The Last of the Udege People
In the past few years any state policies with regard to small indigenous nations virtually ceased to exist. Big and small business gradually comes to places of their habitation in order to make big money. New owners of fisheries and hunting grounds dictate the aboriginal population their own rules of the game, having previously gained approval of the ‘right people’ (governors, as a rule). How the indigenous people of Russia have been brought to the threshold of extinction is what we are talking about with Pavel SULIANDZIGA, the First Vice-President of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East (RAIPON), who is also a member of the Public Chamber.
Pavel Vasilyevich SULIANDZIGA – Member of the Committee for International Cooperation and Public Diplomacy of the Public Chamber, First Vice-President of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of The North, Siberia And the Far East, Deputy Chairman of the UN Permanent Forum On Indigenous Issues.
– Pavel Vasilyevich, recently the legislators rejected a bill on ethnological appraisal initiated by RAIPON.
– Yes, we did propose that the state ecological expertly examination should also include an ethnological study to find out how a particular business project impacts a traditional life style of an aboriginal community. I can give you an example of such influence from the life of my own people. Until the 1970s, eight ethnic groups of the Udege people existed, while today only half of them are left because the Ussury taiga forest was cut down on the territories where four of them used to live, which deprived them of their hunting grounds and in effect removed the economic basis of their livelihoods from their under their feet.
It is common knowledge that small peoples are engaged in fishing, hunting and gathering. Obviously, any industrial project is certain to have some bearing on their interests. Thus, a site where a plant is built automatically diminishes the territory used by reindeer breeders. The industrial waste discharged by China into the Amur River does enormous ecological damage to the mighty river, as well as undermines human health and the life styles of small indigenous nations living on the banks of the Amur. This ecological disaster deprived the aboriginal peoples of the Amur of fishing, for many years.
In my opinion, it is here that the gravest danger lies: depriving the indigenous peoples of opportunities to practice their traditional pursuits on which their culture, language, traditions and customs are based. Many negative developments took place in Soviet times, yet then the authorities supported the traditional economies of indigenous peoples. Today the government has practically abandoned any policy regarding the small indigenous peoples.
When the legislators rejected the bill on ethnological examination, they explained it roughly like this: combining two kinds of examination – an ecological and an ethnological one – within one assessment is impossible simply because the purposes and procedures of the two are different. They decided, so to speak, not to mix ecology with ethnography. It is strange to hear such arguments, to be sure. The notion of “ethnological examination” clearly figures in the Law on Guarantees of the Rights of Small Indigenous Peoples of the RF”. When we came forward with the Bill, we were told by the Profile Committee that the ethnographic examination should be made part of the ecological one. We deliberated on the draft with the Duma experts. The final result, however, shows that there is no system underlying the work of the present Duma. In taking their decisions, members of the Duma, instead of aiming at a logical development of the legislation system, are guided by their personal conclusions, which evidences their poor familiarity with Russia’s laws.
By the way, even the Law on Guarantees of Small Peoples’ Rights has been so badly mutilated over the past few years that there are practically no rights left. The Law on Territories of Traditional Natural Resources Use of the Small Indigenous Nations of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East has been in effect since 2001, yet not a single (!) such territory has since been created.
– What has been the effect on the life of the small peoples of the Forest, Land and Water Codes?
– The Land Code has done us the greatest harm. The term “permanent free use” has been eliminated from Russian vocabulary, with only “lease” and “property” remaining. Recently an amendment was made declaring that permanent ownership of land is possible, but it refers to the Russian Orthodox Church alone. The small indigenous peoples have been brushed aside, so to say. Nobody is going to give reindeer-breeders their millions of hectares of pasture, with huge mineral resources on them. The only alternative left is lease, which is very expensive. Thank God, the regional officials have not charged the indigenous peoples anything as yet – probably due to inertia: they have never done so before. But as things stand, it turns out that the indigenous peoples are using the land illegally. So we are trespassers on our own lands. Incidentally, there have already been two instances – in the Primorsky Territory and in the Magadan Region – of the Federal Forest Service attempting to extract rent for the use of hunting grounds.
Today there is a huge problem that regional authorities would prefer to keep silent on and the federal government would rather ignore – it is the buying up of lands in the North, Siberia and the Russian Far East. This process became noticeable four years ago, when the situation in Russian became completely stabilized and business people must have realized that there still were titbits not seized by anybody. Whereas big property (petroleum, natural gas and gold) had been divided long before, smaller industries (forest, fishing, hunting and tourism) were farmed out to the local authorities. As a result, there followed an ousting of indigenous peoples from their areas of habitation, which still continues. At the same time, new proprietors understand that driving away the aborigines is impossible because a row may ensue. The land grab is going on quietly.
– What does it look like technically?
– The pattern is about the same almost everywhere. The administration of the region invites applications for the lease of hunting or fishing grounds. As the small indigenous community lives in the taiga forest in remote villages, its people know nothing about the contest. But even if they chance to find out and do try to apply, the tender committee will brush them off under any pretext – in most cases by finding errors in the drawing up of the document. Although legally it is the indigenous population that has priority rights to apply for the lease of fishing or hunting grounds, this is only what the law proclaims. In reality, for example, in the Amur Region, none of the indigenous communities managed to win any of the hunting ground leases on the Evenk-populated territory last year. All the leases were won by a company whose owner is said to be close to the regional administration.
Well, what happened next was that he came to see the indigenous people and said to them, “Comrades aborigines! The land is mine; go on hunting, but do it for me now. Bring the fur and other things to my office and submit them at a fixed rate. If you refuse to do so, I’ll evict you.” What could they do? Nothing. Those that disagree, if any, are quickly branded as poachers – in full conformity with the law now, for they have hunted without permission on grounds that do not belong to them.
The saddest thing is that the business persons act under the umbrella of the regional authorities and hence totally unabashedly. If the situation is not reversed, this will undermine the foundations of the indigenous peoples’ life and will destroy them.
– The state, however, believes that it takes proper care of the indigenous population. Last year the budget of the special federal programme titled “The Economic and Social Development of the Small Indigenous Peoples of the North up to 2011” increased twofold, while it is planned to allocate over 207 million roubles annually in 2007—2008.
– Look, the faraway settlements of small peoples are practically the most distant corners of the country. They are separated by enormous distances. So the two hundred million for 45 indigenous nations scattered all over Russia is but a tiny sum…
One region is allocated a million a year, another gets three million perhaps. I have to travel a lot about the country and meet regional leaders, who often ask the rhetorical question, “What can we do with this money?” Nothing serious. They can only patch a few holes. As a result, the funds are allocated for indigenous peoples, but are spent on everybody else. For example, in a village in the Tomsk Region they bought a bus for a school that has only two kids from a small indigenous people. I know that in this way the local officials solved a regional problem, but the money had been given to the indigenous people. And this is not the worst example.
The new concept of the same federal programme intended for up to 2015, does not contain any radical changes. The point is that up to now the state has not evolved a uniform approach to solving the problems of indigenous peoples, as most of the foreign countries have done.
I can give you another example. When presenting its report to the UN in May 2007, the Russian Government stated that a special place in the job-creation programmes is given to measures of promoting the employment of the vulnerable categories of women belonging to the indigenous peoples. It is an interesting statement, considering that no such measures have ever been taken. Up to the present year, any funding for the needs of small peoples has been allotted under the head of “capital construction” only. Other expenses connected with equipment purchases or job creation, even if they were included in the federal estimate, figured in the extra-budgetary side of the balance sheet: somebody other than the state was to provide the money. As to the unemployment level, in many of our settlements it stands at 60% for men and 90% for women.
– On the whole, what is your assessment of the Russian aboriginal population’s quality of life?
– Their living standards are lower than the country’s average. For example, in the Kamchatka the fishing quota is 50 kg per capita annually. Just compare: in tsarist times, the local officials assumed that one fish per day was needed by one local person. They even made inspection and counted the supplies; should anyone have landed fewer than that, the governor would send the tsar a message to warn there might be famine. Today, however, they give you 50 kg to survive as best you can!
Life expectancy is probably the best indicator of the quality of life. In our villages it is 48 years. In one of the Evenk villages in the Amur region the average age of the dead was as low as 27 according to the official statistics for the last ten years. The main causes of death were suicides and accidents. I can say without exaggeration that today many of the small peoples are on the verge of disappearance as ethnic units. Out of the 40 indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, 7 are less than a thousand-strong and 12 peoples number less than two thousand each. Meanwhile, the threshold figure for a people is seven thousand persons…
– Are there any conflicts on religious grounds?
– What we do not have is religious problems. This depends on the people’s mentality and culture.
By the way, the officials’ incompetence is best seen when they talk about our national interests. Chechnya alone is enough for us, they will say. This proves that they do not understand how different ethnic groups are. While a display of strength is honoured in the Caucasus, in the North those who are overemotional are regarded as shallow. In the Caucasus, if you have been offended, you take a gun and look for the offender to avenge. This is neither good, not bad – this is just reality. In the North we have an entirely different style of behaviour: here a representative of an indigenous people, if offended, commits suicide. This is the reason why the rate of suicides is so high. A decree by a Kamchatka governor is known – forbidding the Itelmens to open their veins. Admittedly, that was in the tsarist times.
Therefore, when, in response to my appeals to preserve the areas of traditional habitation, I hear officials say that the indigenous people want to capture the Far East coast, I ask them, “How do you see it happen? By military force? My hunters have three old Berdan rifles and their total number is two hundred.” Unfortunately, national issues in Russia are handled by non-specialists. Perhaps, that is why there are so many problems in this sphere. Indigenous population is faced with the negative effects of civilization (like construction, etc.) in any civilized country, yet their authorities do find methods of regulation. It is not until our country begins to take into account the interests of small peoples that it can justly claim to be a really civilized nation.
Interviewed by Alexandra Beluza
According to law, small indigenous peoples are those that live on territories of their ancestors’ traditional habitation, preserving their traditional life style, economy and occupations, number less than 50 thousand each and are conscious of their being independent ethnic communities.
At present, the Uniform List of Small Indigenous Peoples approved by the Government of Russia contains 45 ethnic groups totalling 280 thousand persons. 40 small indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East in Russia feature in this list, numbering 244 thousand persons.
Small peoples live as concentrated groups in more than 30 parts of the country. Thus, the peoples of the North live on the territory of 29 members of the RF with 80% of them being concentrated in the Yamalo-Nenets, Khanty-Mansi, Taimyr (Dolgano-Nenets) and Chukotka Autonomous Okrugs, in the Kamchatka Region, in the Khabarovsk Territory and in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia).
Unlike national groups and ethnic minorities, they were formed as ethnic communities on the local aboriginal basis and have been the original indigenous inhabitants of their territories. The overwhelming majority of the peoples of the North (about 75%) are rural residents. In some subjects of the RF their share does not exceed 1-2% of the total population. In the countryside this figure is higher – about 19%.
Numerically, the largest peoples are Nenets (41 thousand), Evenks (41 thousand) and Khanty (28 thousand); the least numerous are Kereks (8 persons), Aliutortsy (14 persons) and Entsy (237 persons).www.tribuna.ru 37 (10182) Friday, 28 September 2007