Declaration of transit to sustainable development pattern in the Russian Arctic zone mentioned in recently adopted Russian-Federal programs draws attention to several problems connected with further economic development. Possible emergence of different nature management/land use conflicts is among them, including conflicts at territories of traditional nature use (TTNU) of indigenous population.
One of these cases is the Oil Extraction at Numto Nature Preserve’s Wetland Areas. The heavenly lake of Numto is threatened by the oil company Surgutneftegas. Oil operations here would wreck local communities and spell disaster for its wildlife and ecosystems. The oil company Surgutneftegas already extracts oil from the park but now they want access to one of its most vulnerable areas: the wetlands, where industrial development is currently prohibited.
Numto Natural Park is situated in the oil-rich Khunti-Mansi Autonomous Okrug-Ugra. Lake Numto is one of the biggest in the Khanty-Mansi district in the Russian north. With a vast area of almost 62 square Kilometers. Numto's territory mainly consists of wetland ecosystems. The Numto watershed is included on the Ramsar shadow list as potential wetland to be included in the future on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Numto is renowned for its rich and unique biodiversity, being the breeding site for different bird species. It is also positioned on the route of migratory birds. The plans for expansion of oil activities represent a potential danger for this fragile ecosystem through oil spills, production pollution and habitat fragmentation by pipeline infrastructure.
Numto is one of the most sacred places in the region. It is used for worship and rituals of two indigenous people of the Russian North: Khanty and Forest Nentsy. Its territory is also used by indigenous Nenets population mainly for reindeer breeding. “Num” is translated as “sky”, and “To” – as “the lake”. According to mythology, the Supreme God had descended to this heavenly lake. According to other legends, the lake itself is a Deity or an ancient epic hero laying on the Earth. It is prohibited to cut down trees and to gather berries on the lake islands. “The hero’s neck” (the narrow place between the bay Uhlor and the main part of the lake) is prohibited from being blocked by fishing vessels or equipment. On the “Heart of the Lake” – Saint Island – no woman has ever set foot. Wars are prohibited here. The northern indigenous people believe that those who violate the customs of their ancestors will not live long.
In the surrounding area of the lake Numto 40 families of indigenous people live in their nomad camps. They are traditionally involved mainly in deer breeding, fishing and gathering.
In 1997 at the territory of Beloyarskiy region, the specially protected natural territory “Numto” (natural park of regional level) was established. The main goal of the park was not only protection of natural and cultural environment, but also protection of natural conditions of northern indigenous people, their way of living and economic activity. Both the unique wetland ecosystem and the traditional livelihoods of the local indigenous people were threatened by expanding oil activities in the region.
The Park's original zoning, approved by the regional government in 2001, established four functional zones and several protection areas to regulate and delineate different activities: natural ecosystems protection, subsistence economic activities (e.g. reindeer herding, hunting and fishing), tourism and oil extraction. Oil extraction generally contradicts the idea of a nature park but is currently a common phenomenon in Russian oil-rich provinces. The unique natural complex of the Siberian hills is a preserved territory of this park, which has great environmental, historic and ethnographic importance.
Rich oil deposits were discovered at the territory of this nature park. The Russian oil company Surgutneftegas, which operates in the Numto Nature Park, was not happy with the original zoning because it prohibited oil drilling in the valuable wetlands near lake Numto. The company persistently sought to expand oil activities in these wetlands by urging the regional government to amend the zoning in accordance with the oil exploration licenses. It employed zoning in the region to advance its interests and used scientific information to achieve this. It calculatingly used scientific information to legitimize its own ambitions, activities and claims. In 2014–2015 a team of researchers, sent by the regional government but commissioned by the oil company, conducted a study to propose a re-zoning of the Park in line with the ‘wise use of wetlands’ principle 4, as promoted by the Ramsar Convention. This proposal served as a basis for the re-zoning approval in October 2016 by regional and federal authorities. About 80% of the park’s area, including the zone of wetlands, are planned to be given for geological exploration, oil extraction and construction of infrastructure including roads and pipelines.
Licences for their exploitation were issued by Ugra administration. Functional zoning plan compiled in order to separate territories of conflicting land use patterns i.e., industrial and traditional appeared to be inadequate to prevent land use conflicts. The main problem was ignoring of ecosystem services resources available for exploitation and social-cultural. Traditional production value of northern minority’s lands in modern economy was incomparable with that of oil and gas extraction for example which thus have priorities in land use planning.
Crucially, legislation does not acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ inherent right to their ancestral territories. Indigenous Peoples are not regarded as the owners of their ancestral lands. Based on their traditional occupancy, they are merely granted rights to hunt, fish, to herd their reindeer on the land, etc.
During the last few years, the level of respect and protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights as well as of human rights and ecological rights in Russia has declined significantly. Since the mid-2000s, the government of the Russian Federation, with the aim to promote economic development, has removed administrative barriers, supported geological exploration, and has been consistently applying the concept of “un-ecologization” to federal legislation. This process has been accelerated since Vladimir Putin took the position of Prime Minister after his first job swap with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008.
The public hearing in Beloyarsky in February 2016 was planned to ‘seal’ a proposed re-zoning scenario by formal performative endorsement. Just before the public hearing, protest arose in the electronic, social and conventional media. The Park's administration and civil indigenous organizations informed Greenpeace, who launched a massive media campaign collecting more than 35,000 signatures against the re-zoning of the Park. The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East (RAIPON), 30 other organizations and these 35,000 Russians submitted their petitions to the state bodies not to change natural park “Numto” borders. Scientists and experts were functioning as a source of external authority in this campaign. Urged by Greenpeace, several prominent Russian scholars and organizations spoke out against re-zoning and considered the environmental impact assessment inadequate and biased. Greenpeace also contested the EIA conclusions, pointing to (1) the omission of including the original study conducted by the ‘local’ scientists in 2012 which advised against changes, (2) the lack of proper estimates of environmental damage and impacts on endangered flora and fauna, (3) inadequate application of the legislation on specially protected natural areas and protection of mineral resources. And once again, the legality of oil activities was questioned; Greenpeace filed an audit request to the prosecution office querying the lawfulness of oil activities in the Park.
These efforts resulted in a high turnout at the public hearing in Beloyarsky in February 2016. Some 80 participants, including indigenous people, came from Numto, Beloyarsky, Surgut and Nizhnevartovsk. According to Greenpeace, Surgutneftegas and the regional government attempted to soothe the indigenous people prior to the event, but the speeches during the public hearing demonstrated high levels of concern among the indigenous population.
In the months that followed the public hearing, Surgutneftegas deliberated its ‘Compromise’ scenario with regional authorities behind closed doors. Neither an appeal of indigenous people, scientists and environmentalists to the regional Governor and the President, nor the request of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights to the federal Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment could affect the KMAO-Yugra Government's approval of the oil company-sponsored ‘Compromise’ re-zoning scenario and its subsequent endorsement by the federal Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in October 2016. The decisions of the federal and regional authorities, as the highest institutional instances, formalized the re-zoning according to the ‘Compromise’ scenario.
However, these decisions did not manage to settle the performative endorsement and thus did not create a legitimate outcome. As protests by the indigenous population continue to unfold in early 2017, the decisions will unlikely bridge the deep-rooted conflicts and concerns among stakeholders in the Numto Nature Park.