Russia: Oil companies inching closer to Khanty sacred sites
The regional parliamant of Yugra, the Khanty-Mansi autonmous area in Western Siberia, Russia’s main oil producing region, adopted during the first reading an amendment to the regional legislation on land use. Indigenous peoples fear the amendment may pave the way into disaster.
Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) until recently, had the status of specially protected conservation areas. In Yugra there are 475 such territories, owned by 1312 families, or 4213 individuals. Because of this, the indigenous people felt relatively safe: Extractive industries and other outsiders were barred from entering their lands without asking. But Federal Act ? 406 dated 28 December 2013 erased the word “conservation” from the definition of TTNU. Now, the TTNU are merely "specially protected areas". "This has also repealed the requirement for ecological expert reviews for industrial and construction works, - explains Tatiana Merkushin, the head of Department of especially protected conservation areas of the Environmental Department of Yugra. The only remaining safeguard is the “Gosexpertiza” or government expert review. Companies will no longer be obliged to observe environmental requirements and to conduct public hearings, they will merely negotiate with the owner of the given patrimonial lands (and if they have to "negotiate" with just one person at a time, this makes it far more easy for them.). It would be unfair to say that reindeer pasture has been equated to urban wastelands, some restrictions still apply. However, in some cases, the ecological component of the state expert review will be reduced to a mere formality." President Putin has suspended several of the law’s articles until July 1, proposing that the law be improved further. But the "administrative wheels" are turning, the district Duma is aligning the regional environmental legislation with the changed Federal legislation. Members of the regional Assembly of Indigenous Peoples (a second chamber of the regional parliament) and the "socialist-revolutionaries", unsuccessfully proposed to leave the TTNU in place, while protecting their status. The Northern nature is extremely fragile. Lichen, the reindeer’s basic diet, needs to 80 years to regrow after a car has driven over it. Oil workers frighten the game and poison the rivers.
Who is the master of the land?
The Khanty and Mansi took the changes with great concern. "Payments from the oil companies cannot compensate for the damage to our nature and our economy”, says Ivan Kachanov, the head of indigenous obshchina ‘Turupya’ from the village of Saranpaul in Berezovsky district. "Now they will cease entirely to ask for our permission for oil extraction!". There is also the question, who is now the master of the land. "The have given the industries full access to natural resources," says Yeremei Aipin, a member of the Duma of Yugra and Chairman of the Association of indigenous peoples of the region. Remember, how in the film "Avatar" a manager of a mining company speaks with contempt about the aboriginal people: "They are sitting on my bucks!". Geologists suggest that there are significant oil reserves in the area of the sacred lake Numto in Beloyarsky district. Natalia Vylla worries that the plot of the Hollywood blockbuster might repeat itself there: "If Numto loses its status, we will lose our sanctuary." "There no imminent possibility of oil development on the sacred lake, as it is part of a national park, " says Yugra Duma member Nadezhda Alexeeva. “But due to the status change, the territory of the TTNU will still be less protected.” "From 2013, drilling on specially protected conservation areas is prohibited. If TTNU will be equated to them, will can forget about oil production on 628 concession areas, " says Konstantin Belyaev, chief surveyor of ‘LUKOIL - Western Siberia’. “But in that case”, he suggests, “indigenous people should also be banned from pursuing their economic activities there. It would be better to interact constructively: for example, to require the extractive companies use of environmentally clean technology. And if the Assembly of indigenous small-numbered peoples considers indigenous rights to have been violated, they are welcome to change the regional legislation." Such work is already underway: The environmental department of Yugra and a group of members of parliament have prepared a draft law on specially protected conservation areas. Will they manage to do such that both the reindeer will be fed, and the oil rigs remain whole?