7х7’s report on a Natural Park and Khanty village in focus of oil producer’s interest
Numto village is located in Numto Natural Park on the bank of Khanty’s sacred Lake Numto in the north of Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area. It is almost isolated from the rest of the world: cell phones hardly catch the signal of the only mobile operator, and the road built by Surgutneftegas is only available to the village residents with a special pass. Others are not let in by the checkpoint guards.
The oil company already extracts oil in the south of Numto Park. In autumn 2016, despite protest of scientists and aborigines, the government of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area rezoned the Park. This opened a way for industrial activities in the north, in wetlands, where Khanty still live their traditional life and which is the habitat of Siberian white crane and other endangered birds and animals and a moose migration path.
Numto is one of Yugra’s most beautiful parts, but no tourists are invited here. Even on the Reindeer Herder’s Day, an important Khanty festival, present were only the invited media, officials, oilmen and a few friends of Numto residents. Aygul Khismatova, 7х7‘s journalist, visited the village in secrecy. She learnt about Khanty’s real live in the midst of oil fields and what is in store for Numto in the future.
Village residents warned the 7х7’s journalist that the media is not allowed to Numto without a permit and photos and videos may even be confiscated. So they asked her to use a different name, keep in secret her job and who helped her to the village and not to mention their real names in publications. The editors office agreed as the characters are afraid of retaliation from officials and the oil producer. Soon after the festival, the villagers informed the editors office about telephone calls from the police who tried to find out who the unknown guest was and who helped her into the village.
Numto, a Natural Park of regional importance, was founded in 1997. It lies in the south of Russian tundra in the heart of the West Siberian Plain, 200 km from Beloyarsky and 300 km from Surgut. The Park’s covers over 500,000 hectares. It includes Numto Watershed, one of Middle Siberia’s richest wetlands. Also, the Park is a place where three natural zones meet: tundra, forest tundra and taiga. The Khanty and Forest Nenets live in Numto together, preserving their traditions. The heart of the Park is Numto Lake, the largest lake in the Tyumen Region with an area of 56 sq km. According to Greenpeace, the lake area has 65 ancient ethnic cultural heritage sites, over one hundred archeological sites and seven holy places. In 2016, all these sites nearby Numto were included in the Unified State Register of Cultural Heritage Sites of the Peoples of Russia.
Chapter 1. Reindeer Herder’s Day. Far far away
“They [local authorities and the oil producer] do not welcome journalists for a fear that their ill practices might to be exposed to public: the way they get licences for oil extraction in areas prohibited by the law. It’s a Natural Park, Khanty national village,” explained Andrey, a resident of Numto, to 7×7‘s journalist. “And not journalists alone. Recently, we had an incident: they wouldn’t let in an indigenous man from another district who came for the festival. They are afraid. That’s why at the checkpoint they are instructed to let in only local residents. But, in fact, it’s federal land. They have no right to close the access to Numto.
Andrey agreed to get me to the Reindeer Herder’s Day celebration. It’s a long way, and we have plenty of time to talk about everything: compensations, “corruption everyplace”, and the benefits the oil company offers to the Khanty.
“On the news, the oil producer says it has built a road to Numto. But frankly, the road is not for our convenience. Although, the road is certainly necessary, but it’s faster with the snowmobile. They need the road for themselves since they are panning to expand beyond Numto to explore and drill,” says my escort.
To get to Numto by car, you have to go about 200 kilometres from Nizhnesortymsky using oilfield roads and the winter road [the road only used in winter] built by the oil company. The company’ special vehicles use the road to deliver people and supplies to drilling sites. If a snow storm begins the road is soon covered up with snow, then the trip may take seven rather than four hours. There are two checkpoints on the road: Surgutneftegas guards check the driver’s and passengers’ IDs and ask the purpose of visit, who you are going to visit and inform their bosses who then decide on whether to let them in,” said Andrey.
Or you can go by snowmobile, 70 kilometres straight through tundra snows. The trip also takes about four hours with no checkpoints on the way.
In summer, you can only get to Numto by air. Once a week, on Mondays, a helicopter comes to the village from Beloyarsky. The service is provided by the District Administration. Tickets are available in the airport or Numto. One-way ticket is RUR 2,500. The helicopter can only take 12 people. The flight takes an hour.
Despite optimistic reports of local media, the village remains isolated. Regional TV companies and web media mostly talk about progress coming to Numto: 24/7 power supply, social facilities (club or rural health post or houses). In some publications, local residents support and thank Surgutneftegas for changes for the better and jobs offered to the locals. Andrey says that these people used to criticise the oil company before and so they told federal media and Greenpeace.
“You won’t believe, but starting from 2000, for the subsoil use oil companies give the aborigines 200 litres of fuel and lubricants and 15–20 building boards a year!” he says angrily.
“They say that the Khanty prosper thanks to an agreement with oil companies. Are they given Burans [snowmobiles] for free, are they paid money?”
“Those who have familial land. All land in Beloyarsky District belongs to the forestry. No familial land there, and the Administration makes use of it as it’s the only one authorised to make cooperation agreements with oil producers. Under such agreement Surgutneftegas pays millions of rubles to the district budget each year. Aborigines receive none of this money, while they drill on our land.”
I am astonished: Andrey is talking about money and compensations while the problem is more global: oil extraction on the Khanty’s indigenous territory, wrecking traditional lifestyle, harming the fragile Arctic nature.
“The oil producer will have its way anyway! No one to protect us; there is no ombudsman for protection of rights indigenous northern people in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area. The District’s delegates and Administration wouldn’t listen to us. The subsoil user is rich enough to buy what it wants for money, but the money does not go to those whose traditional way of life it harms. We also need to live. They are just using us. They make money on us.”
Andrey is silent for a while. Then he goes on:
“All these public hearings are just for formalities sake. For example, recent discussions of new well construction were held with not even half of Numto residents present, just few families who are loyal to the oil company. Others were not informed! It all came out later on, of course. The authorities and the oil company are tricky and act through promises and gifts. Some of the village people used to speak out against Surgutneftegas, trying to stop the expansion further into Numto. And then suddenly they shut up, either threatened or bribed.”
We came to the village early in the morning. Before the officials and oilmen. Those came by helicopter right before the celebration started.
I stretch my back and legs and look around: I see a wide street with enough space for a snowmobile and reindeer sled to pass at the same time. Two rows of wooden houses: small, plain, one-story, new and old, some covered with snow up to windows (the owners have left for camp). Some even have a satellite dish. The fences are low, almost symbolic; people here do not put high fences around their houses. Here, far away from civilization, a little bit more than 200 people (45 families) reside.
Several men on reindeer sleds slowly move towards the lake, where reindeer races – the main competition of the Reindeer Herder’s Day – will take place. The prize is a new snowmobile (provided by Surgutneftegas), an expensive and useful thing in a household.
“Those from Surgutsky have no say”
The local Prometheus club hosts the opening ceremony of the Reindeer Herder’s Day. Andrey provided me with traditional clothes, a plain non-decorated sakh. Sakh is a reindeer skin winter coat, hoodless and decorated with ornament, and mine is a casual one, with no ornament and with a hood with fur. Sakh is large for me, so I put it in top of my down coat. They also gave me a shawl, which I put in top of my cap.
The aborigines asked me no questions: the Khanty are very quiet, hasteless and non-officious. No fuss here.
Sergey Manenkov, Head of Beloyarsky District Administration, Alsu Nazyrova, Head of Administration of Kazym Rural Settlement (Numto is a part of it), and representatives of Surgutneftegas and corporate media are already here in Numto. The club is so small, the hall is overcrowded. The Head of District Administration speaks to the residents and guests. He mentions 80 and 90 year old district residents who still work, trying to joke like an easy-going guy. He reports on successes achieved in cooperation with the oil producer: a church built at request of the locals, two houses built, pure water supply is promised in the nearest future. As the official speaks, Alsu Nazyrova, Head of Kazym Administration, attentively and nervously looks around the hall, standing up and sitting down again. As if in a worry that things might not go as planned.
“Why do you insist that Surgutneftegas does good? You are fooling Numto people,” a man in national clothes with a tablet in his hands suddenly speaks out. This is Sergey Kechimov, the shaman and keeper of sacred lake Imlor in the Surgutsky District. This Khanty is known throughout the district as a fearless fighter against oil companies operating in the lands of forest people. He is immediately interrupted by Manenkov: “This is a Numto meeting! If you have questions, ask me later!”
Alsu Nazyrova, Head of Kazym Administration, immediately rushed towards the exit where a police officer was standing on-duty, while the shaman tried to continue. Numto residents had obviously lost their interest for the meeting and moved towards the exit, in anticipation of the reindeer races for the first time with a Buran snowmobile, an expensive and very useful thing in a household, as the prize. The shaman’s words that reindeer will soon have no pastures to graze are lost in the voices of Manenkov, Nazyrova and the police officer, who is making his way through the crowd to Kechimov:
“Are you from Numto? No? How do you know then? Don’t shout. Lets go out and talk.”
People are leaving the club, two police officers next to Sergey Kechimov on the porch. The shaman is trying to explain that the sacred land needs to be protected, while Numto residents are being fooled.
Later, I meet Kechimov near the lake. He is firm that Numto residents should act:
“The oil producer has completely destroyed the land in my district [Surgutsky]. They are going to do the same here. Nothing will be left here in a couple of years.
Where two civilizations meet
Here in Numto people are very gentle. I was freezing and knocked at one of the houses. They let me in to get warm and treated me with tea and reindeer meat pie. The interior is quite plain: three small interconnecting rooms, a kitchen oven in the centre with a protective guardian talisman (small bast shoes) above the oven. The kitchen has all necessary appliances, including a stove and a microwave oven. The toilet is outside, as always in the village, with a washstand inside.
“Some (very few) local Khanty work for Surgutneftegas while living the traditional life,” says the host. “We need money to live. They no longer ask for our opinion. The District Administration is the one who decides. They make cooperation agreements with the oil company and receive money from it, but the Khanty only get a miserable part of the financial support. Somewhere on the way to Numto the money goes into somebody’s pockets.”
“Why don’t you ask for help?”
“Whom, where and how? Greenpeace came once. They photographed and published something. And what is the good of it? Surgutneftegas has already received a drilling permit for three new wells, rezoning is complete, and soon we will have all these heavy vehicles, drilling, exploration and extraction right in our backyard. The producer has a helicopter, money, power, pocket journalists, on the news they appear as protecting the nature.”
“Subsoil user” is what they formally call the oil company, some cautiously and some respectfully.
“We are miles away,” the host continues. “Then we learn about hearings on new wells. In Beloyarsky. Did we have a chance to get there, not being informed in advance? Here in the village cell phone signal is weak. They promised us to fix it. Just promises.”
And that’s true: when I was in Numto, my cell phone signal was poor with only MTS service available. The village residents have to put their cell phones up to catch the signal. After the Reindeer Herder’s Day, in late March, mobile operator Motiv installed a cell tower in the village, as a lady from Numto told us by phone.
As I was drinking hot tea with pie, neighbours came with a visit, Ekaterina and her grandmother Elena.
Ekaterina follows the traditional way of life: breeds reindeer, gathers and sells wild-growing herbs. She is a descendant of those Moldanov shamans who joined and led the Kazym Revolt of the 1930s, when armed Beloyarsky District Khanty and Nenets rose against the Soviet Government policy in an attempt to retain their traditional lifestyle. Kazym River and Numto Lake was the revolt venue. The Khanty then captured seven Soviet officials who tried to persuade the aborigines not to oppose large-scale fishing in Numto Lake. Five of them were sacrificed and two taken as hostages. A punitive squad was sent to Beloyarsky District. Both sides suffered in the shooting. About hundred of Khanty and Nenets were arrested; part of them set free later, others put to prison and very few came back.
The ladies sat down:
“In the Surgutsky District, the Khanty have snowmobiles, the subsoil user gives them to aborigines for free. They are well supplied, much better then we,” Ekaterina complains. “And they are going to build drilling wells here without our consent. They do not provide us with building materials, give nothing, and on top of that they want to drill without a permit. Where do we graze reindeer then? Or gather cloudberries?
Ekaterina is speaking about the Vatlorskoye field, the three prospecting wells discussed at the “secret” hearings on January 24.
The aborigines only learnt about the hearings when they heard the helicopter noise; it usually comes to the village on Mondays. But that flight was unscheduled.
“We were surprised, of course, to see the helicopter. Started to ask each other. Finally, we found out that the helicopter was sent by the oil company to transport Natalya Vypla [Numto resident and an expert at the Natural Park Numto Directorate] to the district centre. Eventually, the word came that she was going to attend hearings. Together with Semyon Pyak, the village headman. He had not said a word about it, while he was supposed to, as the elder!” says the host grievingly.
The reindeer races are about to start on Numto Lake. I’m heading towards the competition site. The street smoothly runs down to the lake. Snowmobile engines are roaring, brightly decorated reindeer sleds are passing by me. There are many children and women dressed in festive ornamented costumes. Numto Lake has a flat coast. Head of Kazym and oilmen have already said the necessary welcoming words from the wooden stage. The officials have already left. The helicopter takes off, taking the Head of Beloyarsk District back to the civilization.
Vasily Pyak, local reindeer herder, opens the races with his poems. I look at the reindeer and the viewers, which include few guests from Kogalym and Surgut. Journalists and photographers are shooting the event for the news media. Another master of national sport drives his reindeer sled on a 800 metre long snow track.
I greet a Khanty in his language: “Vushcha!” (it means “Hi”). His name is Egor Lozyamov. He speaks quietly and slowly. He has a reindeer herd, about 40 animals. I ask him about his life in Numto, whether the oil company is supportive and whether he would like to move to town.
“No, I wouldn’t. I used to live in a town working for an oil company. I didn’t like it. I feel more comfortable here. I was born and grew up here, it is my land and my lifestyle. I have my reindeer. They need care, feeding and grazing. It’s sad that authorities care little about Numto people. They come from time to time on occasion, on festive days, with TV news teams who then report that we are fine. They make promises and disappear.”
Egor is lucky: his land is located closer to the Yamal border and will not be disturbed by drilling.
Fedor Moldanov’s land is nearby the Kazymskoye field, where derricks are planned to be built. Fedor is not happy about it: he has a herd of 64 animals.
“Where do I graze my reindeer? There have already been cases of reindeer poisoned by chemicals oil companies use in wells. Reindeer take it for salt. They lick it and get poisoned,” says Fedor angrily. “If I were a registered owner of my familial land, oilmen wouldn’t dare to drill without my permit. I’m going to change the things. But I was told it is a long and tiresome journey and I might not succeed.
A little interrogation
I am walking among the Khanty, looking at their colourful festive costumes and taking photos. I say ”Vushcha” to some of them. I have obviously been noticed: Alsu Nazyrova, Head of Kazym Administration, approaches me. She speaks in a loud and imperious voice. She smiles at me:
“Who are you? What’s your name, where did you come from?”
“Masha. I came from Nizhnevartovsk to see the festival.”
“Masha is a Russian name,” states Nazyrova. “Do you like it here?”
“Yes, very much. Beautiful and interesting.”
Some locals approachs and Nazyrova turns to them.
Reindeer races are over with the Buran going to the winner, local resident Mikhail Moldanov. There are many Moldanovs in Numto. Not all of them are direct relatives, but belong to the same clan.
I leave the lake coast to take a walk around the village. Very soon a police officer catches up with me, the one who “took care” of shaman Sergey Kechimov at Nazyrova’s request. He enquires when and how I arrived. Looks like the “how” question is more important. I ask him back what’s his point: Was I not supposed to come? or has something happened? or are you seeking out for someone? The police officer denies: no, no, just curiosity. You are not local and we know almost everyone here. Another man comes up and presents himself as a Surgutneftegas employee.
“How did you get here?”
“I used several.” I watch the reaction surprised by the attempts to find out how a stranger came to Numto unnoticed to Surgutneftegas security service.
“Who was driving? What’s the driver’s name?”
“I don’t remember! I slept all the way.”
He is trying to fish out some details pointing out to my helper. Then he sees it’s useless, and that, interrogating, he looks more suspicious than me who just came for the Reindeer Herder’s Day. He gives up: “OK, its clear”.
I was leaving the village in the evening. National competitions were on in the middle of the street with mostly young guys participating: young man were throwing tynzyan (trochee) on horey (wooden pole). At a distance, young ladies were running a hundred metre race. Just a bunch of viewers, all local.
Numto residents cannot invite many guests to their celebrations. In the neighbouring Surgutsky District, the Reindeer Herder’s Day was celebrated on a large scale, and the District Administration invited Khanty-Mansi District residents through social and mass media. And here … isolation and oil producer’s supervision.
Chapter II. A glance from the Big Land. “Secret hearings”
The “secret” hearings mentioned by Numto people were held on January 24, 2019. The information had appeared on the Beloyarsky District Administration website a month before. The subject of hearings was too difficult for a common reader to understand: “About the planned business and other operations subject to environmental appraisal in accordance with the project documentation containing the terms of reference and environmental impact assessment reports related to the facility “Prospecting wells of the Vatlorskoye licence block, code 14487″”.
The officials proposed Numto residents to make acquainted with the project materials and make comments personally by visiting the office of Surgutneftegas in Surgut (a straight route of 270 km) or Beloyarsky District Administration in Beloyarsky (235 km).
Local authorities know only too well about cell phone communication problems in the village, that many aborigines have to take care of their households or live in camps and cannot monitor website publications. But formally, the hearings were according to the law. Aleksandr Kopylov, a representative of Beloyarsky District Administration, wrote in his Vkontakte social network page that information on the hearings had been published in October and December 2018 on the Administration’s website and in Beloyarskiye Vesti, Novosti Yugry and Rossiyskata Gazeta newspapers. According to Mr Kopylov, the Administration received no comments or proposals during or after completion of the public discussions.
The document offered for discussion at the hearings contains 901 electronic page. It is expected that the closest prospecting well No. 4719P will be built 17 kilometres eastwards from Numto, and the closest section of the road to be used to supply drilling equipment will run 16 kilometres from the village.
The house of reindeer herder Vasily Pyak, who attended the hearings, is the closest to the drilling site: just four kilometres, and just 1.4 kilometres from the service road.
According to the project, “the location of well sites and service roads has been agreed with representatives of SIPN [small indigenous peoples of the North] residing and living their traditional life in the area concerned”.
After the hearings, an article appeared on the Administration’s website with photos picturing officials and a bunch of aborigines.
“You know, they have their reindeer, fish traps and children to take care of. How can they drop everything and go?” says Aleksandr Voytekhovich, Deputy Head of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Indigenous Peoples Affairs. “They have Internet, we also supply information through the village headman. Postal service is available. But the education level…”
The District Administration employee explained that the authorities had informed Numto residents about the oncoming hearings through mass media and website, and even requested a helicopter from Surgutneftegas to deliver those willing to attend. Eventually, only four families were represented: Natalya Vypla (the village resident and an environmental awareness expert for the Park Directorate), Leonid Pyak, representative of the national community, Vasily Pyak, Sergey Pyak, Zhanna Sergacheva, and Lidiya Logany. According to Voytekhovich, Natalya Vypla requested to “assign the most skilled drilling crew”: she monitors the area development and is aware that some crews do their job in a clean and diligent manner.
According to formal documents,from January 24 to February 24, the Administration’s website received 1,153 letters from the public with comments regarding the well drilling project.
For the Khanty, oil extraction means wrecking the environment: heavy vehicles destroying land, which is long and difficult to recover in the Arctic, probable oil spills poisoning water and plants with no place left for reindeer feeding or wild herb gathering. Many realize it, but few dare to oppose.
After the “secret” hearings, some aborigines wrote a letter to the District Administration and Prosecutor’s Office asserting that the hearings were unlawful and requesting to repeal the results and hold new hearings in Numto. They also requested to disregard the opinion of Vypla and Pyak families who “decide for the aborigines” in the matters related to the Park oil development. Such requests not met, the requesters promised to apply to President Putin and “federal services”. They explained the anonymity by a risk of retaliation from the Administration.
The Prosecutor’s Office told 7х7 that they had initiated a checkup based on the request and outcomes are expected in a month’s time.
Greenpeace Russia closely monitored the situation with the Park, however could not attend the hearings. On February 11, Greenpeace forwarded to the Beloyarsk District Administration and Surgutneftegas its opinion regarding the prospecting wells in Vatlorskoye license block describing why the hearings were unlawful and should be recognised invalid.
According to environmental experts, environmental impact assessment reports have not been published in the Internet meaning that stakeholders, including Greenpeace, had no chance to read them, having no delegates in Yugra. The subsoil user deemed Greenpeace’s comments unreasonable noting that all the materials were made available on the website of local government bodies of the Beloyarsky District and the Ecology section of Surgutneftegas’s website (Information to the public). Greenpeace representatives assert that the project documentation appeared on Surgutneftegas’s website just recently, while the notice of public hearings coded 14487, on the contrary, has disappeared.
Aleksey Artemenko, Surgutneftegas spokesman, told 7х7 that currently cooperation with Numto people is going smoothly: everyone is content and the company is always open for a dialogue in case of any problems. Mr. Artemenko repeated every word said to 7х7 reporter by the District Administration officials: the company provides the Khanty with fuel and timber, builds new houses every year, solves cell phone communication problems and builds churches.
The company’s spokesman believes that the situation around Numto is purposely escalated by someone who pursues his own interest. However, he refused to go into detail.
“Those who wanted to come found time to come and review the documents. It’s not a problem to get to Beloyarsk, the helicopter comes every week. The information was also provided through Vasily Pyak (assistant to Yugra’s Deputy Ombudsman and state inspector at Numto Natural Park). “By the way, we have provided Internet in his camp”, Surgutneftegas representative commented on the hearings. He underlined that the helicopter picked up all those wishing to attend.
Mr. Artemenko couldn’t explain why Pyak is the only one to have Internet in his camp. Answering the question why Pyak used to be strongly against Numto Park development but now he actively cooperates with the oilmen, he said:
“He must have realised that we are not destructive but do our work with care. We do not harm the environment or the way of life, on the contrary, we seek to bring conveniences and civilization.”
“What if a terrorist attack?”
I had leaned about tight security rules on the oilfield road that runs to Numto through telephone enquiries and direct enquiries to the oil company and District Administration.
Numto Natural Park has motor roads built and owned by Surgutneftegas. They are not public roads but connect production facilities located in the Park with the Surgutsky District. This is what the formal reply to the editors office’s enquiry says. The company referred to federal laws on industrial safety of hazardous production facilities, safety assurance at fuel and power sector facilities, transportation safety and counter-terrorism. Under such laws, Surgutneftegas shall assure industrial safety and protect fuel and power sector facilities and transport infrastructures from terrorists. Therefore, the company feels “entitled to limit access of unauthorised persons to the fuel and power sector facilities located at Surgutneftegas’s licence blocks”.
In reply to the question about checkpoints on the oilfield roads the response letter says that so was requested by the aborigines and executive authorities of Yugra and Beloyarsk District to limit the access to the Park for unauthorised persons, who are not Numto residents or involved in oil extraction or the Natural Park employees.
Aleksandr Voytekhovich, Deputy Head of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Indigenous Peoples Affairs at the Beloyarsky District Administration, underlines that Numto is an area that is not to be disturbed on each and every occasion: “The area is a home for thousands of bird species, many of them in the Red Book”. In reply to a question about the tight security rules he answered:
“The subsoil user has built the road for itself. Who knows what’s on a newcomer’s mind? You have to obtain a permit from Surgutneftegas or the Beloyarsky District Administration. The first rule is: dry law, no alcohol permitted. To treat the aborigines, you may bring sweetened condensed milk or cookies, they love it. Yes, you have to apply for a permit. It’s a matter of a couple of days after you file a request. Otherwise, they won’t let you in. Or contact Natalya Vypla, she will call Surgutneftegas to inform she is expecting guests. But no alcohol anyway.”
I ask again, why such close surveillance over the road and village.
“Well, we’ve had some bad experience. Visitors are not always adequate: hunting on pastures without a permit or using a private helicopter during the fawning period. That’s why Surgutneftegas protects the indigenous people,” explains Voytekhovich. “Another problem is collectors of nonferrous scrap metal. We had a jack pump operating. Bad guys came, saw no guards, cut and stole the cable. And what if a terrorist attack? People differ. Besides, as you know, Surgutneftegas is opposed by Greenpeace … They may think: “Let’s arrange a spill and make a show of it”. Very unpleasant people. The oil producer pays taxes to the budget, invests in road construction. It’s their ownership, but Numto residents are free to come and go.”
“Applying unlawful limitations to Russian citizens making up excuses about counter-espionage is right in the spirit of the times. If fact, unpleasant people are those who save money on repair of rusty pipelines resulting every year in thousands of spills in Russia poisoning soil, rivers, lakes and all nature around,” believes Konstantin Fomin, Greenpeace media coordinator.
The oil company does not share the opinion that the village is inaccessible without a permit and pointes out to the scheduled Beloyarsky-Numto helicopter service.
But, as practice shows, helicopter is not a guarantee.
Two years ago, Andrea Remsmeyer, a German journalist, tried to visit Numto. She wanted to write a story about the opposition between Ob Ugrians and the oil company. Despite Numto people’s help, she was denied access, both by car or helicopter.
“I came such a long way to the tundra to be refused by Surgutneftegas security service. I was absolutely discouraged,” Andrea told 7х7.
The company commented on the situation with the foreign journalist: Andrea Remsmeyer never applied to Surgutneftegas for a pass to Numto Natural Park, therefore, her pass was not discussed.
“I fully agree that the checkpoints limit the access of technogenetic population to the areas which today are the habitat of indigenous people. I mean both the Khanty and the Nenets. When checkpoints appeared, nature recovery started everywhere: in the Surgutsky, Nizhnevartovsky and Beloyarsky Districts. This is the situation to date. Surgutneftegas allegedly controls the Park attendance, but in fact, the Park is visited by middle-rank officials, company employees. It can be an accountant or a doctor from the town hospital. The checkpoint has a list of cars which are allowed to enter. They fish, hunt, gather berries and mushrooms without a permission of the land owners. But they are quite few. And Surgutneftegas specifically sees that their misconduct is not exposed to the public. If a local resident does not report on a visitor, especially if it’s mass media or an environmental protection organization or an independent public organization, such visitor will be closely watched, even pursued. It happened a number of times. When representatives of an independent public organization came, two or three cars followed them everywhere and controlled their every move. Most of all they dislike independent reporters. While our reporters, both in the district and the Area, are all corrupt. They may lose their jobs for any unwanted news. Rules are strict.”
Losers weepers, finders keepers
After the Natural Park was founded in 1996, Surgutneftegas was only permitted to explore.
“Oil extraction was out of the question then!” explains Tatiana Merkushina, former Head of the Division of Specially Protected Natural Areas at Yugra’s Department of the Environment. “At that time, we just wanted to know the reserves of Numto and give it a status of an area of strategic importance, i.e. with oil extraction only permitted in exclusive cases.
Starting from 1995, Mrs Merkushina worked in the regional Department of the Environment, and later in the Department of Subsoil Use and Natural Resources. She is aware about the way Surgutneftegas has arranged for oil production in Numto Natural Park, which had earlier had a status of a wildlife preserve where any business operations, the more so industrial operations, are prohibited.
After the exploration drilling discovered a hydrocarbon deposit, in 2004 Surgutneftegas sucessed in obtaining an oil production license by stating that the license block does not include any specially protected areas, and started development of the Vatlorskoye field.
In 2007–2010, Surgutneftegas repeatedly spoke about it plans for field development and oil production in the wetlands recommended to be made part of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands nearby Lake Numto. However, Aleksandr Filippenko, Yugra’s ex-Governor, wouldn’t agree to rezoning.
According to Tatiana Merkushina, after Natalya Komarova was elected Governor of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, the situation around the Natural Park started changing little by little. In 2014, scientists were engaged in the rezoning matter, with Surgutneftegas financing the surveys authorized by Governor Natalya Komarova.
“I have worked in the Area’s government bodies for 23 years, but haven’t seen such an outrageous abuse and violation of rules of law by top government officials as during these five years!” says Mrs Merkushina. “It looks like the Area is now managed by the oil company who dictates to authorities and tells mass media the what news to cover.” The ex-Head of the Department of the Environment says that in 2016 Numto residents were pressed to consent to field development in the wetlands and do not speak against it at public hearings: they threatened to stop giving Burans, gasoline and social care currently provided under the agreement with Beloyarsky District Administration.
Greenpeace Russia collected over 36,000 signatures of scientists, environmental experts and aborigines against oil extraction in Numto and rezoning. They were supported by the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and employees of Numto Natural Park. 59 Numto residents (half of the village) sent a written request to the Governor the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area. However, despite the protests, on October 14, 2016 Russian Ministry of Natural Resources approved rezoning and permitted oil production in the Park, and on October 28 regional government approved new zoning by a resolution of Natalya Komarova. In 2017, Greenpeace Russia reported on the Park situation at a UN meeting.
“The public and employees of the Division of Specially Protected Natural Areas at the Department of Natural Resources and Non-Primary Economic Sector of the Area applied to Yugra’s Governor and also filed two requests with the General Prosecutor’s Office (in December 2016 and March and November 2017). The General Prosecutor’s Office, however, failed to take any effort and passed the matter back to the Area. The point is that the Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Area cannot accuse itself and admit its disregard for the rules of law. Because it’s nonsense. Who will want to go against itself?” Mrs. Merkushina says.
She added that. she was fired in 2017. Another victim is Sergey Lavrentyev, now-former Director of Natural Park Numto. He also objected to rezoning and was fired.
Mrs Merkushina is now a pensioner and lives in Khanty-Mansiysk. The believes that preventing Natural Park Numto from capturing needs involvement of federal media and a a wider public, so that the Prosecutor’s Office can no longer ignore the Numto issue.
“The oil company may destroy the Park’s wetlands, relict cedar woodlands and unique forests!” 7х7‘s interlocutor worries. “We live for the day and do not work for the future. For example, in five, six or ten years, clean water may become the priority, nobody will need oil. Does anyone need coal today? No one! Same will happen to oil, new energy sources will be available!”According to Mikhail Kreyndlin, the leader of the specially protected natural areas project at Grenpeace Russia, although formally oil production is permitted in the Park nothing has changed: the area is still a wildlife preserve, and the location of the three wells approved in January is not a place of high concentration of endangered birds, but the whole area is their habitat.
“Article 24 of the Federal Law on Wildlife expressly prohibits activities which may – may! – cause death, reduction or disturbance of natural habitats of species listed in the Red Book. It’s not only the matter of wells but also roads, the whole infrastructure. It is sure to disturb the habitat of birds: sea eagle, waterfowl, even the Siberian white crane. The area is also a moose and reindeer migration path,” stresses Mikhail Kreyndlin.
The expert points out to another critical aspect: pursuant to the law, forests located in protected areas, including natural parks, are protection forests where mineral extraction companies are prohibited from construction of infrastructure facilities.
“There are certain court decisions saying that no extraction is or will be permitted in such forests, as well as in other natural parks of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area (for example, Kondinskie Lakes, now classified as protection forests). This is another disregarded rule of law,” sums up Mikhail Kreyndlin.
These facts are all contained in the Greenpeace opinion. If well construction nearby Numto is approved, environmental experts will go to court.
“The Khanty will have their say!”
Natalya Strebkova, Ombudsperson in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, is positive that Numto is a totally open area. So she concluded after attending a local meeting two years ago.
“When the rezoning fuss started, I flew there to see for myself whether the aborigines are being pressed, free to speak and act, and what questions they have. I saw them asking Surgutneftegas representatives knockout questions on various topics. They are not afraid of anyone. I then suggested electing public assistants to inform me of any potential problems. So they did. My assistants are Pavel Moldanov and Vasily Pyak. They live and work in the village, and contact me when needed. If I get news I contact them and ask for details. I haven’t received any complaints from Numto lately. The latest meeting attended by the company representatives was held on the Reindeer Herder’s Day. They heard a report by Sergey Manenkov, Head of District Administration, who left soon thereafter, while Surgutneftegas representatives stayed in Numto and led the festival. No drilling issues were raised or discussed. I contacted my Numto assistants and learned every detail from then”, Mrs Strebkova said.
The Ombudsperson does not believe derricks can impact the conservation area. She refers to the research results presented at the meeting two years ago. As to the Beloyarsky hearings attended by four Numto families, Natalya Strebkova noted:
“It’s awkward to me since hearings are usually held in Numto village and attended by Surgutneftegas, the District Administration and, of course, the Department of Subsoil Use… Let me check about the hearings and inform you later.”
Surgutneftegas PR refused to comment on when the drilling starts and finishes and what phase the project is in. They informed, however, that well construction will not harm the sacred sites of indigenous people, and the facilities locations have been approved by the elders of seven Kazym Khanty and Forest Nenets families.
After my coming back home, we spoke to Numto people on several occasions. As they told us, they had been contacted by Beloyarsky Department of Internal Affairs, and some families were visited by Aleksandr Gibert, Surgutneftegas security officer. They all enquired about the stranger who came for the Reindeer Herder’s Day unnoticed, by-passing the checkpoints.
Some little time ago, the country saw actions in support of Baikal Lake. Baikal is a huge and world-famous lake. Compared to it, Numto is a small village in a far away corner of tundra, in the heart of a nature reserve few people have ever heard about. Nobody hears the voices of common and trustful forest people. They cannot fight the system. They live in their own world with daily routines such as reindeer herding fishing, gathering, and sewing malicas.
Original publication at Semnasem.ru