English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов - живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World - Living Arctic) No. 13, 2003

A real Die-Hard


How a persevering Khant woman has defended her kinship land. As yet…

Albina Glukhikh, Surgutskiy District, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug

The kinship land happened to be in a locality rich in oil. How can one extract “black gold” without causing harm to the Khants inhabiting the region from time immemorial? This task is not to be sneezed at. It should be dealt with, though.

The upper reaches of the Pikhtovaya brook in the Northeastern corner of the Surgutskiy District form the scene of action. It takes one hour and a half to reach the town of Surgut by helicopter. The tundra is all around here already, and parcel No. 31 of kinship pasture is situated right on the border with the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. The Tevlin and Pokachev families live here. The Tevlins keep about three hundred reindeer and the Pokachevs keep almost as many. Both families are not of the poor sort; they can afford a diet of venison even in summer, since the permafrost provides ample storage for future use.  Besides, the sons of Mrs. R. Tevlina shot a hundred and twenty wild geese also to be kept in store, so there isn’t any problem with meat or fowl.

Disturbing start

The nomad camps on the No. 31 pasture area are of traditional type: a wooden hut and stores, caches nearby. There is also a sanctuary, of course. The place for reindeer calving is quite near, next-door, though not everyone is allowed to go there  so as not to frighten the animals and so as not to trample down the cup moss unnecessarily. Actually, the Tevlins used to live in another area and were forced to migrate over here since their former kinship lands had been taken over by oil companies for prospecting and development. By the way, they were driven away and had to move from place to place for the third time. One of their former kinship pasture-grounds is now known as the Tevlinskoye oil deposit. At first, they lived here, on the border with Yamal, peacefully, though keeping a cautious eye on Trom’yegan where the aborigines’ resistance had already been crushed and drilling and oil production had started. Despite the special development regime of the territory stretching along the divine Trom’yegan River there have been cases of oil leakage and soil pollution. What if the oilmen would come to the Pikhtovaya too? How would they live then and herd the reindeer?

The Khants were not scared for nothing. The resource developers have in fact shown interest in these pasture-grounds too. Seismic prospecting has proved the existence of an oil reservoir; now drilling of test wells is required to outline the reservoir. The oil reservoir goes further on to the Yamal territory. The famous “Surgutneftegaz” Company has acquired this licensed section of the Verkhne-Nadymskaya area for ten million dollars as a result of winning the tender. In reaction, the proposed erection of two test wells have become a stumbling block with the indigenous inhabitants refusing to give the go-ahead for the drilling for almost two years.

Mrs. R. Tevlina has become the initiator of the protest. She wrote letters, camped on the doorstep of various authorities making a fuss at all levels: the last place for reindeer calving and their year-round pasture happens to be taken over by drilling rigs. The elderly courageous woman acted on legal grounds.

The Edict of Russia’s President “On urgent measures to defend the localities of habitation and economic activities of numerically small peoples of the North” states that “without their consent traditional subsistence territories… are not subject to alienation to industrial… development”.

However, the forces are unequal: on the one hand, there are mighty oil kings, on the other – a handful of semi-literate Khants led by a woman. For the executives of “Surgutneftegaz” she has become an odious figure. In their turn, the oilmen have also approached the head of the district administration, Mr. A.Sarychev, and the Governor of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, Mr. A.Filipenko: “The state task of the development of our Okrug’s natural resources for which both the natural resource user and all the levels of authority are equally responsible is being hampered in this sector”. This is a quotation from their letter. And how many visits there have been to Mrs. Tavlina’s nomad camp, how many efforts at persuasion and promises have been made! But Raissa Ivanovna would not give up. At long last, the Governor of the Okrug set up a conciliation board instructed to sort out this critical situation. It was headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Okrug’s government, Mr. V. Bobylev.

It was you who came to our threshold

The conciliation board consisting of two Deputies of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug’s government, V. Bobylev and A. Raishev, specialists of the Okrug’s land committee, the department of oil, gas and mineral resources, the environmental protection board, executives of “Surgutneftegaz” and the Surgutskiy District administration decided to visit the conflict area. They reached the nomad camp flying in two helicopters. All the members of the Pokachevs and Tevlins clans made up their minds to take part in the solution of this crisis situation. Young women covering their faces with shawls to hide from the eyes of unfamiliar men examine the map spread on the table as closely and carefully as their husbands do. There is neither argument nor hysterics. However, the situation is calm but on the brink of a stalemate.

As far back as in 1997, Raissa Tevlina gave her verbal consent to the development of the oil deposit, and now she is reminded of that without stopping. For some unknown reason, however, no documents have remained to prove that, but she would not take back every word she said, making a stipulation, though, that there has been nothing said about taking over the reindeer calving place for industrial development.

The oilmen keep reminding the nomad camp owner: “We have built a house for you in Russkinskiye and have fulfilled the conditions of the economic agreement”. Not once was mentioned the Russkinskiye apartment in their reasoning, while the phrase “the state task is being hampered through your fault” appeared repeatedly. They kept saying that no one in the country worked at such a fast pace as “Surgutneftegaz”, and that conditions of the license agreement should be observed rigorously, and so on and so forth.

Raissa Ivanovna kept silence. Yes, the house was in fact built for her, thanks a lot, but it was on condition of putting the licensed land out to tender. By the way, according to this agreement, “Surgutneftegaz” had to build four apartments for the inhabitants of kinship land area No. 31. In Mrs. Tevlina’s apartment her daughter, a teacher at the local school, lives and other members of her family are put up when on a visit to Russkinskiye. But other paragraphs of the agreement have been fulfilled only partially. Immediately she was given assurances that the clan members would get the promised “Buran” sledges and boat engines.

Raissa Ivanovna loses her temper: “It was you who set foot on our doorstep, not us crossing the threshold of your house, why don’t you take any account of us?” Tired of yet another attempt to persuade her, she cries out in a fit of anger: “It’s no longer our land – do your job”. – “But the drilling operations will go on under your full control and when they are over you will personally accept the restored land”, the oilmen keep persuading.

A deadlock. The test well can be shifted aside for not more than a kilometer. Would it really be unavoidable to exclude rigs 86 and 92 from the prospecting scheme? “We’ll be drilling at the time you give us; if need be, we’ll have the development area guarded or register you as watchmen in our employment”.

There was a case like that before, when at the demand of Raissa Ivanovna the resource extractors put off a well drilling operation not to disturb the raising of young deer.

The map has already become a sore in everybody’s eye but once again they all put up with it. The kinship land is in common use but oilrig No. 86 is planned for the area owned by Valeriy Pokachev, what would he say? The young man takes his time over the decision, thinks for a long time biting his lips. Stepan Kechimov, President of the Private Reindeer Herders Union, also attending the meeting tells him something in the native language. The Khants often communicate like that: either they find it easier or they do not want to let others understand their thinking aloud. The case in question is not only one drilling well, No. 86. The Khants rejected the second well outright. There is a fishing area in one spot, the “facility” cannot be moved elsewhere, a sanctuary is in another sector and the reindeer herd will come up closer to yet another spot in spring… The Khants measure off the distances on the map literally inch by inch. Where could that darn drilling rig be moved to so as not to cause damage for the taiga-based natural economy and at the same time to help the oilmen solve the production problem?

Still, why do the natural resource extractors call the indigenous people extortionists and blackmailers? Can’t they put themselves in the place of those for whom the taiga is a native home and whose entire life is connected with it? They do not want to empathize. That is why they are not willing to understand their demands, while the taiga inhabitants do not want much in fact: they want the drilling operations in the pasture grounds to be carried out in winter only; the reindeer moss not to be destroyed; the land not to be polluted; and they themselves not to be cheated as still happens. “What’s our way of doing things? – We would live in one place for some time, then roll up the chum and move to another place without hurting the nature”, - the Khants explain their viewpoint to their opponents.

Nevertheless, the sides have managed to come to an agreement: one drilling rig will be installed on their kinship land but the land owners demand maintenance of special operating conditions including the construction of a high fence around the facilities of the working site… The subject of the drill operators bringing in dogs, weapons is not even discussed, it’s out of the question. As to the size of compensation for the use of the land particularly valuable for the development of the taiga subsistence activities, the family members will notify the oil developers in a month after having weighed these conditions in their mind. The oilmen have felt their spirits rise: “If we work out this rig normally we might be allowed to install the second one”.

The owners of the No.  31 land section walked silently towards the helicopters. They did not expect anything good from the future. The prospecting operations will assess the oil reserves. Operational wells and other oil installations will mushroom around. What would happen to them, taiga dwellers, what would they subsist on?

The green color of the taiga freedom

The Surgutskiy District has more kinship lands than any other district of the Okrug. There are about 200 nomad camps where people adhere to a traditional lifestyle. At the same time it is the biggest oil-bearing province in this country. There is a map on the wall in the office of the deputy head of the Surgutskiy District administration, S. Cherkashin, showing the position of inhabited localities, oil-bearing areas and nomad camps. Its coloration is amazing: the oil deposits are painted brown, the prospecting areas are yellow, the licensed sectors of land not yet distributed are rose-colored, the nature reserve “Yuganskiy” is dark-green and the kinship lands free from natural reserve users are light green. It is just precious little what is left of the latter.

Those indigenous peoples who happened to be in luck and have won the favor of signing economic agreements with oilmen receive compensation and are comparatively well off, while those with no “black gold” under the surface of their kinship lands are deprived of such financial wealth and live from hand to mouth.

I have tried to compare the income of oilmen with that of kinship landowners. The Khants have told me that now they will get the amount of 20 minimum wages per each family member every quarter of a year (it used to be ten wages until recently). Not much.

According to “Surgutneftegaz” data submitted to the Okrug’s committee of indigenous peoples the total of 13,000 rubles was spent in 2000 per person (fuel, foodstuffs, transport facilities, etc.) including all types of material compensation expenses. Here is the entire annual income of an indigenous person.

The oilmen, in their turn, when asked about their wages, would laugh the matter off telling me that they didn’t earn much, though giving no figures. We would let it lie on their conscience. We know quite well at what price oil is exported abroad and gasoline is sold at filling stations.

Later, a hard process of working out a document in Cherkashin’s office took place calling it prudently “The conclusions and proposals of the conciliation board on the construction of test well Nos. 92R and 86R at the Verkhne-Nadymskiy licensed area”. It is stated there that all the outstanding debts to kinship members on economic agreements will be paid. With regard to the drilling operation of test well No. 86 a separate agreement has been concluded while the question of installing oilrig No. 92 should be submitted for consideration at the meeting of the government of the Khanty-Mansi Okrug. Will the Tevlins and Pokachevs attend the meeting to defend their interests?

As to the legal aspect of relations between the aborigines and natural resource users, again the conditions are unequal. “Surgutneftegaz” has its own agency of legal services. The lawyers of this agency work off their bread fair and square defending the oil industry’s interests. There is no one for the aborigines to lean on. The agency of legal services is just emerging in the Okrug’s committee of the indigenous peoples. As a matter of fact, quite an extensive aborigine-oriented normative and legal system has been established but the people have not learned yet how to use it. Cherkashin said that we were all to be blamed for the arising situation because there were no documents regulating the relations between the indigenous people and natural resource developers. That is why conflicts do occur from time to time paving the way for mistrust of each other. In this instance, two officials in the rank of deputy chairman of the Okrug’s government have spent three days trying to sort out the dispute. They traveled to hold outdoor meetings with owners of nomad camping areas, but would it be always the case? Apparently, it is essential to make the conciliation board a permanent body. That is as clear as day. Such conflicts are not a rarity; their numbers are increasing. They should be solved with due regard to the interests of both natural resource developers and indigenous inhabitants.