English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов - живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World - Living Arctic) No. 15, 2004

Biodiversity and nature protection in residence areas of Russia ’s indigenous peoples

P. Sulyandziga, V. Bocharnikov and R. Sulyandziga

The territory of Russia is 17.1 million square kilometers, and the entire diversity of natural ecosystems of Eurasia exists in this territory. Flora and fauna of circumpolar deserts, tundra, mixed and broad-leaved forests, forest-steppes, semideserts and subtropics of Russia include a total of 160,000 known species, the majority of which are endemic to Russian areas.

There are more than 120,000 rivers and about 2,000,000 fresh and brackish water lakes within Russia ’s territory; swamps and bogs cover 1,800,000 square kilometers. There are large mountain-masses and vast plains; 13 seas wash its shores. The taiga zone covers Russia ’s major expanses, with boreal coniferous forests prevailing. Specific taiga flora and fauna are most diverse in the east of the country, in the northern Amur River area, while a vast mountainous country spreads from Altai to the Amur River area along Russia ’s borders. It serves as a natural divide between the taiga-covered Siberia and the desert-steppe Central Asia . The Ural Mountains identify the border between Europe and Asia on the continent.

The tundra and taiga ecosystems occupy a major part of Russia ’s territory. Above all in its Asian part, which is due to the country’s latitudinal position, its sharp continental climate and a vastly spread zone of permafrost in Siberia . The natural ecosystems of Russia ’s territory are extremely valuable for the biosphere as a whole, performing the most important global regulatory functions vital for the entire planet. The northern ecosystems are distinguished by increased vulnerability, slow rehabilitation after damage, and intense erosive processes when the vegetation cover is damaged. The conditions for human habitation and economic activity are the least favourable here.

The masses of bogs and paludal forests, the largest in the world, play a key role in the global processes of carbon binding and burial, and maintain the balance of carbonic acid in the atmosphere. The forests and boggy areas serve as the most important land-based regenerators of oxygen for the biosphere. The ecosystems of seas and fresh water reservoirs of the North are extremely diverse and at the same time vulnerable. More than one quarter of virgin forests still remaining untouched in the world are situated in Russia . On a considerably large territory, however, due to man’s activity, the most valuable coniferous formations have given up their functions – due to burned-out forests and slash areas – to secondary small-leaved forests, while in the western and southern zones of the European part of Russia considerable masses of forests have been wiped out and ploughed up.

More than ten million people reside in Russia ’s North. The most numerous group among them are immigrants (the first generation residing in a new place). Apart from the newcomers, two more groups can be identified – old-timers and indigenous inhabitants (including the basic contingent of Russia ’s indigenous numerically small peoples). The population is declining as the degree of the territory’s discomfort increases, but more than one half of the entire population lives in discomfort and under extreme conditions. The immigrant contingents engaged in mining of non-ferrous metals, coal, oil and gas dominate in the production sphere. These projects have a great impact on the environment throughout the vast northern territories .

So far in Russia a wide spectrum of cultural traditions connected with natural economy – hunting, fishing, and sea mammal hunting – has been maintained in the most traditional way. Above all, it is important for the use of forest resources and biological resources of the Arctic territories. Fishing, gathering and hunting in Russia serve as the basis for several absolutely original types of traditional vital activity. The taiga hunters belonging to indigenous peoples of Siberia and the Far East are known to have the highest adaptation to life in the forests. Hunting there is still a tangible part of local economy and a condition for the preservation of biodiversity of unique ecosystems.

These types of economic activity characterize the attitude of various groups of population towards nature. Siberia and the North are the regions of commercial hunting. Professional hunters should have hunting grounds which are large enough to guarantee sufficient procurement for themselves and their families, especially when orientated towards valuable fur-bearing game like sable. In the beginning of the 1950s, the number of professional hunters was steadily on the decline, and the main role in extraction of products was passed over to amateurs. Fishing is practically widespread all across Russia ’s territory and water areas, but it is practiced in  different ways from region to region. For indigenous peoples, fishing is the main or second most important type of economy. Gathering continues to play a tangible role in securing food and medical needs on the vast territories of the North, Siberia and the Far East .

During the last century, human impact has become the decisive factor in the formation of ecosystems. Analyses of the impact has shown that the greatest contribution to the transformation of natural ecosystems comes from agrarian use. The natural vegetation cover has been damaged most severely in Russia ’s steppe and forest-steppe zones, but there has also been considerable transformation in the forested part of the country from timber felling. In the tundra zone, as a result of high pasture load by domesticated reindeer, up to 20 percent of the pasture lands are in an unfavorable condition. In the North  the level of industrial pollution is quite high in the vicinity of mining plants. In various regions of the taiga zone large hotbeds of technogenic abuse occur where oil and gas extraction and pipeline construction are located. More than 10,000 square kilometers of forest territory are devastated by felling and are continuously transformed year by year; tens of thousands of forest fires rage that are the fault of humans.

A system of specially protected natural territories ( SPNT ) forms the basis of territorial nature protection in Russia . Among these territories, only general nature reserves, national parks and specific nature reserves (to protect particular species) of federal category have a federal status (nature reserves can also be local ones). Other forms of protection of a territory usually have a local status, but Russian legislation postulates the possibility of the establishment of other categories of SPNT . This has been done by establishing of territories of traditional nature use (TTNU). The supreme forms of protection of natural territories in our country are general nature reserves. Their total number is now one hundred. They cover 33.7 million hectares of land, which is 2.5 percent of the total territory of Russia .

The largest general nature reserve in the country is the Big Arctic N.R. (4.2 million hectares) occupying the uninhabited shores and islands of the Arctic . However, in certain territories included in general nature reserves or supposedly intended to become a sanctuary, conflict situations with the local population have not been sorted out, which influences the socio-economic situation in some districts to a serious degree. In general, the territory of nature reserves increase from the southwest to the northeast. Exceptions are a few major nature reserves in the Caucasus . The category of national nature parks is a new form of protection of territories in Russia . In 2001 there were 35 parks in Russia covering 7 million hectares.

International agreements have been fulfilled quite successfully in Russia . Thus, in accordance with its obligations under the Convention on Wetlands (RAMSAR), Enactment of the Government of the Russian Federation No. 1050 dated 13 September 1994 , names 35 such objects in the country with a total territory of ten million hectares. These areas include not only the water and wetland ecosystems but also land complexes connected with them. The availability of an international status and a special governmental enactment makes it possible to view this form as an essential factor of protection of Russia ’s ecosystems, primarily for lakes and wetlands. In accordance with recommendations of another well-known convention – the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage – seven territories have been established in Russia which have an exceptional value for the entire world community. One third of these objects are connected with vital activity of Russia ’s numerically small indigenous peoples.

It is officially recognized in Russia that, to advance toward a nature-preserving sustainable development, it is necessary for Russia to transfer from the modern economic paradigm viewing the efficiency of economic complex and protection of nature as autonomous processes, to an integral ecological and economic approach integrating nature and economy as two interrelated components of a sociosystem. In this process, the preservation of a traditional lifestyle in the residence and subsistence territories of indigenous numerically small peoples is the most important condition to preserve natural ecosystems and biodiversity, not only in Russia but on the planet as a whole.

Information presented in this article is based on:

“National strategy of the preservation of Russia ’s biodiversity”, Moscow , 2001; The First National Report of the Russian Federation “Preservation of biological diversity in Russia ”, Moscow , 1997; and Web-Atlas “Environment and health of Russia ’s population”, http://www.sci.aha.ru/ATL/ra00.htm.