By Yuliya Makliuk, Eastern Europe, Caucuses and Central Asia Coordinator. English translation by Kateryna Boyko and Roman Horbyk.

Russia’s indigenous people stand up for their land rights in a quarrel with oil companies and raise issues of environmental and economic justice. Could this move other Russians to rethink the real costs of a resource-based economy?

When I made my first cell phone call to Aleksandr Aypin, he was just back from a deer camp that belongs to his family. “The situation is getting serious,” he said, “the oilmen put us under pressure, they are trying to force us to consent to drilling. So far we’re strong enough to resist, but our future is unclear. We have no place to go, all other reindeer moss fields where our deer can feed burned down in the wildfires of summer 2012.” Sasha (a short form of the name Aleksandr in Russian) and I arrange to call each other on Skype when he will go to the city of Surgut to take his exams, and then we hang up. I can barely avoid thinking that industrialization creates the means to resist itself, things like cell phones, Internet, access to hundreds of other families and nations fighting for their rights across the world. And I can’t avoid one more feeling; as if I were inside a Miyazaki film with its perennial war of life and greed.

Pictured: Aleksandr Aypin is holding the reindeer moss that burned in wildfires

The sacred sites

Sasha is a 30-year-old business entrepreneur who is trying to develop green ethnic tourism in the land where he was born. He used to work as a physical training schoolteacher, but now he’s after public grants for his start-up. He simultaneously studies public and municipal administration by correspondence. And besides that, Sasha is a Khanty. This is perhaps why he understands, unlike most Russians, that one of the world’s largest economies can’t be based for long on just draining natural resources.

Yet today his family and he are spending most of their time to defend their right to the familial pasture grounds. The Aypins, also known as the clan of Beaver, belong to the indigenous Khanty people that inhabit Russia’s North-Western Siberia. This small indigenous group numbers about 30,000 men and women, many of whom still practice traditional crafts like reindeer farming, hunting and fishing. For the Khanty, the homeland and its nature are not simply a pool of resources, but just as much a spiritual realm, the foundation of everyone’s life and the life of their entire people. The Aypins revere a local goddess, the Patroness of Agan, and ward many sites that the Khanty deem sacred, in the woods and on the banks of the river Agan. Unfortunately for the Khanty, their sacred sites are to be found just next to a “shrine” of another kind. This part of Siberia provides around one half of the Russian overall oil extraction output, and oil is the principal resource that keeps the country’s ruling class afloat.

Pictured: Sasha’s parents, Semion and Liubov, at the nomad camp Enel Uri near the Agan river

The failed deal

“Khanty people can’t exist without their deer, and the deer can’t exist without their moss,” Sasha explains the origins of the conflict. The reindeer moss is a whitish lichen that grows by 0.1-0.2 inches per year and is extremely sensitive to any environmental changes. During the winter, this is the only food available for deer, although some farmers have tried giving compound feed to their herds. In Sasha’s father Semion’s lifetime, their family had to leave their home and camp sites and move to another place no less than five times, because of oil drilling and fires. They will leave no more, and they can’t leave no more; massive wildfires in the territory reserved for their traditional economy left but a tiny spot of a reindeer moss. In the last spring, Lukoil West Siberia decided to build a road for further oil drilling precisely through this last spot. The company also announced drilling of numerous oil wells on the Aypins’ grounds as well as the neighboring land which the road enables access to. The road can effectively destroy the fragile reindeer moss ecosystem while oil drilling and spills will pollute the remaining woods and rivers, once a Khanty microcosm. On top of that, oil extraction and its continuing use entail further global climate change, which will likely make large-scale forest wildfires even more frequent.

The company does have a public drilling license but the existing procedure requires it to reach an agreement also with the indigenous peoples. Grotesque as it may seem, they say the compensation would often amount to a case of vodka in the past. But Sasha has learned how to count; he understands that the price of forest destruction and land pollution will be way higher than that of vodka or a TV-set or a snowmobile which are often used to blandish the locals. Even the 1,000,000 rubles (some 30,000 US) the company finally offered as compensation for the road won’t give the family its losses back. On the contrary, it is tourism which would give them a chance to more or less preserve the traditional Khanty way of life and make them less dependent on governmental subsidies. The income from tourism would fund the region’s development, not the salaries of the company’s managers and their off-shore accounts. Let alone the carbon emissions from burned oil.

So, the Aypin family decided they will stipulate their own conditions for Lukoil. They hired a lawyer, required to pay five times as much in return for the road, and demanded an obligation there be no oil wells in the sacred sites which make half of the area of the suggested oil production site. The company showed its commitment to dialogue in a peculiar way. One night they deployed construction equipment and started works at the site. Apparently, they decided not to waste money even on vodka.

Pictured: Fire destroys a Khanty reindeer moss pasture.

Drilling for life

Lukoil explains it acts out of care for the economic development of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area. According to the Argumenty i fakty – Yugra newspaper, the JSC Lukoil West Siberia Principal Mine Surveyor Konstantin Beliayev believes that what the Aypins demand threatens the entire region’s oil industry. “Every one of them [locals] can think, ‘If they don’t want to compromise, why should we?’ The situation is extremely dangerous. If the locals don’t accept the oil production projects, they will never be completed. If they are never completed, there will be no oil extraction. Eventually it will lead to a destabilization of the region’s economy.”

Whether the region gains or loses from the oil production is actually not so clear. The petrodollars don’t stay in Khanty-Mansiysk, the income is by and large shared by the owners and the national budget while the locals are left with destroyed nature and miserable perspectives. The area, once famous for its woods and fish, would starve without oil extraction today.

The experts note such dependency on extraction and sale of raw materials, or an “oil curse,” has a pernicious effect on the national economy in general. According to the Higher School of Economics (Russia), the declared policy of economy diversification notwithstanding, the share of raw materials extraction and processing in Russia’s GDP continues to rise and amounts to 10 per cent today. Against this background, the other branches of industry share decreases. The situation is worrying if you consider that, even in oil production, revenues soar only because of the increasing oil prices on the global market rather than thanks to growing output or better quality. Once prices fall, the country will be taken a decade aback in its development, HSE experts say.

Pictured: Large oil spill at one of Lukoil sites covered about 62 acres near village Agan. Courtesy: NGO Yugra Environmental Security

Expensive environment

At the same time, companies use their influence to avoid the insignificant spending on the protection of environment they have to make under the liberal environmental legislation in Russia. The recent Greenpeace expedition to the Khanty-Mansi Area revealed a huge number of oil spills, insufficient re-cultivation, dead woods and marshes, and heavily-worn pipelines causing accidents in great numbers. “The Russian oil industry spills over 30 million barrels of oil annually; this is seven times more than what was spilled during the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” the organization’s statement says. Russia experiences over 20,000 oil spills annually, and the reasons are not so much external causes as mere negligence. Rusty 30-year-old pipelines leak oil here and there, thus poisoning the environment and provoking fires. The nature of the tundra takes a very long time to regenerate, so dead soil at the spill site surface remains covered with bitumen film even a decade later, Greenpeace says. Such spills are registered in extremely rare cases; the companies are hardly ever held responsible. Oil is covered with sand at best; the culprits pay fines that seem ridiculous compared to their revenues.

However, oil companies believe they are still paying too much. Last November, the oil giant Rosneft with other companies filed a lawsuit requesting to reconsider the existing practice which obliges them to compensate the damage from polluting forest, soil and other parts of environment as separate damages. They believe these fines overlap and find it fairer to cover the single one of the damages incurred.

Interestingly, while preparing for drilling in the Arctic at the moment, both Rosneft and Gazprom are very outspoken about their planned environmental responsibility and care for indigenous people. I wonder whether the companies will cover all damage in case of imminent spills or they will keep demanding changes to the environmental law because it will be cheaper to pay for the cleaning of, say, the ice surface and refuse to pay for the dead birds and fish.

In recent years, oil production in the Khanty-Mansi Area has dropped, and companies are eager to grab what is yet available. From their perspective, the only chance to save the region’s economy is to drill more wells. And yes, to cut the accompanying expenses as well: repair, environmental protection or compensation for the destroyed familial grounds. Such situation in the region reflects the economic policy of the entire country. The unexpectedly strong position of the Aypin family fits this worldview, in fact, very poorly.

Pictured: Leaky oil pipelines near the Agan river are a permanent source of pollution. Courtesy: NGO Yugra Environmental Security

The indigenous people start thinking

Entrepreneur Sasha Aypin, his father Semion and their family are not the only ones who have seen enough spills and fires.

Their neighbors, the Iusi family, belong to another indigenous ethnicity, the Nenets. They are facing a similar distress; their lands are polluted by industrial waste the oil company Noyabrskneftegaz is in no hurry to clean up. Altogether, around 60 families in the district are unhappy with the situation and have recently addressed the country’s human rights defender for help.

Pictured: Sasha Aypin at a symbolic educational protest during the indigenous peoples conference. Courtesy: local TV.

Similar processes are under way in other parts of the Russian Federation, too. Some 10 organizations that unite the indigenous peoples of Russia’s North demanded this year that the oil companies reimburse the damage already incurred to the nature and abandon the development of the Arctic. A statement initiated by Greenpeace and The Committee for the Salvation of Pechora (Komi Republic, Russia) says:

“The peoples of the North will not tolerate the barbaric way in which oil companies destroy our land; we will not fling ourselves under their mercy. We urge to ban oil extraction on the Arctic sea shelf and declare a moratorium on the developing on-ground sites in the North until the companies assume responsibility for the damage they have already incurred to the nature.”

So far, their voice hasn’t been heard in big Moscow too well. But Lukoil’s Konstantin Beliayev may have unwillingly pointed out to a right strategy for the reindeer farmers; one local protest will echo in dozens similar actions across the country, and oil companies will have to seriously reconsider their attitude towards environmental and social responsibility. And then, perhaps, they will be ready to discuss the impact of global warming on indigenous peoples. Maybe. Some day.

Video: Indigenous peoples of the Russian North speak about how oil production influences nature and life of the locals

Thanks to the Aypin family’s activism and the arrival of Greenpeace, the information on the tiny conflict 1,500 miles away from the capital made it to the media. Some regarded the Khanty claims as an attempt to profit as much as possible; some others came up with Russia’s most hated word, “separatism.” But there are many of those who have been really thinking about the current situation: the history of the relations of the state with small indigenous peoples, the real price we pay for our oil, the distribution of the revenues, and the stability of the national economy. Online discussions under the feature articles on the Khanty resistance boast hundreds of comments, the videos that captured construction equipment entering the Aypins’ land enjoy lots of views, and the Aypins themselves plan on getting in touch with international NGOs. But so far the local state attorney office decided in favor of Lukoil and it’s hardly known if Sasha’s dream of ethnic green tourism and oil-independent Russia will ever come true.

Pictured: This photo was taken in the summer but the trees at the Aypin ground were already brown because of the wildfires and pollution

P.S. Good news! While we were translating this article, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area Governor supported the Aypins’ claim and Lukoil company announced its decision to withdraw their intention for use of the site ‘despite serious financial losses’. The company will be looking for ‘alternative options’ of oil field development. It is not clear, however, whether these options will leave the Aypins’ land alone.

P.P.S. If you find this story interesting and you’d like to follow up with the Aypin family or support Sasha’s start-up, please get in touch with us by e-mail Yuliya [@]


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