Conflicts in cultural traditions and habitat use in an Evenk society in Northern Transbaikal: the development of sustainability strategies for a stressed environment.

November 1999

Ole Grøn
(Head of Dept., Norwegian Foundation for Nature Research and Cultural Heritage Research - NINA-NIKU, )

Other participants:
Oleg Kuznetsov (Technical University of Chita)
Nils Røv (NINA-NIKU)
Alex Yankov (Chita Regional Museum)
Torunn Klokkerness (University Museum of National Antiquities, Oslo)
Yoshiko Abe (State University of New York)

During the summer of 1999, a joint Russian – Norwegian research team (ethno-archaeology/ecology) made their third visit to the Chara area in Northern Transbaikal, in order to follow up earlier studies on the material and spiritual culture of the Evenks, the indigenous hunters of that area. The aim of the project is to contribute to the development of strategies that will facilitate the implementation of ecological, cultural and psycho-social sustainability in a stressed environment.

The region is rich in minerals such as uranium, copper, vanadium, iron, coal etc. and a deep conflict has developed between the Evenks who depend on the natural resources in their traditional hunting area and the local and central authorities who desperately need earnings from the exploitation of the minerals. The construction of the Baikal-Amur-Railway through the Northern Transbaikal from the early 60's has strongly influenced a segment of the Evenk population, whereas others have maintained a traditional life-style based on hunting and fishing. In the 60's the authorities tried to organise many Evenks in reindeer-herding sovkhozes, barring them from many of their traditional Evenkian hunting territories. One such sovkhoz was established at the central Evenkian settlement Chapo-Ologo.

From the early 90's economic support to the Evenks in Chapa-Ologo decreased considerably, motivating a number of them to resume a life-style based on hunting. In 1998 the building of the first of four planned side-tracks to the railway started, which will make it possible to transport minerals from a planned mining area. However, it will cut through an area with Evenkian settlements still used by the hunters. Because the authorities did not consult the Evenks on the matter, this has caused both rage and apathy amongst the latter.

Although the majority of the semi-nomadic Evenks have been forced to settle in villages, some groups who live in remote areas have practised a subsistence economy based on their traditional way of life. In July, members of the team visited the summer camp of a family group in the mountainous taiga at the Nichatka Lake. The camp was located on a riverside at the northern outlet of the lake. The nearest Russian settlement is 150 km away, across a rough terrain with mountain passes and steep valleys. Because of this location the Russian administration has little information about or control over these people.

The Evenk family regularly moves between summer and winter settlements. At present, the household consists of five persons. They herd a flock of 36 reindeer (calves included) which are used for transportation and milking. Wild reindeer is their main food during winter, and in summer the staples are fish and reindeer milk. Moose, red deer and musk deer as well as smaller game are hunted all year round. Wild berries and onions are stored for the winter.

Two members of the research team stayed in Chapo Ologo in the Chara area, to collect information about earlier traditions and present day life of those who lived in the village. In particular, tanning and animal hide preservation techniques were studied.

A network of personal contacts to the relevant research and administration bodies in Transbaikal has been developed, including the Evenks’ community in Chapo Ologo.