It’s very unusual to stumble upon reindeer on the streets of Moscow. But it can happen when authorities give oil company permission to drill on the sacred lands of Siberian Indigenous peoples.

Reindeer herders have built corral and placed their traditional tent in the center of Moscow to show their culture and way of life to the common folk and ask for their support against oil industry.  © Liza Udilova / Greenpeace

Reindeer herders who are opposing this project built their traditional tent in the heart of the Russian capital to make their protest truly visible and meaningful.

Surgutneftegas -- a Russian oil and gas company -- desperately wants to grab more land for oil extraction. But this kind of greedy profit-making also means the destruction of rare bird habitats and the traditional way of life of Indigenous peoples.

A year ago, Greenpeace Russia started a campaign to protect one of the most vulnerable areas of the Numto nature reserve in Western Siberia from industrial development. This area is important not only for environment protection, it also has great significance for the Indigenous peoples of Northern Russia.

The Nenets and the Khanty people have, for generations, travelled 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".

In February 2015, Russians across the country joined a call to protect Numto from the oil industry’s advances. More than 36,000 letters were sent to regional and federal officials explaining why they must reject a proposal that would expose the most treasured Numto wetlands to the ravages of oil exploration.

Around half of the participants at the public hearings at the end of February 2016 were Indigenous Khanty and Nenets people. They came from the Khanty-Mansy region, including the village of Numto and other territories in the area. Shaman Sergei Kechimov, the preserver of sacred lake Imlor, came to the hearings to talk about the numerous violations on his lands after Surgutneftegas started work there.

Protest of indigenous people in Moscow against oil industry have lasted for several hours. Part of it was a press conference held by Greenpeace Russia. Other speakers were reindeer herders and ethnologists who had helped indigenous people to collect signatures against plans of the company Surgutneftegas to extract oil near their sacred lake Numto.  © Liza Udilova / GreenpeacePress conference for Indigenous people in Moscow, 20 Feb, 2017. © Greenpeace

The regional authorities, however, listened to the oil industry, not the Indigenous people. On October 28th, 2016, the regulations for Numto nature reserve changed: it was now okay to drill for oil in the wetlands. The government approved it without any environmental assessment; a violation of the existing regulation.

But the sacred lake can still be saved! Indigenous people, ethnologists and environmentalists continue to collect the signatures of reindeer herders who live in regions near the Numto nature reserve. Signatories are against drilling in these wetlands. They sign for the protection of centuries of sacred culture.

“This place has been revered for thousands of years, not only by the people who live next to the lake, but also by all the Nenets… the fact that hundreds of people from different regions have stood up in it’s defense is saying a lot,” said Konstantin Kuksin, a well-known ethnologist and director of the Museum of nomadic culture. His colleague, Anna Larionova, added that she hadn’t expected to collect so many signatures so far from the impacted areas. She said she was met with an extraordinarily good response from the reindeer Indigenous herders she visited. 

Trees covered with snow in Numto village.   Surgutneftegaz, the Russian oil and gas company which already owns large oil reserves in the Numto natural park in Siberia, wants to get access to one of its most valuable areas, the wetlands, where industrial development is currently prohibited. The Numto wetlands regulate hydrological regimes of 7 rivers that feed into the Ob River and the Arctic Ocean and also serve as key habitat for threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Indigenous reindeer herders living in the area are the most affected by the expansion of the oil industry.  © Alexey Andronov / GreenpeaceNumto Village in Siberia, 9 Feb, 2016. © Greenpeace

Anton Multanov, a reindeer herder who had participated both in collection of signatures and protest in the center of Moscow, shared his experience:

“I live near sacred lake Numto. In 2014 we lost about 100 reindeer after an oil spill. Nobody thinks about what's important to us. Oil companies do not consult with us and conduct excavations at the holy places.”

“Of course, we will continue to seek justice," says Mikhail Kreindlin, a Greenpeace Russia expert who believes that Numto nature reserve can be saved. "We will demand the abolition of the decision to change the zoning of the Numto nature reserve. Skeptics believe that nothing can be changed. But, so far nothing has been decided. We still have something to fight for.”

On March 17-21 there will be session of United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Khanty-Mansy region where Numto is located. This is the moment to bring international attention to this issue and save the sacred lake. 

Please, share this story to help the Indigenous peoples of Russia who suffer from industrial exploitation. 

Konstantin Fomin is a press officer with Greenpeace Russia.