The last camping ground


Russia’s oil goliaths have been devastating vast areas of natural landscape, and indigenous people’s lives, in their rush to extract the black gold that lies beneath. But a family of reindeer herders has taken them on. на русском языке

Georgy Borodyansky
28 March 2014

Executives at petrochemical giant Lukoil are accustomed to conquering time and space from their computers in their glass and concrete skyscrapers. But they have encountered an unexpected problem: a family of reindeer herders is resisting the corporation’s takeover of its ancestral camping ground in the Khanty–Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug (KhMAO) in western Siberia. From the window of their skyscraper, it’s just about the end of the earth.

Map showing location of Khanty-Mansiysk in western siberia. It is a large if remote region.

The Khanty-Mansiysk Automous Okrug in western Siberia is rich in petrochemical resources. Map CC Marmelad.The Aipin family, like most of northern Russia’s indigenous peoples, live on top of the so-far inexhaustible mineral resources that literally underlie the prosperity of not only the oil companies but of Russia itself, with its Olympic Games, summits, forums and Forbes List ratings. The area produces over half of Russia’s oil, but the Khanty themselves have no need of this black gold gushing from below the land where their ancestors have lived for more than a thousand years. What they need is the forests and the white snow that, as the great Kola Beldy, himself from the Nanai indigenous people, used to sing, ‘melts on the horizon into the white sky’; lichen for their herds in the winter and berries and mushrooms in the summer.

The Khanty have been losing their world to companies who are writing modern history in black oil on the white snow.

For the last 30 years or so, however, the Khanty have been losing their white world, forced off it by the companies who are writing the modern history of these lands in black oil on the white snow.

According to a report by the ECOportal NGO, 90% of the natural landscape in the oil producing areas of the KhMAO has been damaged or destroyed: ‘Bitumen crusts of 20- to 30-year-old oil spills are visible to this day. In this permafrost zone oil decomposes very slowly and the turf soaks it up like a sponge.’ 

Over these few decades, photos of ‘our boundless forest’ have disappeared from the pages of local newspapers – it has simply ceased to exist. All that is left in Khanty areas is odd tracts officially designated as ‘territories of traditional natural resource management ‘ that the environmentalists call ‘reservations.’  

Crude oil seeps through the ground, in the background, a derrick burns off gas.

Crude oil seeps through the ground, poisoning the land the Khanty live off.(c) RIA Novosti/Ramil Sitdikov‘In the course of our lives in the forest’, wrote the Aipin family in their collective letter to KhMAO governor Natalya Komarova, ‘we have been forced to move from one ancestral camping ground to another five times, each time leaving our settlements to the oilmen. We are not going to leave our present settlement at Enel Uri: it is time the interests of the local population took priority over those of the oil corporations.’ 

Whose land is it anyway?

Conflict between the Khanty and the oil magnates began with the signing of an agreement for the development of the Martallerovsky oilfield. In 2011 the KhMAO authorities put this area up for auction, and a Lukoil subsidiary (Lukoil-Western Siberia) won the right to exploit it. But the site is part of a traditional indigenous area, so the oil company needed permission from the local people for changes to (i.e. deterioration or destruction of) the environment occupied by their forefathers for centuries.

As a rule, this isn’t a problem for the oil companies: the locals are bought off with compensation for the use of their lands representing a paltry amount in comparison with the future profits the lands will yield. For example, according to the journal Ural Expert, Vareganneft, a subsidiary of Russneft, paid more than 6 million roubles (£100,000) in 2012 to representatives of local communities for the use of their land. This sum was divided among 40 families, giving them an average of £2,500 each. Russneft considers this a great achievement for its social agenda, boasting that ‘support for the local indigenous population is one of our priorities.’

The locals receive a paltry amount of compensation for the use of their lands

A year ago the Aipin family gave Lukoil an unprecedented list of conditions, agreed at a family conference and presented by family head Semyon Aipin at a meeting with company representatives. The family permitted the oilmen to enter their lands and drill one extension well, designated on the map as R-90. They also gave the company the right to develop this one well, but only if the approach road was constructed across bog land, not forest. The family would then agree to compensation of 5 million roubles (£83,000).

Another four families, whose lands are scheduled to be crossed by an winter snow road that will bring equipment to a well, have also asked for compensation of a million roubles each.  

Black and white photo of a Khanty family in front of a 'chum' [traditional nomadic dwelling] in the early 20th century

Khanty family in front of a 'chum' [traditional nomadic dwelling] in the early 20th century.‘Lukoil executives aren’t used to this’, local councillor and lawyer for the Aipin family Galina Obolenskaya told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. ‘The local people here don’t usually make a fuss, and accept the miserly compensation offered by the oil firms. In general the Khanty try to avoid conflict with the authorities; it’s very stressful for them. But the Aipins have literally nowhere to go: their habitat has been disappearing, especially in the last few years – there are fires every summer in the lichen forest on their lands. They’re a family of 18, and there’s a danger they’ll lose their last reindeer pastures. What are they supposed to do then, how can they give up the life their people have led for centuries?’

So Obolenskaya believes that 5 million roubles is an appropriate level of compensation for the risks, losses and emotional stress they will suffer from invasion of their lands by the oil company (whom the Khanty regard as little less than an occupying force).

Greenpeace Russia volunteers who visited the Aipins last summer think that the oilmen are responsible for the frequent forest fires in the area. ECOportal reports that their operations leave a heavy environmental footprint everywhere they go: rubbish; rusting metal; white lichen that grows only 2-3 millimetres a year and will take 80-100 years to grow here again, crushed by truck wheels.

The Aipins won’t be bought off

The sum demanded by the reindeer herders seems to have Lukoil management distinctly worried – not in itself, of course, but as a precedent (a new word in the discourse between the Khanty, and other indigenous peoples, and the oil giants). On 1 October last year Lukoil’s vice-president Sergei Kochkurov sent the KhMAO authorities a letter that was quoted by the online newspaper Znak.com: ‘Despite the accepted practice of agreement being reached between the companies and the local indigenous groups, the family on whose land the oilfield is located have demanded an enormous sum in compensation… The company is not prepared to meet these demands, as this would lead to a strained relationship between companies and the heads of local communities practising traditional environmental management in the whole region.’

Indeed, if other local communities follow the example of the Aipins it could affect the numbers of zeros in oil company profits, not to mention their entries in Forbes Lists.

A Khanty family in front of a chum in 2006.

A Khanty family in front of a chum in 2006. Today the Khanty's way of life is under threat. CC Irina KazanskayaBut this is still not the worst threat the oil moguls face from the awkward reindeer herders. Semyon Aipin’s map contains an area, marked by a red line, where he has forbidden any working – priceless land which will not be handed to the predator under any circumstances. This area contains wells R-41 and R-42, scheduled for development in a licensing agreement between Lukoil and the KhMAO authorities, who have received a letter from the company’s vice-president stating that the Aipins’ demands could threaten a collapse of the agreement: ’We are now banned from half the area... It will be impossible to carry out a full geological survey in these conditions.’

If others follow the example of the Aipins it could affect the numbers of zeros in oil company profits

What if all the Khanty and other indigenous peoples living in the north Tyumen region (which produces two thirds of Russia’s oil and more than 90% of its natural gas) were to follow the example of this one family? That could shake the very foundations  of today’s Russia and indeed of something even bigger – the world order in which every value is measured by the number of zeroes in its bank account.

But the Khanty don’t live in that world: they don’t need glass and concrete towers and can do without worldly power, but they can’t live without their forest, reindeer, snow and white light. ‘We Aipins are the people of the beaver [each family of Khanty living along the Agan river has its own animal totem]’, they wrote to the governor, ’and we are the guardians of the ‘Agan Protectress’ and important sacred sites along the Agan... If they put technology on this holy ground, that will be a desecration of the sacred shrines, an attack on our spiritual values. And this will lead to a lot of tension and could have serious consequences.’

‘The seizure of our last lichen pastures’, the letter continued, ‘will mean the end of the reindeer herds and the loss of our spiritual culture and our entire people. The Agan Khanty will disappear as an ethnic group and our children and grandchildren will be swallowed up in towns and cities.’

It’s also about self-determination

According to Znak.com, the contractors attempted to settle the dispute in the simplest way they could think of: in the middle of February 2013 they drove their machines on to the herders’ land and, unwittingly, to the Aipins’ sacred site. ‘You can’t just turn up there whenever’, the Khanty told ECOportal. ‘You mustn’t even accidentally break a twig…’

A barrel labelled 'Lukoil' sits in the middle of a field in Khanty-Mansiysk.

Lukoil fears the Aipin's challenge could set a dangerous precedent and hurt their bottom line. (c) RIA Novosti/Ramil SitdikovThe police arrived in time to prevent a standoff, the oilmen had to retreat, and after this incident the company started talking to the locals. They held a series of meetings over a period of six months, but couldn’t come to an agreement. The Khanty wouldn’t give any ground, and in fact added a demand that any winter snow road to well R-9, which they had agreed could be sunk, be laid across bog land and not through the lichen woods. According to the Aipins’ lawyer, there was verbal assent to this point, but it wasn’t incorporated in the written agreement.

The Aipins upped the ante by raising the fact that they had the legal right to self-determination

Further discussions during the autumn also ran into the ground, and then the Aipins upped the ante by raising the fact that they had the legal right to self-determination. This was dangerous territory, because if other indigenous groups started demanding then same thing, the consequences would be unthinkable. As half-Chechen, half-Cossack writer German Sadulayev says, ‘A square metre of land in Moscow costs a fortune because Moscow owns Siberia and the Far East, the lands of the Khanty, Mansi, Yakuts, Nenets and other indigenous peoples. Without Siberia, Moscow wouldn’t be worth a penny.’ So it won’t do to put pressure on these groups, to cross the red line drawn on the map by Semyon Aipin.

The impasse

When it became clear that the family wouldn’t concede any of their demands, Yevgeny Platonov, head of the regional authority’s environment department and chair of the mediation committee, came up with a new proposal: ‘Supposing we designate the land as a natural monument? However,’ he continued, ‘that would mean that you would also be limited in what you could do there...but Lukoil would ask us for compensation and leave the area.’

The Aipins replied that this solution was acceptable to them: they would manage somehow – the main thing was the survival of their line. But a question from the oil company’s lawyer brought them down to earth: ‘Are we to understand that we may proceed with our operations there until the tract is designated as a monument?’

If this were the case, Lukoil could have worked the area out before it received protection, and there would no longer be any sacred places left to protect. The Aipins protested against this interpretation of the departmental head’s proposal, but their objections were omitted from the minutes of the meeting. Platonov then brought the meeting to a close, without a vote being taken on the matter, but his summary was a contradiction in terms: the two sides had agreed a project plan and at the same time they would apply for its site to be designated as a natural monument. 

Khanty Children in a lichen field with reindeer.

The reindeer that sustain the Khanty depend on delicate lichen forests. CC Irina KazanskayaOn 10 November Semyon Aipin and the heads of three other families sent a collective letter to the KhMAO’s public prosecutor. In it they asked for clarification on the legality of the committee’s decision and also of the licence given by the regional authority to Lukoil-Western Siberia, permitting the company to develop the oil field without the permission of the people living in this ‘territory of traditional natural resource management.’ On 10 December they received a reply: according to their lawyer Galina Obolenskaya it boiled down to a statement that no irregularities could be established in the officials’ actions since the dispute between the oil company and the family had not yet been settled. However, once a final decision had been taken on the matter, then it would be clear whether any laws had been broken prior to its being taken.

A new law – or an appeal to the UN

The authorities, meanwhile, are in no hurry to see the dispute settled. After the Aipins started talking about self-determination, their case acquired a political dimension, which has probably made the powers that be take their demands more seriously than before.

Nadezhda Alekseyeva, deputy head of the Assembly of Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, told us that on 20 December the KhMAO government set up a working group whose task was find a way out of the present impasse: ‘Various options are being considered, two of which look promising. One possibility would be to establish not a natural monument, as the committee suggested, but a nature reserve, the ‘Agan Lichen Woods.’ Then the family could continue their traditional way of life: reindeer herding, fishing, harvesting berries and mushrooms, and no one could encroach on their territory.

‘The second possibility is to retain the present designation of the land as a territory of traditional natural resource management, since our regional legislation provides for special protection for these areas. The problem is that this legislation hasn’t taken its final shape yet, and that’s something the working group needs to sort out. We need to have regulations about the clear division of the territory into zones: a residential zone, a pasturage zone, a wilderness zone and so on. We have a special committee looking at zoning, deciding which areas the oil companies won’t be allowed to touch.’ 

Khanty men fishing in a river with nets.

The Khanty depend on fishing, reindeer herding and foraging to survive. CC Irina KazanskayaIf this regulation is accepted, Ms Alekseyeva tells us, it will protect not only the Aipins, but all the indigenous peoples of the North from invasion by the oil and gas companies. ‘Of course, we should have done this earlier’, she says, ‘and the question was raised in our Assembly in 2008 and again in 2011, but at that point we hadn’t thought it through yet.’

Nadezhda Alekseyeva believes that it is still early to talk about the Khanty winning their battle, but the fact that the KhMAO government is taking their problems seriously is a considerable achievement.

Regional legislation providing for special protection for these areas is still being drafted.

The Khanty have still had no response from the Governor, but according to their lawyer, their letter hasn’t gone unnoticed. ‘At the end of December’, Galina Obolenskaya told us, ‘the regional government discussed setting up a special department that would monitor the oil companies’ compliance with the rights of our indigenous peoples, to avoid such disputes in the future.’

Rodion Sulyandziga, who until recently was First Vice-President of the Association of Small Indigenous Peoples of North Russia, Siberia and the Russian Far East, believes that this is a test case that could set a precedent for a new relationship between indigenous peoples, government and business. ‘This is the first time local residents have raised the issue not just of the value of their lands, but of the future of their people, their continued existence as a distinct ethnic group. There is a gap in Russian law on this subject.’      

Sulyandziga believes that human rights organisations, including international ones, will support this family, whatever the outcome of their dispute. The Aipins are now saying that if they can’t reach a settlement with the KhMAO authorities, they will ask the UN to include their case on the agenda for its World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in September 2014.

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