Evenki, Reindeer and the East Siberian Pacific Pipeline

April 15, 2008 • Philip BurgessReindeer Herders

(From Arctic Sounder, by TAMAR BEN-YOSEF, April 11, 2008 at 11:19AM AKST The struggle by Alaska’s Inupiat to protect their culture in face of resource development has drawn the attention of indigenous leaders in Russia facing near-identical challenges.

A delegation of four Russian indigenous leaders from the Sakha Republic showed up in Barrow and Nuiqsut last week to meet tribal leaders, organizations and local residents to learn about Inupiat methods of protecting their culture.

The trip, which took place March 22-April 3, was sponsored by the Russia and Alaska programs of Pacific Environment, an environmental organization based in San Francisco with an office in Alaska.

The Russian visitors intended to learn how community organizing in Alaska is used as a tool to gain leverage when dealing with resource extraction companies and government bodies.

In 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved an East Siberian Pacific Pipeline to cut right through the southern part of the republic, also called Yakutia, on its way to deliver oil to Japan, China and the United States.

Originally, the 2,600-mile pipeline was planned to skirt within a half-mile of the northern shore of Lake Baikal – a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, many of which cannot be found elsewhere in the world.

Protests against the pipeline’s proximity to the lake and the risks involved finally pushed the route farther north and into a different region.

The Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, is the largest region in Russia, spanning about half the size of the Lower 48.

It is also one of the most remote of Russia’s regions and one of its richest in natural resources, with oil, mining, coal production, diamonds and timber.

Heavy resource extraction has already taken its toll on the vast land, populated primarily by indigenous people – the Yakut – and Russians.

“Before the coal industry, we had 12,000 domesticated reindeer in one herd, now we only have 4,500,” said Ivan Atlasov, an industrial engineer and president since 2005 of the Association of the Evenk people.

“The reindeer changed their patterns to move away from the mines and went further towards the mountains,” he said.

Reliant on the animals for food and clothes, the herders in this remote and extremely cold region were forced to travel with the herd by air, subjected to rising oil costs.

In addition to coal mining and the pipeline, a railroad is under construction, and plans are made for an open-pit coal mine in the southern region of Sakha.

The territory for the future pipeline section is entirely above permafrost and is home to the Evenk, an indigenous people who rely mainly on subsistence hunting of reindeer.

An ancient proverb says that wherever there are reindeer, there is an Evenk.

A more contemporary variation adds that wherever there is an Evenk there are reindeer, according to Yuri Yukhnovets, an Evenk teacher and union leader from Southern Sakha and mayor of his village.

This may be true right now, but the delegation and the people they represent back home are afraid the government is ignoring the facts that may change this situation forever.

“There are virtually no functional rights that exist for the Russian indigenous people,” said Meerim Kylychbekova, of Pacific Environment’s Russia Program.

Transneft, the company behind the East Siberian Pacific pipeline, is a government-owned monopoly.

“This is a massive project that should require lots of months of work,” said Ekaterina Evseeva, co-director of Eyge, a leading indigenous environmental organization in Sakha.

“The pipeline is more than 1,400 kilometers long in the Sakha region, and they only did a few months of environmental assessments,” Evseeva said.

Other claims, similar to those made by groups in Alaska against offshore drilling plans, accuse the Russian equivalent to the U.S.’s Minerals Management Service of approving a plan lacked information and had no alternative.

A coalition of scientists, conservation organizations, indigenous groups and concerned locals has appealed the decision in court, stating the agency knew the project was incomplete.

The coalition stated the agency used information from the 1970s and ignored its comments on negative impacts of constructing and maintaining the pipeline in that region.

It added that public hearings were not held in all the relevant regions and were kept quiet, causing attendance to be low.

“The government wants to build the pipeline as fast as possible while oil prices are high,” Evseeva said.

The pipeline would handle an estimated 40 million cubic meters of oil a year in its first years of operation. The second phase estimates 90 million cubic meters a year, according to Evseeva.

“These claims have not been confirmed by geological studies. There is a debate whether there even is enough oil to justify the project,” she said.

During their visit to Alaska, the delegation made stops in the North Slope, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Chickaloon.

“For us, what was useful were conversations with the ordinary people,” said Yury Vasilyev, a forestry specialist and an environmental studies teacher at Sokol (falcon) public environmental organization for children.

“Most relevant was to understand relationships between the local communities and the government,” he said.

“It’s not for us to say, here it is good, there it is bad – it’s our job to learn to identify common lessons and also see what has been happening here is what awaits us,” Vasilyev said.

Rachel James of the Alaska Program at Pacific Environment joined the group on their tour. She said the delegation was able to speak to elders and young people about the changes they face.

“I believe the participants got a good overview of the benefits and challenges of these changes,” James said.

“We deeply appreciated that the people of Nuiqsut and Barrow who were very warm and generous to our group.’a0Perhaps the most learning went on’a0over the dining room table.”‘a0