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RUSSIA: Siberian boom threatens traditions

by Tom EsslemontBBC News
October 8th, 2007

Russia is forging ahead with ambitious energy projects in eastern Siberia, but the indigenous Evenk people are complaining that their age-old way of life is in danger.

Work has begun on a 4,130km (2,560-mile) oil pipeline - the longest in the world's largest country.

The plan is to feed the growing demand for oil in China and Russia's other energy-hungry East Asian neighbours.

The government of Russia's Sakha Republic - better known as Yakutia - backs the pipeline, arguing that the whole region will benefit economically. The collapse of the Soviet Union left many Siberians struggling to make a living.

At first Nikolai Martynov, an ethnic Evenk, thought Russia's natural resources would bring his people wealth.

But he says thousands of reindeer have been "driven away by the building work for the pipeline and other projects and we have fewer and fewer".

"Selling the meat and fur is no longer profitable," says Mr Martynov, who has been a deer herder for 45 years.

He lives in Khotustir, a community near the pipeline, which is home to 2,000 people.

The Evenk live in villages scattered across parts of Siberia's coniferous forest, known as taiga. They have an unreliable income and depend on the nature around them - or on a small amount of manual labour offered to them by the energy companies.

Densely forested hills stretch as far as the eye can see.

But the region also boasts a gold mine and there are plans to exploit uranium too.

Railway workers are busy constructing a new track linking the capital Yakutsk with the main southern Siberian network.

Hydroelectric power

The River Aldan - the main water supply for Khotustir and many other villages - is also being exploited as an energy source.

One firm, RAO-ESS, plans to construct no less than five hydroelectric power plants. It promises jobs.

But Mr Martynov is not convinced.

"The last time the company employed people from my village our salaries dried up. We are still owed four months' wages," he says.

"There has been very little discussion. I think every member of this community should be allowed a share of the profits from the hydroelectric stations."

The company building the oil pipeline, Transneft, forecasts that oil consumption in China and its East Asian neighbours will grow by more than 50% by 2010 and more than double by 2020.

Transneft recently announced there would be jobs for more than 1,000 Chinese construction workers, but only 200 for indigenous people.

Pavel Anisimov, leader of the Khotustir community, says he is disappointed the work has started on the pipeline, even though the final agreement between Transneft and the government of Yakutia has yet to be signed.

"We have a different lifestyle. We can provide tree fellers but we do not have the specialists required by the companies. At the same time we are losing the territory where we herd and hunt animals," he says.

"Most workers are not provided with contracts," explains Mr Anisimov.
"There is a complicated structure of companies working on top of one another. It may be that that structure is illegal, but it is hard to know who to sue."

Transneft officials were not available for comment.

According to a Yakutia government spokesman, "a contract will be signed, compensation to the indigenous people will be granted".

"The whole republic is set to gain from the revenue."

Putin intervenes

Originally, the pipeline would have run just 800m (yards) from the shores of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest body of fresh water and a unique home for many rare species.

But, after protests from environmentalists, President Vladimir Putin announced that the pipeline would be re-routed well away from the lake.

Viktor Kuznetsov, executive director of the Association of Minority Peoples, has studied the impact of energy projects on the Evenk people.

He says that, since 2001, the number of reindeer in the Irkutsk region - on which the Evenk economy depends - has diminished by 10%.

He accuses energy companies of commissioning reports to boost their own credibility.

One report by the Irkutsk-based Institute of Geography suggested that the Evenk community need only be compensated for a loss of 225 roubles ($9; £4.50) per year - a sum Mr Kuznetsov says is laughably small compared with their actual losses.

He says the Evenk are losing thousands of hectares of hunting grounds - home to numerous squirrels, elk and sable.





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