to work with the organization
in organizing a community development project. Actually, we're making a
small grant program, but it depends on whether we will be able to raise
funds. ... We want to give small grants to local people to make progress
in [solving] their own problems. The students who work in these
communities will be able to work as community organizers. (Ishkuzhina
Working on the local level in both Estonia and Russia depends on
face-to-face interaction with people living in the lakeshore villages. The
PLP'S current work brings in students from Tartu and Pskov Universities to
work intensively with village communities to familiarize themselves with
the lifestyles, attitudes, and concerns of villagers. The students are
trained before entering the field in how to work and conduct themselves
while living as a: village guest for a month. Face-to-face communication
facilitates not only direct work with the village residents but also
occasional gatherings of PLP staff for planning meetings. Stable e-mail
communication among staff members between meetings is necessary to
coordinate all PLP activities, generate ideas, and keep up-to-date on
political situations that might help or hinder PLP work.
This level of the PLP'S work has two major aims: to learn, firsthand,
about life in lakeshore villages in order to understand residents'
preferences for development, and. to involve younger people in
cross-cultural environmental work to nurture skills and attitudes separate
from Soviet-era cynicism. Interpersonal communication is the only way this
work can be done, especially because people living in villages have
limited or no access to other forms of communication, such as telephones
or e-mail. Additionally, working closely with these people minimizes
misunderstandings and operates at a level that is meaningful to them.
Ishkuzhina shared her view on the importance of this kind of work:
The problem with environmental studies right now is that--and this is a
general crisis around the world--when you speak about the environment, you
speak about grams per millimeter or cubic millimeters. You speak about
chemistry or hydrobiology. You can monitor, but it doesn't help. For me,
environmental problems are problems of the quality of life of
people--concrete people living in the concrete community. The problem is
specific to the point of view of the people. We should get them to bring
their opinions to the regional government, to the state government.
The PLP aims to bring the peoples' opinions to official decision makers
in proactive opposition to faceless government standards for environmental
quality. Once people are educated about aspects of their environmental
situation or learn of potential development projects, then they can
discuss them and decide what they want to happen in their village.
Generalizations cannot fairly be made about what rural residents want,
and intensive, interpersonal communication is vital to understanding local
situations. I spent a day--5 July 1995--with two PLP staff members and a
visiting academic at Tartu University who was helping the PLP organize its
field programs. We visited several Estonian villages that were to be
invited to participate in PLPS sustainable-development project. The goal
of our outing was to describe the project to local officials and obtain
approval for the inclusion of the members' village in the project. From
our meetings we grew aware of significant differences among the villages.
One village had thrived since Estonia's independence from Soviet rule.
A horticulture school was doing well, and a pre-Soviet grain mill, out of
operation since Soviet rule was imposed, was back in business under new
ownership. Starkly evident on the landscape were a souvenir shop and a
Western-style pizza restaurant. This village was taking advantage of
Estonia's economic liberation and was doing well. Foreign investment to
develop the lakeshore in the area, proposed and under negotiation at the
time--the summer Of 1995--might threaten entrepreneurial activity in this
small town. The mayor expressed a hope that the town population become as
economically self-sufficient as possible.
Another village, celebrating its three-hundredth anniversary, was not
as economically strong. Finnish plans to develop the lakeshore were
welcomed by the mayor, who saw external investment as a necessary stimulus
to local growth. Visiting each town and speaking with an elected
representative gave one a sense of difference among village communities
and an understanding of the influence that foreign investment and
development might render. Such are not easy matters to capture in e-mail.
Yet e-mail has been instrumental in orchestrating policy recommendations.
Village residents are only one population included by the PLP in its
sustainable-development work. Ishkuzhina described other factions
I see that some NGOs which do not bring in experts but just know the
local situation cannot really address the problems. We are trying to bring
to our meetings and to our work, on one hand, scientists and researchers
who do very high level science, but to the same meeting we also bring
community organizers, fishermen ... so that they will be able to speak all
together about the problems. Certainly, sometimes, then, we have to bring
to these meetings mediators who are able to work with all the different
kinds of people. I think it's very important for what we are trying to do
to include people from different sectors in the same discussion.
Incorporating different views and professions, the PLP strives to
produce a well-rounded understanding of issues that surround current and
future management of the watershed. A loose organizational structure
demonstrates the nonhierarchical and participatory nature of the PLP.
Although the core staff works to manage and organize projects, the
sustainable-development work of the PLP is inclusive and open ended. This
is due not so much to the use of e-mail as to the nature of grassroots
activist work (Scott 1990, Eyerman and Jamison 1991).
At first, PLP meetings focused on arguments about differences among
various views and cultures brought to the table, and language was a
problem. Everyone, Russians and Estonians, was able to speak Russian, but
the newly independent Estonians considered this rude. "First thing we had
to do," said Ishkuzhina, "was to create a little community--Estonians and
Russians-which all trust each other." Once that was accomplished, the
atmosphere of the meetings changed:
[W]hen we bring hydrochemists together with hydrochemists [from
different countries], they forget they have all those political problems
with language and they just speak in whatever language they can. They
don't care about Russian, but they care about hydrochemistry. Or fishermen
care about fish and they forget about what language they speak. It's a
very effective way to bring people together. As a result, they started to
communicate. They started to visit each other. They started to do some
joint work. They see that they already have some personal connections.
By providing a cultural and institutional space in which people can
explore shared concerns and differing viewpoints, the PLP is enabling a
collaborative spirit where there might otherwise be cultural and economic
tension. Although e-mail is not used in these meetings, it is vital to
organizing and including participants from both Russia and Estonia.
In addition to using e-mail communication among staff members and
dispersed organization members to coordinate transboundary activities, the
PLP uses it to develop an external network of support that is also
critical. Ishkuzhina said:
We are also trying to get involved with the Baltic Sea network. We are
trying to get more connections with Baltic organizations and groups ... to
be a part of different networks, regional networks with the Baltic Sea and
global networks because this is also a form of support.... From time to
time we send our information to SEU [Socio-Ecological Union of the former
Soviet republics] and they send it to different environmental groups in
the former Soviet Union. On e-mail we now have contacts in Northern
Europe. They are interested in this project because it is part of the
Baltic Sea region. So now we are sending e-mail to Finland, Norway, Sweden
and some conferences on e-mail.... In the U.S., we are in contact with
groups who are working on similar projects with the Great Lakes [region],
for example, [and] Lake Champlain. (Ishkuzhina 1995)
Through e-mail, the PLP is working to maintain and participate in a
network of supportive contacts with similar values. In short, e-mail helps
to support the PLP on a macroscale so that it can work more effectively on
a microscale. Long-distance, international e-mail contacts help the PLP to
move forward with its transboundary, rural projects.
There are two main contexts of place in which the PLP is active. One is
the smaller-scale context of rural development along both sides of the
lakeshore. The smaller-scale context of place is a motivating factor in
the work of the PLP because two of its main objectives are education and
the solicitation of local opinions regarding development, lake management,
and water use. Taking the unique locale and sense of place of each village
into consideration is a complex process. A constraining factor to the
PLP'S work, it also mediates their work, for they must filter their
efforts through each village setting as necessary.
A second context for the PLPS work is the transboundary region
delineated by the Peipsi-Chudskoye Lake watershed and the government
bodies that have power to dictate its management. Because parts of this
region were not as damaged by Soviet mismanagement as other areas were, a
motivating factor for the PLP at this larger scale is limiting future
damage and promoting responsible management by international standards of
human and ecosystem requirements. This transboundary context is a
constraining factor for the PLP'S work due to political tensions between
Estonia and Russia: Unsettled boundary disputes do not favor transboundary
cooperation. Fluctuations in the political climate between Estonia and
Russia and the requirements of official institutions in each country
(having to register as an NGO in order to operate) are location-related
facets of the PLP'S transboundary difficulties.
One of the PLP'S major efforts has been to make policy recommendations
to both the Russian government and the Estonian government. A need to
coordinate lake and watershed management between the two countries was
emphasized by the PLP as it approached government bodies. The
transboundary location of this lake and its watershed require management
efforts by both sides. The recent policy agreement I mentioned at the
beginning of this article demonstrates the PLP'S success in bringing
official recognition to an ecological concern. In the political context of
rapid change, environmental degradation, and concern on both sides of the
lake, e-mail communication has come to be a valuable means of coordinating
efforts to make a unified stand.
The PLP has developed a "place" of activism with activists in four
cities and several rural villages on both sides of the lake. This is a
physical place--nearly a bioregion--in the sense of ecological interest in
the lake environment, including lakeshore development, watershed
management, and the watershed's transboundary geographical location. It is
also a space of resistance. This transboundary operational space is not
supported primarily by physical propinquity and frequent face-to-face
interaction. Instead, periodic gatherings, e-mail, and other long-distance
media linkages support the continued operation of the PLP at a
transboundary scale. We can say that this represents an extended space of
resistance, because it consists of a web of electronic communication and
collaboration surrounding an issue- and place-specific concern.
As a space of resistance, the PLP is resisting a persistent pattern of
resource use and development that does not include citizen/resident input
in the decision-making process. The PLP is also resisting uneven
development and depletion of resources due to a lack of communication
between Russia and Estonia. It is striving for an appropriate recognition
of ecological issues as embodied in coherent, natural systems. Finally,
the PLP is working to encourage environmental education and public input
into decision-making processes and multicultural, transboundary
cooperation. Its network-literal and figurative-helps it address
ecological and development issues around Peipsi-Chudskoye Lake in a
comprehensive, rather than incremental or elitist, fashion. Electronic
linkages support this space of resistance and have made possible the
success of the PLP as a grassroots-level factor in transboundary
environmental policy development.
(*) I wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments
on an earlier draft of this article.
(n1.)In some settings, technology similar to e-mail may be used to
provide chat rooms that allow several people to carry on a text-based
conversation at the same time. This use of technology, as well as use of
the World Wide Web, are not addressed in this article because they were
not pursued by the case-study group at the time of the fieldwork.
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By SHANNON O'LEAR
DR. O'LEAR is an instructor of geography at the Metropolitan State
College of Denver, Denver, Colorado 80210.