SHIYES, Russia – At 4 a.m. activist Yevgenia Gabova is driving along a snow-blown road west from the capital of Russia's northern Komi region, Syktyvkar.
About 100 kilometers from the town of Madmas, she stops to pick up two fellow activists before heading to their final destination, a forest near the village of Shiyes, in the neighboring Arkhangelsk region.
It is a trip they have made many times over the last 18 months or so as they joined a determined group of locals and activists bent on preventing the construction of a massive landfill for Moscow's garbage in the remote area.
But Gabova thinks she is making the journey for the last time. "We are going for the last time, girls," she says. "One last time we'll see the mountains of construction materials and gravel."
Gabova plans to take home with her one souvenir from her months at the protest camp -- a small fir tree that she planted on May 1, 2019.
"We spontaneously decided to plant a couple of fir trees at the tent camp," she told RFE/RL. "I went to the forest and dug up a tiny little tree and planted it [at the camp]. Later, others planted their own trees there -- more and more. I called it 'the forest of faith.' At that time, everyone thought Shiyes was doomed to be dug up, but we were planting trees because we believed that they would grow there."
Last week, on October 26, a higher court upheld a January decision by the Arkhangelsk regional Appeals Court that declared the construction activity by the firm Tekhnopark at the Shiyes site to be illegal and ordered the company to return the land to its original state.
The decision seems to have brought an end to a legal fight that began in December 2019, when the municipal administration of Urdom, the nearest settlement to the Shiyes train platform, filed the suit against Tekhnopark, demanding that various garages, roads, worker accommodations, a helipad, and other modifications be removed from the site.
Two weeks before the new court decision, Tekhnopark issued a statement that its work was completed in Shiyes and the company would be leaving.
"The 15-hectare parcel of land will be restored, and the equipment and personnel of the company, as well as of the private security firm, will leave the territory of Shiyes by the end of 2020," the statement posted on the company's website said.
Even earlier, at the beginning of September, then-acting Arkhangelsk Governor Aleksandr Tsybulsky posted on Telegram: "Our residents have made a colossal effort and have protected an important part of our natural surroundings. I have said and I say one more time: there will never be a landfill at Shiyes!"
For two years, ever since the construction activity at Shiyes was first noticed in July 2018, activists have been protesting the project, which would have brought more than 2 million tons of garbage each year by trainloads from Moscow to be dumped in a massive landfill that would eventually cover 3,000 hectares. At about 150 times larger than an average landfill, the Shiyes project would have been the largest one in Europe.
And, locals say, an environmental disaster, polluting delicate sub-Arctic wetlands and potentially sending toxic emissions wafting across the tundra to the 250,000 residents of Syktyvkar.
The sustained demonstrations against the landfill are part of a series of protests across Russia in recent years against land-use projects that activists say ignore the interests of local residents and threats to the environment and the quality of life. Unlike demonstrations calling for fair elections or for President Vladimir Putin's resignation, for example, some of them have been successful.
As soon as the court decision was announced, the remaining activists began discussing the future in person and in closed forums on social media.
"Today before I set out for Shiyes," Gabova told RFE/RL, "I was thinking half the night and I realized that I do not want to go there again. This is my last time. People there have changed and they are tired."
"Before, they woke up fired up with protest energy," she continued. "They had a mission and they understood that together they could accomplish something. That is why now it is difficult to return to ordinary life. It shows that we are just people. We were heroes, but now we are just people."
Another female activist at the Shiyes camp, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions at work, agreed. "Two years is a long time to fight," she told RFE/RL. "People are mentally tired, worn out. Particularly, the men. Some of them just come here twice a week because they live in Urdom and they are used to hunting, fishing, and gathering mushrooms in this forest."
Over the last few months, there have been about 10 people in constant residence at the tent encampment and the surrounding camp sites set up to monitor work on the landfill. Some people live there for three or four months at a time.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck in the spring, activists closed the camp to outsiders, not wanting to give the authorities a pretext to shut the protest down. After acting Governor Tsybulsky's statement, some camp veterans decided to pack it in.
In addition to the Shiyes camps, there has been a permanently manned protest in the center of Arkhangelsk itself since April 7, 2019.
Yury Dezhin and Andrei Kartavtsev are the two local outdoorsmen who first spotted the construction activity in the region in July 2018. They spend all their weekends at one of the campsites and have no intention of stopping.
"We can't leave until all of Tekhnopark's equipment is gone and the land is restored properly," Kartavtsev said. "Yury and I are afraid the firm might declare bankruptcy and everyone will forget about the restoration work. They'll just pack up their gear and leave."
Win Or Lose
He added that being involved in the protest has been a hardship for many people, whose homes and personal lives have been neglected for months. "But you have to understand that you are doing this for yourself -- so that you won't have a landfill next to your house," he said. "You aren't doing it for anyone else, but for yourself. You have to look at it like a job."
Dezhin added that the Shiyes protest had had beneficial effects throughout the region, saying that many settlements in the region and in Komi have begun sorting and recycling their own waste for the first time.
The activists are sure that at least a few people will remain to monitor the site until it is clear that the proposal is really dead.
"Will I miss this camp?" Kartavtsev said. "Of course, not. But I won't regret the effort I put into it. All this was for everyone's benefit. It is good that it is coming to an end. There should be a logical conclusion -- either we win or we lose. And we were never going to lose."
Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Shiyes by correspondent Karina Zabolotnaya of the North Desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service