Indigenous people depend on nature

According to Russian practice, indigenous peoples of the north, Siberia and the far east of the Russian Federation are addressed in administrative and juridical contexts. Indigenous peoples’ own organisations follow this pattern. In the Russian north, 260,000 indigenous people form 0.5% of the entire Russian population, belonging to 40 federally recognised ethnic groups, a percentage which is increasing due to emigration of nonindigenous people. Rural areas have more indigenous people than they have people of other origins; and in many scarcely populated areas of the Arctic they form the majority. BY Winfried K. Dallmann

Most of the indigenous peoples live in small villages close to their subsistence areas where (in addition to more modern occupations) they pursue traditional subsistence activities like reindeer-herding, hunting, fishing and gathering. But they face severe problems. Since the colonisation of the North, large expanses have been converted into areas for alien settlement, transportation routes, industry, forestry, mining and oil production, and have been devastated by pollution, irresponsible managed oil and mineral prospecting, and military activity.

As in other parts of the world such as Russia, indigenous peoples have strong ties to their environment. Spirituality and subsistence keep them closely attached to nature: their cultural identity is directly dependent on intact ecosystems within their areas. This explains the great difficulties many indigenous peoples have in adopting modern ways of life, and the social disaster that resulted from the state’s attempt to settle nomads, reverse social structures, reorganise subsistence into commercial economies, etc.

The recent socio-economic crises in Russia with the transition to a market economy have led to a breakdown of most of the supply and transportation system in remote areas. Their inhabitants were first incorporated into the alien Soviet economic system, then made dependent on modern infrastructure and product distribution; now they have been left without supplies, medical care or the economic means and legal expertise to deal with this situation. Many would like to return to the old ways of life but this is now difficult because their natural environment, culture and traditions has been degraded or destroyed.

The indigenous people of Russia have since 1990 organised themselves in the Russian Asso-cia-tion of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia and the Far East, RAIPON. Its main concerns are environment, health, legal issues and economy, but it lacks the financial means to succeed. In most areas, there is a shortage of even basic things like food, equipment and firewood. So the need for continuous support from outside is crucial.

Winfried K. Dallmann
Norwegian Polar Institute

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