Continuing our trip here on Sakhalin, we traveled north over the last few days to visit indigenous reindeer herders and indigenous fish camps. The Uilta people in Sakhalin traditionally herd reindeer, while the Nivkh people are fishers. Both peoples are being impacted by enormous oil and gas projects in Northeastern Sakhalin led by Shell and Exxon.
We used a Gaz-66 – an enormous Russian truck that can pretty much deal with any road conditions – to drive out to the reindeer herders. After getting near to the area we hiked for about half a mile through lichen, dwarf birch, and dwarf pine to find the camp. We saw berries and mushrooms as we walked – this “forest-tundra” area was very rich. The herders we met had about 60 reindeer. Only about 17 Uilta continue to herd reindeer. Indigenous peoples such as the Uilta in Russia have had to adapt to constant changes – from forced collectivization and forced resettlement into large towns under the Soviets, to adapting to the market economy and a collapse of government subsidies in the 1990s, to massive oil and gas developments on their traditional territories over the last several years. Traditions have been lost, although a number of indigenous peoples in Russia – including the herders who we met – are trying to restore the traditions.
The herders said that ever since Exxon built an enormous oil processing complex, the reindeer have been forced out of their traditional calving area. The noise, lights, and constant traffic from this processing facility are too much for the reindeer. The herders are worried about survival rates among the reindeer calves as they do what they can to increase the reindeer population.
The Nivkh fishers are also worried about the impacts of Shell and Exxon’s projects on their traditional fishing lifestyles. They spend the summers in fish camps spread out along the bays of Northeastern Sakhalin and come there year-round to fish saffron cod, char, and salmon. We arrived in time to see some of our indigenous partners fishing for salmon and then shared a wonderful traditional meal. But the Nivkh grandmothers we talked with are worried – they say that more and more often, they come across fish that have sores and blisters or that smell like oil. They don’t know why this is, and the oil companies have refused to study the problem.
Their frustrations with the oil and gas developments led the Nivkh, Uilta, and other indigenous peoples to blockade roads to Shell and Exxon’s projects in 2005. As a result, Shell agreed to an indigenous peoples’ development plan that provides a council with $300,000 per year over 5 years. But what happens after these five years are up? In our conversations, we learned that many indigenous peoples are concerned that the money from this plan won’t really be used to help with restoring and protecting their traditional culture. Instead, they know that they’re the ones who will stay in northeastern Sakhalin. The oil companies will leave Sakhalin, and the native peoples will be left with the mess.
Vasily, a reindeer herder, told us that all he really wants is “calm.” He wants a calm place to herd reindeer and restore his people’s traditions.