The impact of cedar felling on the life of Tubalars

Tair Aleksandrovich Bodroshev
Tubalar, participant of the International Youth Conference “Indigenous Peoples of Russia’s North: Their Present and Future”
from “Mir Korennykh Narodov – Zhivaya Arktika” No. 9-10, 2002

Indigenous peoples’ rights to own and use their land are among the most important rights. However, even this issue causes sharp discussions and, frequently, active antagonism in Russia and even in the entire world. The main reason is evidently in the fact that indigenous peoples’ lands are, as a rule, rich in forests, oil, gas and other natural resources. Accordingly, recognition of indigenous peoples’ right to their native lands is confronted with state functionaries scared to lose their control over these territories and natural resources. They are unwilling to take into account the opinions of indigenous peoples, to bear responsibility to them and work under their control as far as preservation of their native environment of habitation is concerned.

The Republic of Altay is the cradle of such indigenous peoples as the Tubalars, Kumandins, Chelkans, Telengits. There have been a lot of changes in their life during the years of perestroika, regretfully, not for the better. Now we have to talk about their survival though the RF Constitution and the law “On Guarantees of Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Federation” guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples in accordance with generally recognized principles and standards of international law and international agreements of the Russian Federation. By the Enactment of the RF Government dated March 24, 2000 the following peoples of Altay: the Tubalars, Kumandins, Chelkans, Telengits (their total number is about 6,000), were included in the Unified List of indigenous peoples.

Federal Law # 49-FZ “On Traditional Subsistence Territories …”, dated May 7, 2001 guarantees rights to protect the native environment, traditional lifestyle, economic activities and occupations, preservation and development of indigenous culture. Indigenous people can count on preferential treatment when taken on a job in their profession oriented at traditional branches of economy. They can also take advantage of privileges stipulated by the legislation with regard to the use of land and natural resources.

But all that was on paper only. In real life the above law remains unacted upon in the Republic of Altay. For all the indigenous peoples of Gorny Altay the cedar and cedar forests have been not only a means of subsistence and an economic basis but also something sacred. They have worshiped the tree and used it as their medication (to banish evil spirits with a cedar twig, to treat various illnesses by needle infusion, nuts and galipot). Fur-bearing game fed on cedar nuts. That is to say, the cedar used to be the major source of existence for man and wild animal alike.

Large-scale felling of cedar forests and setting up of timber cutting and procurement sections in the 1950s have led to the reduction of the total area under cedar forests as well as to changes in the ratio of native Altay people and migrant settlers to the total population. In 1989 the indigenous Altay peoples accounted for 21 percent in the Turuchakskiy Rayon, 11 percent in the Choiskiy Rayon and 6 percent in the Maiminskiy Rayon, while back in 1929 these indicators were 55, 20 and 60 percent respectively.

Thus, in accordance with the development concept of temporary forest settlements moving further along in step with timber cutting the immigrant folks moved too. After the wholesale felling the Tubalars had to abandon their native land too with only little stumps left after the cedar forests had been cut down in the taiga and no living creatures could be found there any longer. For instance, the inhabitants of the village of Oktyuryuk were resettled in Uimen’, while the residents of Kuzi and Bezhel’bik were moved to Karakoksha when the forests in the vicinity of the villages had been cut down completely. All the facilities in these villages were temporary, including the local roads, communications and electricity produced by diesel generators.

During the disintegration of timber procurement establishments (industrial plants dealing with loading and dispatching of felled trees) in 1999-2000 such villages as Uimen, Chuika, Biyka, Kurmach-Baykol, Surunash and others were closed down. All in all, 19 villages with the total population of 3,300 made off in different directions with only Tubalars left in the area of felled timber to die out. These villages have neither electricity, nor telephone. There is neither radio, nor television or bus services in the majority of these settlements. The local schools are on the brink of being closed while ‘the hearth of culture’ in such villages boils down to street dancing in the dark. Conditions like that give an impetus to the development of alcoholism, hooliganism and, finally, domestic crime (9 indigenous persons out of every 10 are convicts). That’s the kind of villages the Tubalars live in at present. But they are likely to disappear physically as ethnos.

Against the background of a general economic decline, a high rate of unemployment, disintegration of healthcare and educational system in the Republic of Altay, the Tubalars have proved to be the most vulnerable, the least competitive, less educated and, under the conditions of new market relations, holding no positions of any significance in the major quickly developing sectors of economy – forestry and recreational leisure industries.

To deprive them of a chance to live and be engaged in economic activities on native lands of their own free will, especially when anything like that happens not voluntarily, is the utmost injustice inadmissible in a state claiming to be called democratic and accepting the rule of law.

The right of indigenous peoples to land is, to a significant degree, a system-forming principle of their constitutional status. This right is dovetailed with realization of rights to self-governance, participation in the use of mineral wealth; it is instrumental in shaping up the prerequisites for consolidation of a nation, preservation and development of their language, culture and solution of social problems.

At present, the problem of land has emerged as an issue of overriding importance for indigenous peoples. It becomes clearer if Russia’s new realities are taken into account: privatization, rental of land or its acquisition by individual ownership. Without proper guarantees indigenous peoples could be forced out from their native lands or their possibilities of using natural resources could be squeezed. Separate facts have already proved that at times plots of land are allotted to people having hardly anything to do with traditional economy; the allotted plots of land happen to be incommensurate with the individual owner’s needs; substitution of aims of land utilization takes place; permits to use land are given to foreign companies without consent of indigenous population.

It should be emphasized that securing the rights of indigenous peoples to land is not only of local and ethnic significance. In the last analysis, it is a method of rational use of natural resources and, as a whole, protection of the environmental system.

The intention to establish the “Chelush” Ethnological Nature Park (EP), on the territory of the Choiskiy Rayon, village of Uimen, has become a practical step towards the solution of two problems harnessed together – the revival of indigenous peoples as an inimitable part of mankind and preservation of cedar forests. EP Chelush is a form to reserve the right to native habitation environment of indigenous peoples in the Republic of Altay. The expected results include a decline in the rate of depopulation of aboriginal inhabitants, revival of their language and culture as well as environment, a possibility to preserve their ancestors’ land, make a living and teach their children.

Information about the present day condition of the Tubalars

A low level of literacy and domestic culture, a high death rate, a high level of infectious diseases, alcoholism, and unemployment (3 employed persons per 40 able-bodied people) make a modern ‘portrait’ of Tubalars inhabiting the Republic of Altay.

Education levels are as follows: 21 persons (4 percent) have higher education; incomplete higher education – 6 persons (1.1 percent); students – 5 persons (0.96 percent); secondary specialized education – 84 persons (16.3 percent); secondary education – 105 persons (20.3 percent); incomplete secondary education – 143 persons (27.7 percent); school-age pupils – 142 persons (27.5 percent); primary education – 1 person (0.19 percent) and illiterate – 9 persons (1.7 percent). One can come to the conclusion that education for the Tubalar young people is inaccessible, especially higher education since 4 percent only have higher education while students, in other words, future specialists with higher education make up 0.96 percent. The available potential is 27.5 percent of pupils. The question of whether they go on with their studies is political rather than economic only.

The young people’s breakdown by category is the following: the working youth – 139 persons (26.7 percent); the unemployed – 191 persons (37 percent); pupils – 142 persons (27.5 percent); students – 5 persons (0.96 percent); servicemen (service on enlistment) – 6 persons (1.16 percent); the disabled – 13 persons (2.5 percent); convicted – 21 persons (4 percent). The above data indicate clearly that the greatest number, in percentage terms, of the young Tubalars is the unemployed whose idleness makes them inveterate drunkards with the number of alcoholics growing annually. Therefore, the adoption of the Federal Program of “Economic and Social Development of Indigenous Peoples of the North for the Period of up to 2011” with regard to the Republic of Altay would give a fair chance of survival but the authorities are not inclined to assist these people. The reasons seem to root in the functionaries’ conservatism for who it is easier to wipe off the map the whole people without giving it a second thought rather than to do their job for its benefit. Representatives of the Tubalars themselves are unable to prepare business plans, feasibility studies and documentation relating to estimates for projects of their lifesaving and development due to their illiteracy and ignorance of federal legislation.

The working youth’s breakdown by profession is as follows: top executives – 7 (1.35 percent); teachers – 17 (3.3 percent); lawyers – 4 (0.77 percent); accountants – 10 (1.9 percent); feldschers (doctor’s assistants with secondary medical education consisting of a 3-year course at medical training college) – 3 (0.58 percent); agricultural technicians – 5 (0.96 percent); nurses – 14 (2.7 percent); dress-makers – 8 (1.55 percent); salesmen and salesgirls – 6 (1.16 percent); cooks – 5 (0.96 percent); mechanical/technical specialists) – 25 (4.8 percent); workers – 33 (6.39 percent). The above statistical data confirm the aforementioned conclusion that there is not a single economist with higher education among the Tubalars able to produce competent development projects.

The knowledge of the native language (the Tubalar): speak fluent Tubalar – 49 persons (9.5 percent); understand this language – 270 (52.3 percent); do not speak their native tongue – 197 (38.2 percent).

These data create a depressing picture. The lack of knowledge of the native language is due to ‘objective’ reasons, i.e. the unwillingness on the part of public education departments of the districts concerned to organize teaching of the native tongue or the Altay language.

During the trip made by the leaders of the youth organization to the village of Iogache, the actual situation there shocked everyone of us: 42 villagers had no profession; 43 villagers were unemployed; 22 of them did not speak their native language, 54 could only understand it and only 8 people could freely communicate with each other speaking it fluently. Considering the degree of education among the Tubalar young villagers, the following information was collected: there were only two persons with higher education (one of them still a student) among the total number of the Tubalars, 23 people had incomplete secondary education (9 years of schooling), 8 – secondary specialized education, 27 – secondary and 23 were pupils going to school. 25 percent of the young villagers got incomplete secondary education due to a difficult family budget situation preventing them from attending the final year school classes. It is easy to assume that in future they would fail to find a permanent job, start a business of their own which would otherwise ensure earnings in money and kind and, accordingly, education of their own children.