How did we get it so wrong?

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It was with great interest that we made our way into Ukraine....as in my mind, Ukraine represented a mystery country that I knew little about...but I had heard stories of some great agri-business opportunities, a country with rich agricultural land that produces enormous yields of corn and wheat and a nation that is set to become a global powerhouse in terms of food production...

What I found was a country that indeed has the potential to be a food bowl for the world, who gained sovereign independence in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR, talks about the need for reform and democracy...but is so far from those ideals with the underlying corruption and sinister undertones that is spoken about on the street, in meetings and in businesses trying to establish themselves in this country....

Ironic then the parallels between Ukraine's biggest shame....Chernobyl...and doing business in this country...the lack of transparency of the truth, the bitterness of power and politics and how the average Ukranian really has no choice in the destiny of their lives....not then and sadly not even now in 2012...the small glimmer they had of sustainable, democratic change may well have passed them by...so....this is my journey through the darkness within....
 

Walking through the ghost streets of Pripyat, Northern Ukraine

Walking through the ghost streets of Pripyat, Northern Ukraine

As I walked through this pathway of undergrowth in the picture above, it represented to me the haste and misrepresentation of the truth to the people who lived at Chernobyl in 1986 and the 200 surrounding townships...if you look closely on the right there is a house that since the 28th of April 1986 (2 days after Chernobyl explosion) has not had inhabitants and another on the left and then more on the right, and as we walked these houses were everywhere, hidden by the growth and slowly being reclaimed by the forest.  Back to the 28th of April 1986...residents had happily continued their lives, they were unaware of any danger, there was some talk about an accident at the nuclear power plant, but life continued for them....until they were informed that they had 2 hours to evacuate, and they fled in haste....never to return.... and we walked street, upon street of this town that once had 2000 residences who fled in fear and left all their belongings behind...

There is huge debate about how the accident occurred...scientists blame the engineers who designed the plant, the engineers blame the scientist for doing experiments that caused the reaction and explosion and to find out actual data about how many died is impossible, so the information I provide below is from various sources from the trip into Chernobyl and after...
- The 26th April 1986 a catastrophic power surge occurred in the plant at reactor 4 leading to an explosion of the core, spewing massive quantities of radioactive fuel and core material into the atmosphere
- It was reported to Gorbachev (as the plant was administered by Moscow as part of the USSR) that an accident had occurred but all was under control, he claims it was never explained as being an explosion of the reactor
- Sweden was the first to alert Europe that there had been a nuclear accident "somewhere" as they monitored unusually high radiation levels in their country and in the atmosphere
- 2 days after the explosion it was finally admitted that there had been an explosion, radiation levels at this time for the people of Pripyat was 50 to 500 times above the acceptable level, when this township was evacuated it was reported that the buses made a 30 mile convoy
- If desperate measures of containment of the heat from the damaged reactor had not been undertaken and other reactors had exploded it is estimated that up to HALF OF EUROPE would have been decimated

Once the USSR had taken responsibility they appear to have taken immediate and extraordinary steps to save Europe....the damaged reactor was so hot it was spewing radiation out into the atmosphere, they estimate that Belarus suffered 60% of the radiation fallout.  Helicopter pilots were sent to the reactor dropping water into the damaged reactor to try and cool it down....all of those 600 pilots died from radiation poisoning....they brought thousands of miners in from Siberia to tunnel under the nuclear power plant to get under the damaged reactor to put in place a cooling mechanism (as the heat from the damaged reactor was melting the sand between reactors and this was going to be the catalyst for the other reactors exploding.
These miners were not informed of the danger and had no masks or protective gear as they tunnelled underneath, all they were told was that they were needed for "national honour" to do this job, possibly the most shocking story of human sacrifice was the reservists who were called in to shovel the radioactive fuel and core off the rooftop of the remaining building...we saw disturbing movie footage of them being kitted up with very basic gear and then the fear in their faces as they had to run on top of the roof and shovel the radioactive material back into the damaged centre....500,000 people were called in to assist with the containment and cleanup of this disaster....there is no record as to if they are still alive, and many argue as to in actual reality how many people inadvertently were killed by this disaster....

The stats may not give us the answer but the stories of the people can give us a strong indication of the ongoing implications of the radiation "storm" that ensued....we had dinner with a lovely female Kiev Company Director, who told me that she was in Belarus on a school camp when the catastrophe occurred and the train they were travelling in was stopped for 3 days and not allowed to continue to return to Ukraine....she ended up having a type of leukemia that had her critically ill and hospitalised for a year, the 2 other girls she has kept in contact with have also suffered chronic illnesses.....I think I now have a feel for the human impact.....
 

One of the haunting images of Chernobyl...the abandoned ferris wheel.

One of the haunting images of Chernobyl...the abandoned ferris wheel.

I wrote on Facebook that people questioned why I would want to see Chernobyl, and I said its important we see the best and worst of mans developments...clearly Chernobyl will be etched into history as a huge catastrophic event to the extreme, but what I did also hear about was the former USSR efforts in trying to rectify and limit the damage once they accepted responsibility...the cost of Chernobyl was $18billion rubles (at the time equivalent to $18B USD) to the USSR and ultimately bankrupted the USSR so that they disbanded the union in 1991...hence this is when Ukraine gained independence.....

UKRAINE TODAY....
There is absolutely no doubt that Ukraine is seen currently (and in the past) as the food bowl of Eastern Europe, we witnessed fabulous, deep, highly organic soils that produced an abundance of crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans and sugar beet....through to some amazing irrigation in southern Ukraine (today only 200,000 ha's is irrigated from its peak of 2 million ha's irrigated during Soviet rule, but the infrastructure has broken down and no one seems to want to spend the capital to rebuild the capacity again to 2 million ha's)....but what is stopping them from being a powerhouse of agriculture?

To put it in simple terms...its corruption....and everyone in this country acknowledges this....after independence in 1991, the assets and land were divided between the people and as such the farm sizes ranged from 1-2 ha's on average....today there are some aggregated holdings that farm as much as 500,000 ha's....how this can be managed and possible in Ukraine is a complicated mix of contracts with individual landowners and paying off government officials where needed, as there is to be no foreign ownership of land, but these large aggregations will often be foreign-owned..so in effect they are renting the land for say $30-$60/ha, and in many cases this land is yielding say 8t/ha corn, 5t/ha wheat and 3t/ha of soy bean.....but all of the foreign owners we spoke to talked about the huge opportunities that lay with Ukraine...but for every step forward it costs a lot in bribes and at times the goal posts would be changed and suddenly their investment they had been working on for years, and foreign money had been invested into was worth nothing!!!  Big returns = Big risk.....they talked about ROI of say 30-40% on agri-investments, but with inflation ranging between 15-20% at times and lack of banks within Ukraine willing to lend money. Its a tough gig to be in business and from what I observed their chance to be part of the EU in the future has slipped away with their lack of democracy and the high level of corruption....they are so far from a democratic society.... and in fact they are drawing closer and closer all the time back to Russia.

So....Ukraine....full of architectural wonder in Kiev, the beautiful Opera house in Odessa, but the poorest of infrastructure ie their dangerous roads, and what great infrastructure they had with the irrigation they have let go, corruption, devaluation, no incentive for foreign investment...the list goes on....why would you do business in Ukraine?  But when you see those big crops and the rich, yummy soil...well.....

I found that the women here had less hope than in any other country we had been to, we didn't see many women in high paid positions and saw most women in laboring jobs that again were the lowest paid positions in society....I do reflect though and the women who we did get to connect with were just gorgeous (some photos below) and most loved having their photos taken and through the interpreter they garbled away and asked for the photos to be sent to them....if only I knew their addresses, I would love to give them that pleasure.....

There are so many other dark and scary stories about Ukraine, like the genocide of 1932/33 that was driven by Lenin, who in punishing the Ukranian people starves to death 9 million people...for a country that at that stage had less than 30 million people...this saw 30% of their population exterminated within a 12 month period.....I can't imagine it...but then having traveled in Ukraine maybe I can...

Therein ends my story of Ukraine, unlike the other countries we have visited I don't think I will return, it was interesting but dark and disturbing and to be honest a woman would not be welcomed doing business in this country...so there are no opportunities for me....so what I have learnt is that I am lucky to be a woman in my wonderful country which gives me opportunities and I value our system of Democracy so much more when I travel through the darkness within Ukraine.