Siberian fires having catastrophic effects on indigenous peoples and livelihoods
While much of the world has focused on the fires raging in the Amazon, the world’s largest forest–the Siberian Taiga in Russia–has been on fire for most of 2019.
Since January this year, more than 130,000 square kilometres of land and forest—an area the size of Greece—has been burned in Siberia, which is having detrimental effects on the lives and livelihood of the indigenous peoples who depend on the forest and have traditionally protected it.
Before public pressure by indigenous peoples and others was put on the Russian government in August, understaffed and underequipped firefighters were only able to put out 4% of the fires. Recent snow and rains in late September have put out more, but fires continue in these unique boreal forests and arctic tundra.
Demonstration held in Krasnoyarsk on 22 Aug 2019. Signs read (left to right): Sign 1: “Summer 2019 – Evenkia is covered in smoke and on fire. Photos from Tura, Baikit, Vanavara settlements taken 9 August 2019, Indigenous Day”; Sign 2: “Investment projects are the destruction of the traditional environment of Evenkia — Ecocide. Photos from forest plots and the results of industrial logging by company Kraslessinvest”; Sign 3: “Baikit forest, 50km from Baikit, forest fires 2019 — Ecocide”. Photo: Nikita Kaplin
Burning through the winter
These biomes cover 33% of the planet and store 50% of the world’s soil carbon. This massive amount of carbon is stored in permafrost and thus decomposes at a slower rate, however as the Taiga burns, the permafrost melts and more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Additionally, soot from the fires falls back down to the ground and embeds into ice and snow, which diminishes their ability to reflect heat and accelerates melting.
The problem, however, isn’t just that trees are burning; the land underneath is burning as well, especially on peatland. Peatland fires are particularly difficult to extinguish. Flameless combustion slowly travels across the forest floor, burning up moss and leaf biomass, which can continue through cold and wet conditions.
This continuous heat transfers deeper into the carbon-rich soil, and once winter is over, fires can resurface in the spring. This type of fire, characteristic of the Taiga, requires enormous amounts of water to extinguish. Rainfall would typically be sufficient to put out the fires, but there has not been enough this summer. The problem has been compounded by the fact that the region affected is vast, remote and sparsely populated, which requires a massive amount of firefighting resources that had not been made available.
A government order in 2014 mandated that only fires approaching populated areas or potentially endangering industrial interests would be extinguished. This order led to understaffing, a lack of resources and general inaction by authorities.
Demonstration held in Krasnoyarsk on 1 August 2019. Signs read (left to right): Sign 1: “Protection of the environment of indigenous population doesn’t exist; territory for traditional use of land doesn’t exist; protection against forest fires and poaching doesn’t exist; [Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksander] Uss resign”; Sign 2: “Forest fires and logging are ecocide of the traditional environment of the indigenous peoples of Evenkia”; Sign 3: “Governor Uss and Evenkia Governor Vasilyev have stolen (sic) the forest fires [meaning their corruption led to it getting out of hand]”. Photo: Nikita Kaplin
Indigenous peoples bearing the brunt
According to official information, as of 8 August 17,000 square kilometres of forest land in Evenkia have been burned, but Nikita Kaplin, an indigenous activist from Evenkia, fears the extent of the damage is more significant.
According to his information, in three traditional hunting areas alone between 33 and 90% of the forests have been burned, leaving indigenous peoples with little place to hunt for their livelihoods and a state support system that doesn’t include any help for such types of crises.
“Such a disaster is difficult to evaluate. These fires are effectively the destruction of the whole of our traditional economic activities. We have no idea what will be next, but we are preparing for the worst,” Kaplin told IWGIA. “People are very angry. People are poor, salaries are low, and prices are high, but at least people could live off the taiga; now there are areas where there is no forest.”
The Evenki people—who are spread out through eastern parts of Russia, as well as in China and Mongolia—inhabit a territory called Evenkia in the Russian Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk (known as Krasnoyarskiy Krai), a vast 2.3 million square kilometre area a quarter the size of China that stretches 3,000 kilometres from north to south in the middle of Russia.
Evenkia (known as Evenkiyskyi Autonomous District) was established in 1930 and from 1991-2007 it enjoyed the status of being a Russian Federal Subject, the same as Krasnoyarskiy Krai. However, after a contested 2005 referendum that led to reforms in 2007, Evenkia was stripped of its status and autonomy and incorporated into the Krasnoyarsk Region. Thus Evenkia's status was downgraded to that of a municipality and drastically reduced its political power in the region and country. Though Evenkia retains its Evenki character, the principal decision-making authority moved to regional capital Krasnoyarsk.
Evenkia is characterised by an extremely low population density—there are only two dozen permanent settlements in an area larger than France—thus, people are separated by long distances. People here, many of whom are indigenous, are faced with growing social inequality exacerbated by the loss of forest and land to fires and large extractive industries, such as logging companies, many of which operate to satisfy great Chinese demands for timber.
Forest fires on the banks of the Podkamennaya-Tungkuska River, 8 August 2019. Photo: Nikita Kaplin
Intensive logging major contributor
Kaplin explained that in recent years a large part of the forests in Evenkia have been stripped of their protected status, which swung the door open for investment projects, mainly logging activities. The investment project status these companies receive permit them to conduct their business with greater facility; they are not even required to do environmental impact assessments on the effect of logging on permafrost in the area.
Apart from the serious environmental impact logging has on the forest cover, logging companies contributed significantly to the spread of forest fires in Siberia by leaving highly flammable waste from logging behind. Many observers are even suggesting that at least some of the fires were deliberately started by loggers to cover non-compliance with legal requirements on logging and clean-up of the logged land plots.
Additionally, logging companies that lease the same multi-use land that indigenous peoples are forced to rent—allowing the government to draw double fees—don’t have to follow the same strict environmental protection provisions that indigenous peoples have to.
“Until 1917 we were officially seen as backward and primitive peoples without a history or writing system. In 1991 they started calling us indigenous peoples with an ancient culture, but they required us to rent our ancestral lands from the government,” Kaplin explained. “As a result, we have been transformed into serfs. We are renting the land under enslaving conditions—and even that doesn’t protect you from the fact that this land might be rented out simultaneously to a company that will chop down the trees. And you will still be paying full rent.”
In September, representatives of the indigenous peoples in Krasnoyarsk Region sent a collective statement to Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, appealing to him to ban the massive export of timber—estimated at 22 million cubic metres—from indigenous lands in Russia to China at the expense of fragile habitats and traditional livelihoods that will soon be irreparably lost. The reaction of the Chinese leadership to the appeal remains unknown.
Smoke from the forest fires covers the Vananvara settlement and the Podkamennaya-Tungkuska River, 8 August 2019. Photo: Nikita Kaplin
Wetlands drying up
Deforestation in Siberia, half of which includes the Krasnoyarsk Region, has led to the rapid desiccation of wetlands, thus exposing the layer of permafrost that lies close beneath the thinning wetland layer, allowing permafrost to melt faster, Daria Egereva, an indigenous Selkups activist, told IWGIA.
This is having significant damaging effects to the water balance of the area, affecting a larger territory than the land stripped by deforestation. Egereva notes that, for example, if one million hectares of forest are logged, three to five million hectares of wetlands are desiccated or destroyed.
This is also having a damaging effect on the reindeer population in the area and the indigenous people who depend on them.
“The summer has been dry, and it has been catastrophic for reindeer,” Egereva explained. “I just returned from a reindeer herd. They are unhealthy and do not have any fat on them, meaning they are not able to reproduce. Also, the last few autumns have been very warm, so the reproduction time began late, meaning that new-born reindeer were born late, leaving them weak, not ready for mosquito season, and dying in the beginning of summer.”
She further notes that the increasingly hot and dry season has contributed to the largescale shallowing of the Lena River, one of three great Siberian rivers and one of the longest rivers in the world.
Local media reported that the river level dropped a staggering 2.5 metres, affecting not just reindeer herds and other animals dependent on the river, but also the people across the length of the river who depend on the river as a source of fishing and as a means of transportation to reach remote areas.
Additionally, permafrost also lies underneath the river, thus as the river shallows, more permafrost—and its carbon-rich soil—becomes exposed to heat.
Kaplin and Egereva add that the smoke and fire have had detrimental health repercussions for people and has led to the death of thousands of animals.
Major settlements in Evenkia were covered in smoke and smog for two months over the summer and people complained of difficulty to breathe. Larger urban areas and other regions, such as Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Buryatia, Yakutia and Khakassia, hundreds of kilometres away from the remote fires, have also suffered pollution and darkened skies.
Indigenous peoples have been trying to attract the attention of politicians and the broader public to these problems by posting photos and information on social media, appealing to local authorities, gathering petitions and starting campaigns, but little has been done.
The Russian government, only after public pressure, allocated some resources to help stop the fires and the Parliament has been tasked with investigating the 2014 order that limits government intervention in forest fires; however much is left to be done in addressing the root causes that allow these fires to begin and continue.