Baku, February 11 – Moscow’s plans to build an enormous hydroelectric dam on the Lower Tunguska River in Krasnoyarsk kray will flood the lands on which the Evenk nationality has traditionally hunted and fished and thus put at risk the survival of that 35,000-strong community.
But instead of accepting that fate, the Evenks have mobilized support first among their fellow numerically small peoples of the North, then from Russian environmental protection groups, and now by international organizations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) (http://www.iamik.ru/?op=full&what=content&ident=39444).
And last week, these groups assembled in Moscow at the office of the European Commission to denounce what one of their number, Svyatoslav Zabelin of the Russian Social-Ecological Union, called a “return” to the period of Soviet “gigantist” projects that destroyed so much of the land and so many of the people living on it.
Yevgeniy Shvarts, the director of the WWF’s environmental protection effort, echoed Zabelin’s concerns. “We do not understand how it is possible to launch such projects if there are alternatives” that would be less expensive and do less harm to the environment of the region and the people who live there.
Also adding his voice to this effort was Aleksei Zimenko, the head of the Center for the Protection of Wildlife. He said that “at a time when the world community is honoring [those] who are calling attention to climate change, the money of Russian taxpayers is being spent in such a dangerous and absolutely irresponsible way.”
And speaking for the Evenks and other ethnic communities in the region, Pavel Sulandziga, the first vice president of the Association of the Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, was even more scathing.
Sulandziga suggested that if the authorities go ahead with their plans to build this giant hydroelectric dam as he suggested they seem inclined to do, then that will be further “evidence of the slide of the country toward an administrative-government monopoly with elements of ethnocide and ecocide.”
This press conference, which organizers said was directed at Russia’s presidential candidates, follows their January 24th appeal to the RF Security Council in which they argued that what some may involves only the fate of a small people far away about which many Russians know little is in fact one affects the entire country.
According to Gazeta on February 7th, Russian officials are now working hard to put out the message that Moscow can go ahead with this project because it has already come up with ways to “compensate” the Evenks and any other peoples whose way of life might be affected (http://www.gzt.ru/society/2008/02/06/220011.html).
Aleksandr Zhuravskiy, the director of the international relations department of the Russian Federation’s Ministry for Regional Development, noted that “in Russia now live 160 people with fewer than 50,000 people” and that these groups are being affected by the exploitation of natural resources on their traditional homelands.
“But,” Zhuravskiy continued, that should not block such projects which promise to bring needed energy to all the residents of the Russian Federation because Moscow officials “are already working up a method for calculating and paying compensation to the indigenous residents for the use of their land.”
The Evenks and their backers, however, believe that Moscow’s approach misses the point. Galina Volkova, vice governor of Khabarovsk kray, noted that “it is extremely complicated to preserve the integrity of a people” when its members lose their traditional habitat, just as when they “do not receive literature in their national languages.”
It is far from clear whether this project will go forward and become a death knell for the Evenks or whether, like the resistance to plans for Siberian river diversion in the 1970s and early 1980s, this latest gigantist plan will be derailed by those who see it as the same kind of threat Valentin Rasputin described so famously