This month the fate of a Russian jewel will be decided in a small town in Western Siberia. The town is Beloyarsky and the jewel is the Numto nature preserve. The oil company Surgutneftegas already extracts oil from the park but now they want access to one of its most vulnerable areas: the wetlands, where industrial development is currently prohibited.

Indigenous villagers near Numto Lake in Siberia. 9 Feb, 2016 © Greenpeace / Alexey Andronov

Founded in 1997 to help protect the fragile Siberian Uvaly ecosystem, Numto park also has significance for Indigenous peoples of northern Russia. It is here, on the border of Yamal and Khanty-Mansy region, where two ancient Taiga cultures come together:

For generations, the Nenets and the Khanty people have bred reindeer, fished, picked berries and gathered. They travel hundreds of kilometers to come together and conduct sacred rituals at lake Numto. ‘Num’ holds a special place in Indigenous mythology and is often equated with the sky itself. Lake Numto means heavenly lake.

The heavenly lake of Numto is threatened by an oil company Surgutneftegas; oil operations would wreck local communities and spell disaster for its wildlife and ecosystems. The Russian scientific community has recommended that the Numto wetlands be listed by Ramsar as an internationally important waterfowl habitat. Among the rare and endangered birds who live here or pass through on their annual migration is the striking Siberian white crane or snow crane.

We witnessed the impact of oil drilling in Numto when we visited as part of a Greenpeace Russia documentary team. As we toured the camping grounds of Indigenous peoples and met residents of village Numto on the lake shore, park ranger Natalia Vello tried to explain the pain felt by local people:

“I once met a young boy. When he saw the oil facilities being built near his home, he said, ‘They’ve come to kill us’. I began to ask myself, why does he say that? Because it’s hard for him to bear. I was shocked myself when I saw the dear, sacred sites, where we used to pitch our tents to visit our ancestors, being destroyed.”

Natalia Vello, park ranger and resident of Numto village, shows traditional clothes she has made. 9 Feb, 2016 © Greenpeace / Alexey AndronovPark ranger and Numto resident Natalia Vello shows traditional clothes she has made. 

In an attempt to preserve her homeland, Natalia has written a memo to the employees of Surgutneftegas who work in the Numto nature park. The memo contains information about the unique characteristics of this land and its inhabitants and lays out the rules and codes of conduct that employees of the oil companies on the park territory should abide by. Natalia regularly visits the drilling facilities to get her message across: “I explain everything carefully and give them time [to fix things].”

Vasily Pyak, a reindeer herder from Numto, worries that it may become impossible to continue his way of life:

“We live in uncertainty. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. They told me they wouldn’t build here, and then I had a look at the map and it was clear that there would be a concrete road a kilometer away from my camp. If they lay a road here, where can I graze my reindeer? They’ll wander along the road, cars will run into them. Build a fence? You cannot fence in a reindeer! It is a semi-wild animal, to put it into a corral is like a prison. And why has it come to building fences anyway?”

Numto’s Indigenous people say that the arrival of the oil operations is basically a land grab: oil rigs now surround their native lands and reach right up to the edge of their holy lake.

Reindeer herder Vasiliy Pyak at his home in Numto nature park. © Greenpeace / Alexey AndronovReindeer herder Vasily Pyak at his home in Numto nature park.

“The closer the oil companies come, the more problems we have,” says Vasily. “In Surgut [an area of extensive oil operations] even the fish smell like diesel,” he adds.

The Khanty and Nenets cannot imagine life without their native land: the forests and wetlands are their home where countless generations have lived in harmony with nature.

Russians across the country have joined a call to protect Numto from oil company advances. In just five days, more than 27,000 letters have been sent to regional officials and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment explaining why they must reject the new Numto zoning proposal that would expose its treasured wetlands to oil exploitation.

A petition organised by Greenpeace Russia will be presented at the public hearing in Beloyarsky on February 25th. The numbers standing in solidarity with the Khanty and Nenet people to protect Numto continue to grow.

Please share this story. We hope that our combined voices will be heard.

Elena Sakirko is a campaigner with Greenpeace Russia. Konstantin Fomin is a press officer with Greenpeace Russia.