Russia: Khanty clans say "no" to oil companies
In West-Siberia’s Khanty-Mansi autonomous region, a region of the size of France, where much of Russia’s crude oil is extracted, a new conflict between indigenous Khanty reindeer herders and the powerful oil producers is unfolding. The Khanty are an indigenous nation of 30,000. Their language is related to modern Hungarian and their main subsistence activities are fishing, reindeer herding, hunting and gathering.
They are among the indigenous peoples of Russia, which have best preserved their language, cosmovision and traditional knowledge. About 500 Khanty families leading a semi-nomadic way of live in the region hold titles over their ancestral land, which the regional government has registered as “Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU)” of regional status. Yet, in many of not most of these territories, oil companies are present, exploring or extracting subsoild resources and leaving behind a poisonous legacy.
The ancestral lands of seventeen families of the Sopochin and Kechimov clans are located in a watershed area of approximately 50 by 50 km near the oil city of Kogalym. Here, where reindeer are grazing and reindeer herding families are living in their tipis, another confrontation between the interests of the state, the oil companies and indigenous peoples is unfolding. Recently the company "Noyabrskneftegaz" received a license to develop the "Otdel’noye" oil and gas deposit in this area, extending into the ancestral lands of the reindeer herders, which have firmly declared that they are unwilling to leave their land.
"This is the last piece of land where we can feed our reindeer."
"We know just as well as the oil companies, that there is no 100% environmentally clean oil extraction – says reindeer herder Stepan Sopochin. - After drilling has started, we will not be able to continue our traditional way of life here. We do cooperate with the oil companies, but we cannot allow our land to shrink indefinitely. We being squeezed between the operations of two oil companies. This is the last piece of land where we can feed our reindeer. We are not merely dealing with a question concerning the next day, but of our future the future that we want: my grandfather wanted this life for my father, and my father - for me, and I want a free life for my children."
According to the federal law “On Subsoil Resources”, the territory may be leased out to oil and gas companies without limitation. The federal law “On Territories of Traditional Nature Use” on the other hand sets out the priority right of people leading a traditional way of life on these lands. The “Territories of Traditional Nature Use”, which have been registered by the regional administration, have not been confirmed by the federal government, which makes their status vulnerable.
Usually in Khanty-Mansi autonomous area, oil companies seeking to drill for oil on indigenous peoples’ ancestral land, enter into a tripartite agreements with the affected indigenous families and the authorities, which, allowing the company to enter in exchange for some form of material compensation. This has brought relative wealth to some Khanty families, who are materially better off, than indigenous communities in most other regions of Russia. However, it also has also accelerated the shrinking of the remaining land on which the continuation of their way of life, culture and language depend. This time however, the Sopochins and Kechimovs are standing firm, determined to protect their remaining land.
The head of the Energy program of Greenpeace Russia Vladimir Chuprov notes, that the state employs a whole armada of agencies and mechanisms to ensure access to the indigenous peoples’ land. As a result, the reindeer herders find themselves in a situation where they have to face the state machinery one on one, with its army of lawyers, attorneys, executives. In addition, legislation regulating compensation and consent is confusing and contradictory. Even lawyers are unable to discern whether indigenous peoples a right of veto oil drilling or whether the regional authorities have the final say. “But, by and large”, Chuprov notes, ”the priority for the authorities is oil...".
"No" means "no"
The Kechimov and Sopochin reindeer herders are not asking for compensation, but propose the creation of a working group of scientists, that will determine the environmental damage that will cause the oil companies are likely to cause by their entry into their ancestral lands. Meanwhile, the oil company has shown no signs of accepting their positition and the authorities play down the risks associated with the proposed operations. "The state is obliged to know what subsoil resources it has," says the Director of the Department of natural resources and non-raw-material sector of the economy of Yugra Yevgeniy Platonov “and it is wrong to impede the work of the oil and gas industry.” He claims “The losses incurred by the indigenous minority peoples of the North are minimal. (…) The company is merely asking to explore the presence of hydrocarbons, we are not talking about a fully-fledge drilling operation in the territory.” Platonov is convinced that “A compromise will be found in any case". Apparently, for the state authorities and the oil companies, the idea that indigenous families simply refuse to give in to their demands, is unthinkable. However, for the Kechimov and Sopochin clans, a compromise that will sacrifice their future as distinct communities is clearly not acceptable.