A trip to reindeer herders' family in Siberia

"If the oil men leave us in peace, we'll always be able support ourselves."

Feature story - 6 September, 2013
For centuries Siberia was a land of wild forest, rivers teeming with fish, a home to wild animals and Indigenous cultures alike. But some companies in Russia are ready to sacrifice all of these priceless natural resources for just one – oil.

Life of Khanty people, reindeer herders of Khanty-Mansi region. © Liza Udilova / Greenpeace
Semen, head of Aypin’s family, with his reindeers. ©Liza Udilova/Greenpeace

A family of Khanty people, traditional reindeer herders, invited a group of Greenpeace Russia staff and several journalists to their home to tell us how they are fighting with the oil industry for the last patches of intact lands.

We had come to the Khanty-Mansi region on a media tour to show the world the daily practice of the Russian oil giants that are now rushing to explore and exploit the Arctic. To hear this story and see this traditional lifestyle for ourselves we had to cross over 500 kilometers of wetlands, spotted with oil pumps and gas flares. The oil industry has expanded year by year here, and has forced the local people to retreat further to the north.

We drove 200 kilometres from Nizhnevartovsk town to visit the settlements of reindeer herders. The only way that we could get access to the family home of the Aypin's was through a control point established by the oil company Lukoil.

Lukoil is effectively the 'master' of the whole area and once they had learned about our visit they attempted to control our every step. For hundreds of kilometers we were followed by 4 cars with 'spies' from the company and local government officials.

A Lukoil manager arrived to explain to us how much the company cares about local nature and people. "The company negotiates all new projects with the local population and pays good compensations to them. Afterwards we restore any contaminated land. In the last 20 years, the number of reindeer herders has even increased! Our region is among the best in Russia in terms of cooperation with Indigenous Peoples," assured Konstantin Belyaev, a Lukoil manager. Standing there in his black suit he looked like an alien against the backdrop of this now decimated area.

Life of Khanty people, reindeer herders of Khanty-Mansi region. © Liza Udilova / Greenpeace
Reindeer herder Ivan Kazamkin shows the stream blocked by Rosneft constructing a pipeline. ©Liza Udilova/Greenpeace

Despite his assurances, the local nature has not yet recovered from 30-years of oil pollution. Thousands of hectares of forests in the surrounding area have died of fire and contamination, and fish have fled the polluted rivers. Neither the state nor the company care what will be left here after the oil is exhausted; the companies will just leave to look for new resources.

Endless Siberian forests that used to provide Khanty families with all they needed have shrunk into small reservations that are officially called 'Areas of Traditional Nature Use'. The Aypin family's forest looks rather big, but as we approach we see that it has suffered a lot of fire damage. Fires are caused by careless visitors, most of them arrive with oil industry. We can see "oil footprints" everywhere here: litter, rusty metal scrap, deep track marks on the soil.

Aypin's neighbor, Ivan Kazamkin, shows us the place where just two years ago there used to be a small river full of fish. Rosneft was constructing an oil pipeline here and blocked the river with sand and gravel. "We have been complaining to the administration many times, asking to leave at least a passage for fish. But we got no response. Now the river is dead," says Ivan.

The land here does not belong to local people anymore. Land, forest, mineral resources are owned by the state and it’s free to rent it to any company for any purpose. Recently Lukoil discovered oil reserves in the middle of the Aypin family land and now plans to drill several wells there. At best the family would get some financial compensation. But people lose more than a piece of forest or land, they lose the very possibility to support their life, to keep their traditions and culture and it's hardly possible to put a price on this loss.

The reindeer herder settlement Enel Uri looks almost the same as it did a hundred years ago. It contains small wooden houses, raw-hide tents, and open fires where the hostess Lubov is making fish broth. The people are devoted to this life and don't want to leave.  "I've been studying and living in a city, but always felt that my real home is here", says Lubov Aypina. "It becomes harder each year to keep reindeers, but I hope we can start ecological tourism. If the oil men leave us in peace we’ll always be able support ourselves."

As our group was leaving, the Aypin family read a prayer to protect their pastures from destruction. While the Russian state cares only for the interests of the oil industry, the  local people like the Aypin's can only turn to their gods for help.

Life of Khanty people, reindeer herders of Khanty-Mansi region. © Liza Udilova / Greenpeace
House of Aypin’s family, Khanty reindeer herders in Enel Uri settlement, Niznevartovsk area. ©Liza Udilova/Greenpeace

Life of Khanty people, reindeer herders of Khanty-Mansi region. © Liza Udilova / Greenpeace
Aypin's perform a ritual dance to protect their pastures from destructions. ©Liza Udilova/Greenpeace