How the oil industry steals our past and our future

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Feature story - 14 June, 2013
Oil enterprises came to Western Siberia less than 50 years ago but they feel they are the only masters of the land. The native inhabitants of the taiga (Russian Boreal forest), the Khanty people, that have been living here for centuries and gave their name to the region are now forced to abandon their land and culture.


People from the settlement Ustje-Vatjogan near the Agan river, told us how they try to survive in the remains of the forest now surrounded with industrial zones and bogs flooded with oil.

Khanty are Ugric people that are connected with forest and live with what nature provides: fishing, hunting, berries and fur. Their main craft is reindeer herding, their animals migrate looking for reindeer lichen that they eat, and Khanty follow with their raw-hide tents.

Industry came to the region in the 1960s with the slogan: “Oil at any price”. Life changed rapidly and irreversibly. Newcomers clear cut ancient forests and constructed modern towns. Oil pipes crossed pastures; wells were drilled in holy lands and even cemeteries. Locals had to retreat farther into the forests looking for intact pastures. Oilmen started transporting oil on the river. Every several years large spills occurred on the Agan, it’s coasts turned black with contamination, oil spots sometimes reached the Ob river 300 kilometers away.

Oil companies never cared about cleaning the spills, the oil sunk into the riverbed and now the water is undrinkable. Water from rivers has been used in the oil fields, and the rivers grew shallow. Rich fish reserves were exhausted and the cut forests dried out. Fires break out every summer, and locals are often left alone to fight them.

“Our life is fragile, one lit cigarette is enough to kick us away”, says Vasily Tylchin, a reindeer herder. His reindeers need lichen that easily burns and slowly recovers – only several millimeters grow a year. The pastures that burnt 25 years ago have not recovered yet. “Now we can keep only 30 reindeers: food is scarce, every year several animals die drinking contaminated water. We are not able to support our family with traditional crafts any longer. Many young people left for the town, some started working for the oil industry – they have no choice here”.


Today it’s not the government who owns the fields but a private company Lukoil, but practices have not changed much. The company brought electricity and machinery to the locals but took away their culture and their future. They’d like to escape from burning fields and oil lakes but have nowhere to go. Areas to the south have already been turned into dirty industrial zones, in the North the only patches of intact taiga that remain are surrounded with burnt land and oil fields.

Alexander Aypin is fighting with Lukoil for the last intact pine forest that used to support his big family for several generations. Lukoil plans to drill 90 wells near his land and the road will cut across the forest. It’s possible to choose another route, but the company thinks it’s too costly. The compensation Lukoil is offering him is 2000 rubles (50 euro) per month.

In Khanty-Mansi region many modern oil towns bear Ugric names. Expensive Khanty souvenirs are offered to tourists at every corner. But the real natives of Western Siberia are on the brink of extinction. Living traditional life becomes harder and harder each year, still many choose to stay in their forest “I was born here. All my family from children to our 103-year-old grandmother worked with reindeers,” says Vasily. “My children don’t want to leave. We dream that someday we’ll be left in peace, to live our traditional life and stick to our land and culture”.


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