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Indigenous peoples and sustainable development:
Community-oriented strategy

Speach held at the European Commission,
Workshop on indigenous peoples and development co-operation,
12-14 March, 1998, Brussels, Belgium

Pavel V. Sulyandziga
Vice-President of the Association of the Indigenous Peoples
of the North, Siberia and the Far East
of the Russian Federation

I would like first of all to thank the European Commission, the Saami Council, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Birgitte Feiring, Francesca Mosca, Ann-Kristin Hakansson and everybody else for the work they put into preparing this event and for their invitation to attend.

I would like to dwell on the following topics in my address:

I will try to deal with all these issues as I talk about our chosen topic "Indigenous peoples and sustainable development: community-oriented strategy".

My name is Pavel Suliandziga. Although I am an Udege, I am at this seminar representing the 29 indigenous peoples of Russia's North and Far East and Siberia, gathered together in one association. We may number only 200 000, but the area we traditionally inhabit covers 64% of the Russian Federation. The most numerous are the Nenets (about 35 000), and the least numerous the Entsy (209), the Oroks (190), the Negidals (642), the Kereks (100), the Taz (300), the Aleuts (702) and the Tofalars (731). Our association (RAIPON - Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North) had its inaugural meeting in 1990, bringing together the indigenous peoples of the north of what was then still the Soviet Union. The Association held its third assembly last year, and elected a new administration and chairman, Sergey Kharyuchi. We have 29 regional and ethnic organisations which in their turn bring together local communities and organisations of indigenous peoples. Our Association is the only one to have been founded directly by the indigenous peoples themselves, and to be recognised by all the indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation. It is recognised by the government of the Russian Federation and by the International Arctic Community (we are a permanent participant of the Arctic Council). A women's movement is emerging within the Association, and we have deputy-chairs dealing with education, healthcare, culture, the environment and traditional economic activities.

I deliberately went into some detail when speaking about the structure of the Russian association because international documents (including that of the European Commission) have shown that international organisations find it hard to work out what organisations represent the indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples and sustainable development: These are two interlinked issues which have a long history in Russia, and which have often been influenced by the state's attitude to the indigenous inhabitants and the land on which they live. That attitude has varied considerably in ideology in the last 300 years, from a policy of non-interference and preservation of traditional ways of life to attempts to bring about full integration and modernisation. The heaviest impact on the traditional way of life and environmental management was dealt in the sixties, when the policy of the state was to move people from smaller settlements to larger ones. This forced resettlement began to break down a historic and ecologically balanced structure of population movement and environmental management built up by the indigenous peoples over centuries. The resettlement itself, life as part of an ethnic minority in larger population centres, large-scale separation of children from their parents in order to educate them at boarding schools, reducing individuals' means and removing their ability to undertake traditional occupations put the indigenous peoples in spiritual and economic crisis. In the seventies, hidden unemployment was spreading, as well as alcoholism, destruction of families and traditional culture. These processes led firstly to a decrease of the natural growth rate, and hence to a decrease of the population.

During the last three decades, the birth rate has been decreasing, although not accompanied by the expected decrease of mortality, and without any change of its character. The largest risk group were not the children, as it had been earlier, but people of reproductive age. Furthermore, the main cause of death was no longer diseases, but accidents, murder and suicide. The portion of these causes reached 50 %, while their average portion for Russia is ca 10 %. The average life expectancy went down to 44 years. Low birth rates and high abortion numbers unfortunately permit only pessimistic prognoses.

The indigenous peoples which are looking for a way out of this situation, turn now back to their traditional experience. In a situation of growing misery and distress in the indigenous settlements and native societies, elements of traditional way of life are revived, national clan-based subsistence alliances are formed to secure food supply, and old forms of co-operative labour are reorganised in order to distribute the production and to help each-other. Traditional ways of transportation are re-inferred like dog sleighing and reindeer riding. Traditional medical and ecological knowledge regain a high significance, while the use of mother-tongues is extended. Clan- and band-based education is institutionalised to teach traditional economy and to mediate traditional knowledge. This process is not financially supported by state or other funding.

In contrast, the indigenous peoples experience problems concerning the Russian politics of openness, democracy and market economy that suddenly have evolved from quite different conditions. While earlier, the Soviet system with the Communist Party at the head invited us into a bright future together with all other citizens, destroying our culture, our customs and traditions, so now do the so-called democrats served by trans-national enterprises and businessmen of all kinds, buying up our land, exhausting resources and doing practically the same thing as their predecessors: destroying the indigenous peoples.

The result is that there is no room left for many indigenous inhabitants even on their own land, and it matters little whether it is the communists or capitalists who are destroying it. I well remember a conversation I had with a Russian civil servant when we were talking about the problems of the indigenous peoples and the ways to solve those problems. He reduced our entire discussion to considering economic advantage and compatibility with budgets, economic regulations and so on. The one thing he could not understand was that the indigenous peoples, like everything else which has to do with human values and the world which surrounds us and of which we are part, are no mere economic category and are either "economically useful" or "not economically useful". No doubt in strictly economic terms we have no right to exist, and no right to pursue a future determined for us by nature. I mention this example deliberately because it unfortunately appears that in the world of what is termed white civilisation, economics and profit come before all else. I still think that national authorities and the international community are beginning to understand that there are values that should not be subordinated to economic advantage, and that in the final analysis the indigenous peoples and their many years of interacting with nature could steer other societies away from the environmental and cultural dangers of rapid and predatory use of natural resources leading to the death of wilderness areas and to a disaster for the world economy. This is an issue discussed in many oft-quoted international documents, and much of it is covered in the European Commission's draft.

I mentioned that I am an Udege. There are only about 2,000 of us in the whole of Russia. I would like to offer you an example of the life of the Udege, and have chosen simply to give you a short chronicle of the last five years. Not long ago, the Udege were still divided into eight ethnic groups. There are only four left. No, we were not physically destroyed, there was no direct genocide; it was simply that four of the groups had their land and their natural resources taken away from them, and were consequently unable to continue with their traditional activities. The Udege soul is the soul of a hunter and fisherman; it lives as long as nature lives. In 1993, having seen the bitter experience of their brothers and facing a threat to their lands from Russian and South Korean logging firms, the Bikin Udege, the group to which I belong, picketed logging tracks and the regional government headquarters in Vladivostok in order to try to stop the logging. I travelled with another Udege representative to Moscow, where we went to the Kremlin and met President Yeltsin's environmental safety adviser. We received the help and support of Green Organisations from all over the world, we were backed up by the inhabitants of the Primorskiy Kray, and we managed in the end to defend our lands. In the same year, the Samarga Udege learned of plans to start logging on their lands and declared their intention to defend their rights even if it involved taking up arms. The authorities did not take things that far.

In 1994, military construction personnel built the Khabarovsk-Nakhodka road, which has the status of a federal route and is considered strategic. The project damaged our hunting lands, and we demanded compensation. Neither the contractors nor the project managers were willing to sit down at the table and negotiate with us, explaining that in legal terms the land did not belong to us. Only after our hunters spoke to the workers and the latter refused to work until the matter of the indigenous inhabitants had been settled, the project management acknowledged our rights and signed a compensation agreement. The workers had not walked out because they recognised our rights, but because they were afraid (despite the fact that our hunters did not even threaten them) that we would resort to using weapons. However, the end of last year saw violations concerning the beginning of our agreement, when the project management claimed problems with its own funding. This means that we still have a battle to fight. We have heard reports that the Russian government has approached the World Bank for funds for this route. Knowing that the World Bank has a directive concerning indigenous peoples, we intend to pursue this line of defence.

In 1995, gold mining interests focused on Bikin, and only determined opposition from us and from the governor of the Kray - who only agreed on condition that the permission by the indigenous population was obtained - stopped their plans.

In 1996, a Russian-American company had its eye on the lands of the Samarga Udege, and promised about 60,000 dollars of compensation. Local officials even forged the signature of the head of the Community, but their efforts failed and the process was halted.

In 1997, a Hong Kong logging firm took a 50-year lease on the land of the Khor Udege, paying them 100,000 dollars in the form of ten vehicles for the use of the local Community. Even this so-called assistance was abused by the local authorities: The Community got only two vehicles, as the other eight were confiscated by the military.

This is but a five-year chronicle of the Udeges' battle for their rights. We can only speculate as to what is happening to other indigenous peoples whose lands have oil, gas and other mineral deposits. This speculation is bound not to put the European Union in a favourable light, because it is the companies of the developed world, including Europe, which have had such a hand in what is happening on our soil. What is alarming to us, is that the public opinion in Russia - influenced by what it considers more global concerns of transition - does not even want to hear about our problems and misfortunes. Four or five years ago we believed we would get support from others, but now they seem to think that in defending our lands we are depriving them of jobs, and that our problems can wait.

The point is precisely that we can't afford to wait - we can't afford to wait until others destroy the land of our ancestors, until our culture, which is rooted in living nature, perishes, and most of all we can't afford to wait because there are so few of us.

A friend of mine who is very detached from the issue of indigenous peoples, opposing ethnic distinctions, did the arithmetics after a very close friend of ours committed suicide. He was a Koryak, and the Koryaks are one of the biggest groups of indigenous people, as they number about 11,000. Her reasoning was highly irreverent, but I still want to explain it. She said: "He died, and nobody so much as squeaked SOS. Proportionally, one Koryak dying is like a Russian town of 15,000 disappearing off the face of the earth. If that happened, don't you think somebody would make a fuss?"

I want to turn to the matter of what our peoples are doing and how projects and programmes are organised. I take the opportunity to thank our brothers and sisters of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, and through them the Danish government, for the help they have provided at what has been a difficult time for us. With their assistance, and that of the Saami Council as well as the Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat, we have been taking our first steps in the international movement of indigenous peoples. We are currently involved in two international projects, one Danish-Greenlandic project and one Russian-Canadian project. Thanks to the Danish-Greenlandic Initiative, we hope to set up a small database on Russia's indigenous peoples and to add to it later. Last year, funding from the US Eurasia Fund enabled us to gather around one table representatives of the regional authorities and indigenous peoples of the Russian Far East to draw up a draft document in which the regional authorities acknowledge the indigenous peoples' rights over such matters as self-rule, the development of traditional activities, and the legal delimitation of areas of traditional environmental management. Unfortunately, the document has not so far been signed because the issue of funding the organisational aspects of the agreement has not been settled. Virtually no legislation devoted to indigenous minority populations has been passed in Russia to date. However, legislation affecting the interests of these populations has been passed (for instance on the use of natural resources and on protected areas). This is why we have organised a conference together with the commission on human rights attached to the office of the president of Russia. The conference is entitled "Human rights and the indigenous peoples in the national policy of the Russian state" and will take place at the end of March. Its aim is to develop and support a project to analyse and harmonise Russian legislation, bringing it into line with international standards on human rights and indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, this is yet another area in which we have received no support from the Russian government.

An Information Centre on Indigenous Peoples is now operating in Moscow. Every four months it organises a training course for representatives of indigenous people from local communities. There are twelve people currently on a one-month course in Canada, and a number of our regional subgroups have undertaken and are undertaking work at local level. I would in particular like to give you a summary of an English-language account of a project carried out under the aegis of the Primorskiy Kray's Association of Indigenous Peoples by the Association's Scientific Centre. It relates to a "Plan for the preservation of biodiversity and sustainable development in the Bikin River Basin, traditionally inhabited by indigenous peoples". We have now drawn up a series of projects: for environmental monitoring for areas of traditional environmental management; for developing and assimilating regional and local legislation; for fostering and teaching leadership among the indigenous peoples; for reviving salmon stocks and for developing an information system to use as an instrument for managing the territories of the indigenous peoples of Russia.

Update 22-12-2000