English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 4, 2000

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The Udege are forest people, and they protect their forest

Pavel Sulyandziga, Thomas Køhler & Olga Murashko

Krasnyy Yar is the most beautiful village on the Bikin River, tributary of the Ussuri River. The village is home predominantly to the Udege, as well as a small number of Nanai and Russians. The first to meet us at Bikin were giant, blue, subtropical butterflies with a wing span of no less than 20 cm. We had already learned from our museum excursion and from our companion Alexander Panichev, ecologist and brilliant expert in local nature, that we were in the unique Ussuri taiga, where the subtropics encounter the sub-Arctic. The Bikin forests are a still intact tract of the Ussuri taiga, where some rare, relict species of flora and fauna have remained. The Bikin River provides habitat for most rare leatherback turtles; and the forest, for Ussuri tigers, Siberian stags, unique species of deciduous and coniferous trees, ginseng and other medicinal plants.

The Udege are traditionally engaged in hunting, gathering and fishing. The forest is the source of their life.

And that explains why they protect their forest. Recently, they have had to guard their forest increasingly often from people who want to make a fast buck lumbering the Siberian pine, yew, and other commercially important tree species abundant in the Bikin taiga.

The last 30 km stretch of the way to Krasnyy Yar is a recently constructed road. The local people refer to it as “a road to nowhere”, it being an unfinished military road. The road is lined with dead trees. Ill-designed construction caused the road to be flooded. Subsequently, the road was handed over to civilian authorities, and then construction was suspended for lack of financing. In 1997, some allocations were obtained in the form of World Bank loans, but after the Udege filed an appeal claiming violation of the World Bank's Operative Instruction 4.20 on the rights of indigenous peoples, the construction of the road was terminated.

But that was not the first the indigenous people of Krasnyy Yar had experienced in protecting the forests. They know that destruction of the forest and drying up of the river would eliminate the unique natural world and the ancient culture of the people living there.

The first experience of protection of Bikin forests taught Krasnyy Yar indigenous people a lot.

The Udege learnt about forest felling in the zone of the Bikin River in 1989. Then, timbermen, jointly with the gigantic South Korean company Heundai, promised the indigenous people compensation and welfare payments if they agreed to the felling of the forest. But the indigenous people of the Ussuri taiga were aware that with the loss of the forest they would not only lose the source of their subsistence, but also their native lands and their culture. The indigenous people turned to the administration of the Primorskiy Kray, but they were not supported. Then their appeal to protect the unique forests of Bikin was seconded by residents of the Primorskiy Kray, Ussuri Cossacks, international environmentalist and human rights organizations. The joint effort of indigenous people and old-timers of Bikin and the entire Primorskiy Kray, and also international organizations, has received much attention. As a result, a state commission was established which declared that the project was illegal. The ecological expert opinion was negative and the felling in that region was banned.

Currently, the unique forests of Bikin have attracted the attention of the Primorskie Lesopromyshlenniki Company (Director General V.I. Doroshenko). The first stage of their project is the construction of a road to the upper reaches of the Bikin River where the sacred sources of the river are located. If the forest is cut down in the upper reaches of the river, the river will dry up, and the entire unique natural world and the ancient culture of the local residents will disappear.

The local people are aware of that, and, hence, the first thing that we saw in Krasnyy Yar was a meeting of its residents, where we were read a letter calling upon the administration of the Kray and the public to protect the Bikin forest.

The old story is repeated. Promises and threats are voiced again, and again decisions are prepared secretly from the public. And again the indigenous people and local residents of Bikin come out to protect their forests. They addressed the following letter to their governor, the district administration, and the management of Primorskie Lesopromyshlenniki Company:

Mr. E.I. Nazdratenko, Governor of the Primorskiy Kray
Copy: Mr. V.I. Doroshenko, Head of the Administration of Pozharskiy District
Mr. K.G. Voitseshevskiy, Director General of the Primorskie Lesopromyshlemnniki Company

Dear Evgenyy Ivanovich,

It has become known to us that the Primorskie Lesopromyshlenniki Company continues to seek permission for the construction of a highway from the upper reaches of the Svetlaya River to the upper reaches of the Edinka River with frequent passage through the territory of the Bikin River basin. We have already twice expressed our negative attitude toward the construction of any highway opening access to the forest's raw material resources. In February this year, in response to our appeal to the Kray administration, we received a letter from the acting Governor V.S. Dubinin. The letter advised that 'solution to the problem of the construction of a timber road is vested in the Primorie Forestry Management Board', and, hence, the opinion of indigenous people is allegedly not valid.

The meeting of Krasnyy Yar residents addressed the problem of the construction of this highway once again. We cannot agree with the arguments of Mr. Dubinin. The ecological assessment in which we were not participants would not convince us either. We are confident that the highway to the upper reaches of Bikin is of real danger to the welfare of the entire basin's ecosystem, mainly through uncontrolled human access to the forests, which sharply increases the probability of fire and poaching. For an actual example of what can happen, look at the Tayezhny mine in the Bolshaya Ussurka basin. Some time ago this was an area of age-old taiga, but today there are nothing but fire clearings there. In addition, the planned highway would cross some unique landscapes which provide habitat to virtually the last Primorie colonies of the Siberian capercaillie (a rare species of wood-grouse) and the hooded crane.

Once again we ask you to heed our concern. Please do not take any rush decisions that may have such a heavy impact on the Bikin taiga, which we rely upon for subsistence. We have nothing left but to stand by our native territory to the end.

Residents of the Krasnyy Yar village.

5 July 2000.

The editorial office of the magazine Indigenous Peoples’ World – Living Arctic will follow the development of the situation and support the population of the Bikin River in their struggle for the conservation of the environment. All those willing to support Bikin residents should address the editorial offices of the magazine:

Editorial Board
Indigenous Peoples’ World, RAIPON
Office 527, Prospect Vernadskogo 37/2
117415 Moscow Russia