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Siberian perspectives on Protected Use Areas as a strategy for conserving traditional indigenous cultures in the context on industrial development

(II): The Yuganskiy Khanty Biosphere Reserve 

by Olga Balalaeva and Andrew Wiget
This paper, based on the co-authors' work for the last six years among the Khanty of Western Siberia , begins by establishing the contemporary social, political, cultural and economic situation of the Yuganskiy Khanty in the post-Soviet period in the context of rapid regional petroleum development. The establishment of the Yuganskiy Zapovednik (Nature Preserve) as well as the emergence of local native political leadership and organization formed the basis for the current strategy, in which the co-authors actively participate, to develop a Yuganskiy Khanty Biosphere Reserve, to be given international status under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program. The value of this strategy as a means for conserving traditional culture in the context of development, especially in Russia, is assessed.
One of the strategies of survival for the indigenous peoples of Western Siberia is establishment of protected zones, which would permit both to preserve traditional way of life and to develop traditional economy in the way that would not damage the environment on which this culture depends. Russia has a long history of establishing nature reserves. Actually, legislation concerning nature reserves is one of the most advanced in the world in terms of regime regulations on the protected territories - no industrial development of any kind allowed, neither tourism nor access for anybody, except scientific staff of the reserve. Because of this experience with protected zones,it was possible to stretch this concept to include the human environment.
The strategy of developing protected zones for native peoples, called ethno-ecological zones in Russia, was approved by Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North. There are several models of such areas in the world: national parks, reservations and biosphere reserves. This paper reviews the history and issues behind current efforts to implement the protected zone strategy in the case of the Yuganskiy Khanty Biosphere Reserve.
The history of the problem in West Siberia
The general purpose of the Yuganskiy Khanty Biosphere Reserve project is the conservation of a unique traditional Khanty sociocultural formation which is specifically adapted to this large tract of southern, West Siberian taiga and fauna. The Khanty are one of the twenty-three indigenous peoples, tribal peoples, who live in the Russian North. Their numbers total not more than 200,000. Some, like the Yuganskiy Khanty, survive on territory that has been their home for thousands of years before the Russians came. The Yuganskiy Khanty are subsistence hunters and fishermen, who still maintain their clan system, their native religion and language, and their traditional way of life. The community numbers about 900 persons, more than 600 of whom live on very large family hunting territories in more 40 widely-separated, extended family settlements, consisting of 2-5 living houses, distributed along the whole length of the Bolshoi and Malyi Yugan rivers, often a day or more's travel by boat from telephones and electricity. The remainder live in a few very small villages. Their culture was born in and is specifically adapted to the forest-and-swamp ecosystem of the middle West Siberian taiga.
For several thousands years, the Yuganskiy Khanty have managed a sustainable harvest of hunting, fishing and harvesting within this territory. Only recently, in the second decade of this century, did intensive hunting fostered by external market forces virtually eliminate the beaver as a self-sustaining, harvestable population. Collectivization under the Soviet regime led to the artificial introduction of large numbers of domestic reindeer, which were added to the very small local domestic family herds; almost all reindeer had been killed or escaped into the wild by the middle of the 1980s. Collectivization also intensified fishing in the Yugan basin, though the collective structures collapsed with the end of Soviet period. Finally, the sable, which has been harvested here for centuries, although it goes through cyclical periods of increase and decrease, remains stable and provides a reliable source of supplemental income. Recent studies by the authors of traditional land-use and domestic economy on the Yugan indicate that even today nearly 85% of the value of all food and material resources used for living still comes from the forests and rivers of the Yugan basin.
During the 1970s, Surgut region was transformed by the discovery of huge oil deposits. Today the region is one of Russia's greatest oil producers, and Western companies court Russian partners. The land, life and culture of the Khanty, especially on the north bank of the Ob' River, was disrupted. Families were relocated to villages to make way for oil; those who stayed saw the fragile forests and wetlands destroyed before their eyes. The middle and upper Bolshoi and Malyi Yugan Rivers represent the only river basin in the Surgut region that remains protectable and uncontaminated by petroleum development. Three other major river basins (Pim, Trom-Agan and Agan) have already been lost and Khanty culture significantly impacted, including, in earlier periods, forcible relocation. The Yugan thus remains the last preservable area of representative ecology and zone of compact Khanty traditional living in a region marked by an extraordinary degree of social and environmental damage.
Recognizing early the extent of the destruction that might ensue, and pressured by Russian environmentalists and scientists, the Soviet government in 1982 authorized the establishment of the Yuganskiy Zapovednik (Nature Preserve) in the territory embraced by the two arms of the Bolshoi and MalyiYugan rivers, to preserve some of this magnificent and unique middle taiga ecosystem from development. The establishment of the Yuganskiy Zapovednik in 1982 deprived the Khanty families of Malyi and Bolshoi Yugan of their traditional winter hunting territories, which they were then forced to relocate to the opposite sides of these rivers. These areas are now being threatened by the petroleum development which has engulfed all of West Siberia. At the same time, the Yuganskiy Zapovednik has proved a stable base for measuring changes in significant floral and faunal populations, and it also provided a refuge for the protected natural regeneration of impacted species of economic significance.
The local Khanty community had once proposed to establish a protected zone in 1990 - "Zone of Priority Land use", but that time the proposal was rejected by the regional government. After the law establishing a mechanism for defining hunting territories held by kinship communities was adopted in 1992, together with the community leader we tried to find another legal model which could be applied with more success. The existence of the Yuganskiy Zapovednik had already led us to anticipate the possibility of nominating this region as a possible biosphere reserve. This strategy was made more feasible when the concept of biosphere reserve was established in Russian Federal Law on specially protected zones adopted in March 1995.
In May 1996, we formally proposed the creation of a Biosphere Reserve on the Yugan to GOSKOMSEVER, the Russian State Committee of the North, which sponsored the seminar and which has overall responsibility for developing and coordinating programs for the Russian North and Russia's indigenous peoples. The proposal was accepted. In July of 1996, after a site visit to the Yugan by a representative of GOSKOMSEVER found local support for the concept, we spent many days traveling byboat on the Boshoi and MalyiYugan Rivers, stopping at each family settlement to explain the nature of the Biosphere reserve concept and collect signatures to establish one in the Yugan region. Every adult in every family we approached signed eagerly. Working with local government authorities, leaders in the Khanty community, and Khanty families, we defined reasonable boundaries for the various areas in the proposed biosphere reserve.
The Yuganskiy Khanty Biosphere Reserve Plan
UNESCO gives a biosphere reserve designation to areas protected by national governments, but where national parks and nature preserves are designed principally to monitor and protect natural ecosystems, biosphere reserve programs monitor the interaction between natural and human forces. They do this by creating a buffer zone around the nature preserve specifically for human activity, especially traditional way of life. A well-known example is the Orinoco-Casaquiare Biosphere Reserve in Venezuela, home to the Yanomani tribe. A third type of zone, called the transition zone, can be used for monitoring the effects of limited non-traditional activity.
The proposed plan for the Yuganskiy Khanty Biosphere Reserve calls for similar zoning (see map). The core area consists of the established 622,000 hectare Yuganskiy Zapovednik, already surrounded by a mandatory narrow two-kilometer buffer zone. This core area will be linked to the proposed ethno-ecological territory, which comprises most of the drainage of the Bolshoi and Malyi Yugan Rivers, along the shores of which live the local Khanty community. The area of the buffer zone of Khanty traditional living is approximately 1.5 million hectares. Provision is made for transitional zones at several places along the outer edges of the buffer zone. A formal co-management agreement between the leaders of the Khanty community and the scientific staff of the Yuganskiy Zapovednik would establish management priorities, policies and administrative mechanisms on land and resource use as they bear upon mutual spheres of interest.
Several positive factors make the Yugan an ideal choice for this ecological and cultural conservation strategy, which has proven successful elsewhere.
First, in the center of the region lies the large Yuganskiy Zapovednik. Staffed by a small, but dedicated scientific team which would welcome the new biosphere reserve status and is eager to cooperate with the local Khanty, the Yuganskiy Zapovednik provides a solid scientific basis (the only suitable one in Western Siberia) for a biosphere reserve.
Second, the zapovednik is encircled by the broad limbs of the Bolshoi and Malyi Yugan Rivers, along which cluster the homes of more than 800 Khanty, whose family hunting territories branch out from both rivers creating a natural buffer zone to embrace the zapovednik. Moreover, the Yuganskiy Khanty are effectively organized into an obschinne, or community structure, called "Yagun Yakh [People of the River]," which is prepared to provide the organ of self-government, economic development and scientific cooperation required under the biosphere reserve management plan.
Third, despite the fact that a number of license areas have been defined in the Yugan region, they are being sold slowly, because of logistical difficulties with petroleum development in the region, and occur only on the margins of the territory. Finally, faced with rapid loss of territory for Khanty traditional living, the increasing politicization of native people, and growing international attention to the social and ecological situation in West Siberia, the Russian government seems prepared to acknowledge the need to set aside an area in the region for Khanty cultural conservation in the same way it earlier set aside an area for nature conservation.
The Yuganskiy Khanty Biosphere Reserve thus represents a initiative of great importance for Russia. For indigenous people in a country which has no tradition of recognizing indigenous peoples' sovereignty, nor as yet has any laws recognizing the unique status of indigenous people or providing for private, individual or communal land ownership, the biosphere reserve provides a legal basis for local self-governmentand control of land use on their traditional territory. For conservationists, it represents the first opportunity to effectively monitor with the close cooperation of the local population the human impact on a complex ecosystem shared both by the zapovednik and the territory of traditional land use and together to manage its sustainable development.