Sun, Apr 02, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Indigenous Siberians powerless to halt progress of oil projects

By Maria Antonova AFP, KOGALYM, Russia

Stepan Sopochin stands amid his herd of reindeer outside of Kogalym, in the Siberian Khanty-Mansi region of Russia, on March 8.

Photo: AFP

The Sopochin family has seen oil majors gradually encroach on the land in Siberia where they have herded reindeer for generations, but the latest project has made them draw the line.

“All of our territory sits on top of oil,” said 26-year-old Stepan Sopochin, whose family is indigenous to the Siberian Khanty-Mansi region.

Two companies are keen to expand production nearby, he said.

“We have Lukoil coming up from the south telling us to move north, but in the north, Gazprom Neft is expanding, telling us to go south,” the father of two young children said. “They will squeeze us out.”

He sits in the family’s traditional one-room wooden hut as several dozen reindeer roam outside, digging the snow for lichen, their main source of winter food.

Every April, the family moves their 250-strong herd north to a less wooded area where snow melts quicker, exposing fresh grass for calving females.

However, this year their only spring pasture is busy with construction vehicles and trucks hauling road-building materials and pipes.

The flurry of activity comes as Gazprom Neft — the oil arm of state-owned energy giant Gazprom — is developing a new oil field called Otdelnoye.

Sopochin is not against all oil: Six oil fields already operate on his family’s land and he works as an engineer at one of them, but he said Otdelnoye is going ahead without their consent.

The situation is typical for the Khanty-Mansi region, where oil production is key for the Russian economy, but disrupts the traditional way of life and fragile ecosystems.

Russian law gives minority indigenous groups priority over land to use for traditional purposes, but they cannot sell it and, in practice, they are powerless to stop big oil projects.

Only after Moscow grants them the right to drill do companies approach locals on compensation, whose amount is rarely independently assessed, experts and locals have said.

“It’s like the train goes first and then they lay the tracks,” said lawyer Natalia Proskuryakova, who advises the Sopochins and other indigenous families in the region.

Contacted by reporters, Gazprom Neft said it had accommodated the Sopochins by “significantly changing the infrastructure plan” at the site.

The company said it had gone through all necessary steps to start development.

Iosif Sopochin — Stepan Sopochin’s 58-year-old father and head of the family — said he did not believe he was being unreasonable.

“We understand we must help the government, but we’re against this field, because we have nowhere left to live,” Iosif Sopochin said.

“There will be oil spills and our reindeer will stray onto production areas and roads,” he said. “There will be poachers, fishing, hunting and killing of deer.”

Twice he has declined to sign a compensation contract — required before development can start — but road construction began anyway, he said.

He called the oil company’s current offer — 35 million rubles (US$622,136) shared between his family and five others to be paid out over 24 years — a “handout” that he would be ashamed to accept.

In a symbolic protest, the Sopochins in February erected a traditional rawhide tent at the site, only to be called in by police to explain why they were impeding development.

“You might think I’m crazy, but when I last left the pasture, I hugged the trees,” Iosif said. “I said goodbye and told them that I don’t think I can protect them.”

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