‘If the oil men leave us in peace, we will always be able support ourselves’ says Siberian reindeer herder

Reindeer herders contemplate the devastation caused by onshore oil spills on their land. Credit: Greenpeace Russia

By Maria Favorskaya, Greenpeace Russia
A trip to reindeer herders’ family in Siberia
For centuries Siberia was a land of wild forest, rivers teeming with fish, a home to wild animals and Indigenous cultures alike. But some companies in Russia are ready to sacrifice all of these priceless natural resources for just one – oil.
A family of Khanty people, traditional reindeer herders, invited a group of Greenpeace Russia staff and several journalists to their home to tell us how they are fighting with the oil industry for the last patches of intact lands.
We had come to the Khanty-Mansi region on a media tour to show the world the daily practice of the Russian oil giants that are now rushing to explore and exploit the Arctic. To hear this story and see this traditional lifestyle for ourselves we had to cross over 500 kilometers of wetlands, spotted with oil pumps and gas flares. The oil industry has expanded year by year here, and has forced the local people to retreat further to the north.
For the first three days we studied the vast oil fields of state oil company Rosneft near the town of Surgut. Rosneft is one of the dirtiest oil companies in the world, with about 10,000 pipeline ruptures and, according to Greenpeace Russia expert estimates, up to 2 million tons of oil products leaking into land and water each year.
Using satellite images we identified 500 spots of oil contamination within this relatively small area. Some of them were really huge – up to 4 kilometers long. When we arrived in the area we discovered that most of the sites are inaccessible: the company closes the roads for safety reasons. But in reality it’s a common way to conceal the leaks.
Thick on shore oil spills in Siberia. Credit: Greenpeace Russia
Several sites on the Pravdinskoe oil field that we managed to access looked frightening: oil saturated swamps, stinky oil “lakes” and oil streams. Peat absorbs oil like a sponge, and in the permafrost soil it decays for decades. On Rosneft’s oil fields around Surgut up to 90% of natural landscapes are destroyed or damaged. Indigenous people have left these areas long ago.

The very same companies that have devastated Siberia, like Rosneft, are now rushing to exploit fragile and remote offshore Arctic. They use the same outdated technologies and irresponsible practices there that have left indigenous people on the brink of extinction.

The next day we moved to Nizhnevartovsk to visit the settlements of reindeer herders. The only way that we could get access to the family home of the Aypin’s was through a control point established by the oil company Lukoil.
Lukoil is effectively the ‘master’ of the whole area and once they had learned about our visit they attempted to control our every step. For hundreds of kilometers we were followed by 4 cars with ‘spies’ from the company and local government officials.
A Lukoil manager arrived to explain to us how much the company cares about local nature and people. “The company negotiates all new projects with the local population and pays good compensations to them. Afterwards we restore any contaminated land. In the last 20 years, the number of reindeer herders has even increased! Our region is among the best in Russia in terms of cooperation with Indigenous Peoples,” assured Konstantin Belyaev, a Lukoil manager. Standing there in his black suit he looked like an alien against the backdrop of this now decimated area.
Despite his assurances, the local nature has not yet recovered from 30-years of oil pollution. Thousands of hectares of forests in the surrounding area have died of fire and contamination, and fish have fled the polluted rivers. Neither the state nor the company care what will be left here after the oil is exhausted; the companies will just leave to look for new resources.
Endless Siberian forests that used to provide Khanty families with all they needed have shrunk into small reservations that are officially called ‘Areas of Traditional Nature Use’. The Aypin family’s forest looks rather big, but as we approach we see that it has suffered a lot of fire damage. Fires are caused by careless visitors, most of them arrive with oil industry. We can see “oil footprints” everywhere here: litter, rusty metal scrap, deep track marks on the soil.
Aypin’s neighbor, Ivan Kazamkin, shows us the place where just two years ago there used to be a small river full of fish. Rosneft was constructing an oil pipeline here and blocked the river with sand and gravel. “We have been complaining to the administration many times, asking to leave at least a passage for fish. But we got no response. Now the river is dead,” says Ivan.
The land here does not belong to local people anymore. Land, forest, mineral resources are owned by the state and it’s free to rent it to any company for any purpose. Recently Lukoil discovered oil reserves in the middle of the Aypin family land and now plans to drill several wells there. At best the family would get some financial compensation. But people lose more than a piece of forest or land, they lose the very possibility to support their life, to keep their traditions and culture and it’s hardly possible to put a price on this loss.
The reindeer herder settlement Enel Uri looks almost the same as it did a hundred years ago. It contains small wooden houses, raw-hide tents, and open fires where the hostess Lubov is making fish broth. The people are devoted to this life and don’t want to leave.  “I’ve been studying and living in a city, but always felt that my real home is here”, says Lubov Aypina. “It becomes harder each year to keep reindeers, but I hope we can start ecological tourism. If the oil men leave us in peace we’ll always be able support ourselves.”
As our group was leaving, the Aypin family read a prayer to protect their pastures from destruction. While the Russian state cares only for the interests of the oil industry, the  local people like the Aypin’s can only turn to their gods for help.
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