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  • Russia: Khanty reindeer herders standing their ground: "We have nowhere left to go"

Russia: Khanty reindeer herders standing their ground: "We have nowhere left to go"

In West Siberia's Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, 17 reindeer herder families are holding out against the oil company Gazprom-NNG, a subsidiary of Russia's gas giant Gazprom. The authorities have issues a concession without informing the traditional land owners. On 3 June, they will be meeting the regional vice governor. It remains to be seen, whether the administration will be taking any steps to defend their rights.


In the heartland of Russia’s oil industry, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region in Western Siberia, also known as “Yugra” a conflict between reindeer herders, regional oil companies and the regional government is growing. Indigenous people are facing encroachment by a subsidiary of"Gazprom" with the government caught up in a conflict of interest: On the one hand, it is legally obliged to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples, on the other it is not prepared to give up revenues.

In a watershed area near Kogalym, 17 families of the Sopochin and Kechimov clans have their patrimonial lands. In this pristine area, nomad tents are standing and deer are grazing. But now the lifes of the herders in harmony with nature are under threat: JSC "Gazpromneft-Noyabrskneftegaz" has obtained a license to develop the oil deposit “Otdel’noye" which is partly located within their ancestral lands.

Indigenous peoples' land put on action without their knowledge

"The license covering geological study, exploration and production of the “Otdel’noye” concession area was obtained by JSC "Gazpromneft-Noyabrskneftegaz" as a result of an open auction on 30 June 2014 in Khanty-Mansiysk", - the management of corporate communications of the company announced. A few months later, the regional authorities gave the oil company permission to rent the land. All this happened against the law, without the knowledge of the indigenous people.

"It's a gap in the regional legislation - a convenient loophole. According to the spirit of the law, you have to ask permission from the herders first, and only then may the land be rented out. But in Yugra it is going the opposite way. People are somehow coerced into to giving up their lands. Sometimes, they are offered certain benefits. But then something terrible happens: in fact they impose on them such conditions that they have to abandon the land," - says Elena Sakirko of the energy department at Greenpeace Russia".

Indigenous people standing their ground
However, in an unusual development in the Autonomous region, herders are determined to not give up the fight for their land. In all negotiations with the authorities and the oil companies, indigenous peoples of Yugra have been standing their ground.

According to the herders, the company has paid about 1.2 billion rubles (22 million USD) for the concession. Moreover, instalments were paid into the budget of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous district since 2009! “And we learned only in the fall of 2014 that they intend to extract oil on our land. We were faced with a fait accompli”, says herder Stepan Sopochin. Regional officials pretent to be neutral, but already now it is clear on which side the regional government stands. Greenpeace recalls a recent incident, during a meeting in February, where the herders once again reaffirmed their refusal. Nonetheless, it was recorded the minutes that they gave approval for the drilling of wells.

The indigenous people believe that everything comes down to money. "Gazpromneft-NNG" already invested a large amount, and the administration of governor Natalia Komarova is not prepared to let go of theses revenues.

"We have nowhere left to go"
It should be noted that the reindeer herders have not brough any offer to the negotiation table and are not seeking a bargain for their land. “We do not ask for anything. No money, nothing. If we abandon our land, we have to give up our reindeer and our traditional way of life is over. We have nowhere to go. We are surrounded by the oil companies, we are literally encircled”, - says Stepan Sopochin.

“The government assures that nothing bad is going happen since they have only given permission for prospection. But there is a threat to the environment: roads and infrastructure will appear, the land will be invaded by poachers, who will begin shooting reindeer. In addition, exploration will disrupt the traditional activities of herders. And, most likely, the oil production will go ahead", said Elena Sakirko.

To convince the herders of the contrary, the regional authorities have proposed to create a working group which will include representatives of Gazprom-Noyabrskneftegaz, the Department of natural resources of the government and scientists, for assessing the environmental damage.

Herders demand that in addition to an environmental assessment, an ethnological expert review must be undertaken. “They will be pouring oil into the water bodies and pay a lot of money to the environmental department, but no one is going to care how it affects us”, says Stepan Sopochin.

Meeting the vice governor
For now, the indigenous people still hope for support from the regional authorities. “Last time in April a meeting took place hoste by the Department of natural resources. Now, we are going to discuss the issue with the Vice-Governor Gennady Bukhtin. The meeting is scheduled for June 3. I don't know if we will be able to defend the land, but we hope for the support of the government”, - Stepan Sopochin said. “Everything depends on the authorities”.

Tags: Land rights, Climate action

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