Russia’s northern Indigenous people have reason to view their national parks system with suspicion. Park boundaries are sometimes rolled back to make way for resource development, while protected areas often pose an impediment to traditional hunting and fishing activities.
Russia’s Numto nature reserve in western Siberia contains a sacred lake, endangered cranes and valuable wetlands for the Nenet and Khanty peoples. The area was also the site of an Indigenous rebellion against the Soviet state during the 1930s, in protest at forced collectivization and the persecution of traditional leaders. Last year, the nature reserve’s borders were redrawn by the regional government to make way for new drilling operations for the oil company Surgutneftegas, forcing out Indigenous groups once again. In protest, reindeer herders recently built a traditional tent in the heart of Moscow.
That may help explain why Russia’s Indigenous people don’t always welcome new parks and protected areas. Critics contend that these designations offer no guarantees there won’t be future industrial activity, and they also sometimes prevent Indigenous people from hunting or fishing in the area.
So as Russia declares 2017 the Year of Ecology and Protected Areas, Indigenous groups have reason to be wary. Natural resources minister Sergei Donskoi recently projected a 22 percent increase of protected areas, particularly national parks, by 2025. Franz Josef Land was recently folded into Russkaya Arktika National Park to become Russia’s largest protected area, covering an archipelago roughly the size of Ireland. Borders for new parks will be drawn in the Barents region of Karelia and another around the 350-year-old pines and tundra of Murmansk. A federal reserve will also protect parts of the New Siberian Islands, known as the land of the mammoths for its abundance of unearthed tusks, among others in more southern regions.
Many of these lands support wild medicines, reindeer and timber used by roughly 250,000 Indigenous people who form 41 recognized groups. In response to future park plans, the Russian nongovernmental organization Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North will soon host Indigenous leaders from Siberia to the Far East for a strategy workshop titled, “National Parks and Indigenous Peoples: Risks and Opportunities.” The organization’s director, Rodion Sulyandziga, notes that this will be the first time such a broad range of Indigenous groups will gather to discuss national parks, and plans are underway for an even larger event, which will include politicians, in September.
One concern is that Russia’s new focus on national parks also involves a move away from a designation intended to allow Indigenous people to continue their hunting and fishing traditions. A framework for these territories, known as Traditional Nature Use of Indigenous Minority Peoples of the North, was laid out 16 years ago, but it hasn’t been implemented in practice. That leaves Indigenous groups with few channels to assert their rights in the current political climate, say critics.
“We have to compromise with government because as Indigenous peoples, we are like between two rocks,” said Sulyandziga. “The first one is industrial development and extractive industry, followed by land grabbing and pollution. On the other hand it’s conservation policy, which also in many cases is coming into conflict with Indigenous people in terms of traditional lifestyle and activities.”
Protected areas are speckled across Russia and total roughly 12 percent of the country, with different designations offering varying degrees of protection. All may pose some problems for Russia’s Indigenous groups.
Zapovedniks, or “strict nature reserves,” provide a high degree of ecological protection and generally restrict human use and access. Traditional activities like hunting and fishing generally require a special permit. National parks ban mining and oil-and-gas extraction but encourage recreation and tourism. Meanwhile, territories of traditional nature use have yet to be implemented at the federal level and those at the state level tend to be ignored, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, or IWGIA. The group also reports that the word “conservation” was removed from the definition of these territories in 2013, further undermining their status.
For all of these designations, the Russian government has been known to unilaterally change rules and rewrite boundaries. According to Greenpeace and IWGIA, the state reduced the size of Indigenous land by roughly half in the far eastern territory of Khabarovsk to encourage migration. Also last year, WWF Russia raised the alarm when the state downgraded the already-strained status of Zapovedniks, the strict nature reserves, by permitting ski resorts and hotels in these areas.
Some critics have nicknamed Zapovedniks “paper parks” for their failure to adequately protect the environment due to budget cuts and lack of enforcement for illegal harvesting of timber and wildlife. On top of all this, many Indigenous and environmental NGOs have been declared foreign agents by the Russian state, creating legal difficulties for these groups.
Meanwhile, as Russia promotes new tourism operations on the Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya archipelagos, pressure mounts on these delicate Arctic ecosystems. Johannes Rohr, a consultant for IWGIA, notes that in the volcanic islands of Kamchatka of the northeast, home to Steller’s sea eagles, snow sheep and hot springs, tourist operators have hired Indigenous dance groups to perform while Indigenous access to the national park is restricted.
“It’s not to say this is a deliberate policy by the state of disenfranchising and expropriating the Indigenous groups,” he said. “It’s more like as soon as local business and administrations sense there is money to be made this will almost always go to the disadvantage of the Indigenous population.” He takes a rather pessimistic view of Russia’s park-focused year of environment, highlighting what he sees as a steady erosion of Indigenous rights since 2001. “If [the Russian government] would enshrine protection into conservation areas, we could go against at the grain. It could be an opportunity. But my hopes for breakthroughs are kind of limited.”
For his part, Sulyandziga remains hopeful. It took three years of intense negotiation with all levels of government, but the creation in 2016 of a national park in the Bikin river basin, known as the Russian Amazon in the far southeast of the country, marked a first for Indigenous co-management of a protected area. The Udege are directly involved in overseeing the park with permanent members on an advisory board. They were also able to fight to reserve 8,000 square kilometers (3,089 square miles) of the territory for Indigenous use.
Sulyandziga sees this as a new model for Russian parks, and hopes the upcoming workshops can prepare other Indigenous groups to negotiate similar arrangements. Even Rohr, while hardly optimistic, describes Bikin National Park as the only one with “some chance of it becoming not a total disaster.”
The trouble lies in how Russia’s national parks and reserves are about nature, not people, said Sulyandziga. “In principle, we cannot look at national parks and protected areas as a solution for Indigenous peoples, because we need our own self-governance.”
This article originally appeared on Arctic Deeply. For weekly updates about Arctic geopolitics, economy, and ecology, you can sign up to the Arctic Deeply email list.