Andrew Wiget and Olga Balalaeva

Since 1992, supported by the MacArthur Foundation, we have been working together in Western Siberia, documenting the Eastern Khanty traditional way of life and assessing the impact of petroleum development upon it. We have made extensive fieldwork visits among the Khanty of the Yugan every year since then.  It very quickly became clear that some urgent steps needed to to be taken.

As early as 1993, we thought that linking the Yugan Zapovednik with UNESCO's Biosphere Reserve Program  could provide the basis for a strategy for protecting the Khanty culture and the environment on which it depended.  In May 1996, at an international seminar at the University of Northern British Columbia, the creation of a Biosphere Reserve on the Yugan was formally proposed to GOSKOMSEVER, the Russian State Committee for the North, which sponsored the seminar and which has overall responsibility for developing and coordinating programs for the Russian North and Russia's indigenous peoples. The proposal was accepted. 

In July of 1996, an official of GOSKOMSEVER, Deputy Minister Anatoly I. Volgin,  visited Khanty-Mansiysk, Surgut and Ugut, where he discussed the proposed biosphere reserve and received verbal assurances of agreement from the head administrator of Khanty-Mansiiskii Autonomous Okrug,  A. V. Filipenko, whose only condition was that existing licensed territories be excluded from the proposed Biosphere Reserve.  To facilitate planning, Filipenko authorized the Surgut administration to provide a map of existing and projected license areas in the Yugan basin. 

From raion and village adminstrators, as well as from the zapovednik staff and the Khanty community in Ugut, the GOSKOMSEVER official also received assurances of support. After a site visit to the Yugan by a representative of GOSKOMSEVER found local support for the concept,  we spent many days traveling by boat on the Boshoi and Malyi Yugan Rivers, stopping at each family settlement to explain the nature of the Biosphere Reserve concept and collect signatures to establish one in the Yugan region.  Every adult in every family we approached signed eagerly.  Working with local government authorities, leaders in the Khanty community, and Khanty families, we defined reasonable boundaries for the various areas in the proposed biosphere reserve.    During the course of the past year, both GOSKOMSEVER and Russia's UNESCO- Man And The Biosphere Committee have recommended establishing the Yuganksii Khanty Biosphere Reserve.


The Eastern Khanty, an indigenous tribal people who number around 5,000, survive on territory that has been their home for thousands of years before the Russians came.  The Eastern Khanty are subsistence hunters and fishermen, sometimes reindeer herders, who still maintain their clan system, their native religion and language, and  their traditional way of life in widely separated extended family settlements on traditional hunting territories, often 1-4 days  by boat from telephones and electricity. Their culture was born in and is specifically adapted to the forest-and-swamp ecosystem of the middle taiga. 

Now, after millenia, their land, and with it their culture,  is threatened with destruction In the late 1960s oil was discovered in the basin of the  middle Ob' River, and the Soviet government and state oil monopoly began a virtually unregulated oil rush.  By the early 1980's Samotlor, the name of the region's first major area of petroleum development near Nizhnevartovsk, had already become a mark of shame. Today throughout the area, oil spills and casual pollution blacken the wetlands, raised roads trap water causing flooding and ruining the forests, fires caused by oilworker carelessness and petroleum soaked debris send columns of smokeinto the air, acid rain blights huge territories.  Western Siberia, like the America's Appalachian coal fields at the beginning of this century, has become a national sacrifice area, and joined other Siberian regions that surrendered their life for the wealth of the state. 

By the late 1980s all but a few areas (Kazym River, Yugan) had been seized for production by the Ministry of Energy and the government oil monopoly, and the region virtually supported a collapsing Soviet economy by  providing a cheap domestic petroleum supply and  petrodollars generated from export.   This period was marked by the forcible relocation of Khanty families from their traditional family hunting territories or the destruction of the natural resources of occupied family territories which eventually forced the families to voluntarily relocate. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union, however it may be regarded elsewhere, has only aggravated the destructive forces with a new spirit of freebooting, frontier capitalism Moscow cannot or will not constrain. 

The result is that after 3,000 years of occupancy, there are today virtually no traditional Khanty family settlements on Vakh, Agan, Salym and Vas-Yugan Rivers though these were all well-populated areas, rich in terms of traditional economy, twenty years ago.  Other river systems like Pim and Trom-Agan are heavily impacted and the Khanty marginalized.   Only the Khanty families on the Bolshoi and Malyi Yugan Rivers, about 850 people in more than 40 scattered extended family settlements, have been minimally impacted.  Today they are surrounded and petroleum development now threatens to engulf the Yugan, the last pristine territory of native living in the region.


The basin of the Bolshoi and Malyi Yugan Rivers represents the last, large contiguous and virtually unimpacted tract of middle Siberian taiga (river, swamp and forest) and its associated fauna.These include more than 200 types of birds, seven of which are on Russia's Endangered Species List (Red Book). Moose, wolverine, bear, badger, lynx, sable, mink, fox, reindeer, populate the forests and the rivers remain rich in otter and muskrat as well as perch, pike, crucian and other types of fish.

The very richness of the area and its relative isolation prompted the Soviet government to create the Yuganskii nature preserve in 1982.   Three other major river basins (Pim, Trom-Agan and Agan) have already been lost, with fishing almost ruined and furbearers driven away,  and Khanty culture significantly impacted by environmental destrcution and, in earlier periods, forcible relocation. While the upper Lamin is still uncontaminated, there is no zapovednik or protected land regime in that area and it is scheduled to be developed; its future is therefore clear.

Today the Bolshoi and Malyi Yugan Rivers represent the last of the middle Ob' River's tributaries in the Surgut region which remains protectable and uncontaminated by petroleum development.  But now previously defined territories in the Yugan basin are being scheduled for tender.  Many of these projected licenses straddle headwaters areas of both the B. and M. Yugan Rivers, promising downstream damage that would magnify the impact of development much beyond the licensed territory.  One existing license, it has been discovered, even intrudes on the nature preserve itself, a fact that was unknown even to the nature preserve staff.  Thus, although the Yugan  remains the last preservable area of representative ecology and zone of compact Eastern Khanty traditional living in a region marked by an extraordinary degree of social and environmental damage, IF THE TERRITORIES SCHEDULED FOR TENDER (AS INDICATED BELOW) ARE LICENSED, THE YUGAN RIVER BASIN ECOSYSTEM AND THE CULTURE OF THE  PEOPLE DEPENDENT ON IT WILL CERTAINLY BE IRREPARABLY DAMAGED, PERHAPS EVEN  DESTROYED.


The proposed Yuganskii Khanty Biosphere Reserve would combine the land base of the Yuganskii Zapovednik with the land base more than 40 Khanty traditional family hunting territories along the Bolshoi and Malyi Yugan Rivers, which embrace the Zapovednik on east and the west like two arms. The total area under protection would be more than three times the size of the zapovednik itself. 

The main features of land use plan will be (1) the preservation of Yuganskii Zapovednik as a large sample of middle taiga zone ecosystem for scientific study in Core Area and 2 km Buffer Zone 1; (2) preservation and development of traditional Khanty economy of hunting, fishing, and gathering in Buffer Zone 2 (family hunting territories); and (3) limited, ecologically-sound petroleum exploration in existing license areas in the Transition Zone. The land use plan also provides for local self-government for the Khanty community. The administration of the zapovednik will administer the Core Area and Buffer Zone 1.  Khanty community as organ of local self-government will administer Buffer Zone 2. A formal co-management agreement will be signed between the Khanty community,  and the administration of the Yuganskii Zapovednik,  describing conditions of access to and use of various zones in the biosphere reserve; conservation, development and logistic priorities; and procedures for further local policy development and for conflict resolution.  This letter will be countersigned by representatives of the supervising central government agencies.  Aprroval for this zapovednik has already been given by GOSKOMSEVER and Russia's UNESCO- Man And The Biosphere Committee during the past year.  



1992.  On 5  February 1992, despite resistance from delegates representing oil interests, the Council of People's Deputies of Khanty-Mansiiskii Autonomous Okrug (KMAO) issued "Polozhenie o statuse rodovyx ugodii v Xanty-Mansiiskom avtonomnom okryge" [Regulation concerning the status of kinship communities in KMAO], which was followed by  "O mexanisme vnedreniya Polozheniya o statuse  rodovyx ugodii v Xanty-Mansiiskom avtonomnom okryge" [Concerning the Mechanism for Applying the Regulation concerning the status of kinship communities in KMAO], a Decree issued by the Head of the Administration of KMAO on 27 February 1992 (Status Malochislennyx Narodov Rossii: Pravovye Akty I Dokumenty, [The Status of the Minority Peoples of Russia: Legal Acts and Documents]  Moscow: "Legal Literature", 1994: 310-321).  Two forms of national community were authorized: (1) community and corporation, that could organize and invest, and (2) community that organizes its own work.  

The law permitted a portion of all contracts negotiated to be preserved centrally for community-wide needs.  Roughly concurrent with this debate in the okrug was the development of a federal law establishing local self-governments alongside the soviets. The passage of these laws set in motion a legal process of formally defining the boundaries of family hunting territories  (rodovye ugodya) and issuing governmental acts certifying that the use rights on these territories belonged to the families living on them. 

This process was begun quickly enough because, according to Art. 21 of the aforementioned "Regulations",  the oil companies seeking access to the subsurface resources in these territories were required to obtained signed releases from the Khanty families before exploration or production work could begin: Acquiring of parcel of land on the territory of kinship lands [for industrial purposes] can be carried out ...only with the consent of the owner of the kinship land, and also native residents whose interests are involved in this taking. 

In order to get the consent of native people for this acquisition, a referendum of these native people is carried out, and the results of this is the basis for the administration to make its decision. Decisions about taking a parcel of land on the the territory of kinship lands is made by the okrug administration, in conjunction with the regional administration, after getting written consent for this taking from the landowner and  positive results from the referendum of the native people and state environmental approval. (Status, 319)

Art. 22 of the same legislation required a clear economic agreement, approved by the appropriate administrative authority,  between the owner of the land and the company developing the land, specifying (1) the terms and conditions of development, and providing (2) full compensation for all losses in connection with development, (3) an agreed-upon share of the profits from the development of this land, as well as (4) a lease payment for the use of the land (Status, 319). 

Two months later, President Yeltsin issued the Ukaz "Concerning Urgent Measures for Protecting Places of Living and Economic Activity of the Native Minority Peoples of the North." (Status, 199), also requiring territorial definition and consent before taking. This decree had five main points: 1) the ministers of the republics are directed to, a) define the territories of traditional land use that are part of their national heritage and which cannot be alienated without their consent for industrial or other development which is not connected to traditional economy; b) to transfer  without cost to kinship communities and families belonging to the native minorities of the north those lands associated with traditional economy for a lifelong, inheritable ownership or leasing; c) to give priority rights to make agreements and receive licenses for the use of renewable natural resources to kinship communities and families belonging to the native minorities of the north; d) to define traditional territories in order to effect there sustainable resource development; and 2) to the government of the Russian Federation, to work out a regulatory system for the use of lands and resources on the traditional territories of the peoples of the North only with the approval of environmental expertise. ( Status:199)

Late 1993.   An economic agreement was drawn up between "Maiskneft", working in Ugut, and 15 families in Kinyamino village.  It was signed first by the Ugut administrator, which is illegal, and 45 copies were distributed to families, who were convinced by the adminstrator's signature, that the agreement was a fait accompli.  Nevertheless, no one signed, and the copies were returned to the village administrator.   Only then did a legal process follow where people signed first,  then there were administrative signatures.  In exchange for exploration and drilling rights, Kinyamino families were promised as compensation: (1) new winter and summer houses, (2) buran, motor, and two tons of gas/year, (3) 100,000 rubles/person/quarter, (4)new clothes, (5) paid university education, (6) radio-telephone and electricity, (7) access to low-price company grocery store.  All they got were burans, then they begged for rubles, clothes. They drank all their money, and never went to the forest that winter.

1993-94.   The 1992 law on kinship communities provided that only communities holding governmental acts on the land could join together into larger communities. On the Yugan, however,  acts were only issued to eleven small communities (extended families), much less than the number of territories mapped and family-communities  identified.  That would soon become a moot point.  Surgut Region administration quickly ceased to issue new acts on the land for the remaining families, and in 1994 an administrative decree from the KMAO head, Filipenko, unilaterally voided those acts already issued. Shortly thereafter that KMAO "cancelled" all acts on native lands, claiming that Moscow had said the the laws were not in the correct form.   The okrug administration, headed by A. Filipenko,  also required re-registration of national communities.   Filipenko promised to form commission to review the law on national comuntiies, but the commission was never formed.

June 1994.   The concept of applying for Biosphere Reserve status to link the territory of Khanty traditional living with the Yuganskii Zapovednik is first discussed among leaders of the Yuganskii Khanty people and the Khanty community "Yagun Yakh."

1995  On  March 6, 1995, head of Surgut Regional Administration, Sarychev, based on Filipenko's decision, issued a  decree   ("O statuse rodovyx ugodii v Khanty-Mansiiskom avtonomnom okruge", Document No. 21) asserting, in contradiction to general state law on native land, that Khanty people who have houses in villages shouldn't have a family hunting territory.  People do live in village, but hunt, fish, and otherwise support themselves with their hunting territories.Those Khanty who had been forcibly relocated or who had voluntarily removed to villages at an earlier time were thus summarily declared to have no right to use lands on which they still hunted and fished in order to feed their families.  The decree caused such a wave of protest that the administration delayed its implementation.   The fate of the decree is unclear: on the one hand, it has not been cancelled; on the other, it has not been enforced.  In summer 1995, Yugan Khanty community leaders approve going ahead with the process of trying to establish a Biosphere Reserve as a way to protect their land.

JULY 1996.  An official of GOSKOMSEVER, Deputy Minister Anatoly I. Volgin, visits Khanty-Mansiysk, Surgut and Ugut, where discusses the proposal of the biosphere reserve and receives verbal assurances of agreement from the head okrug administrator (Filipenko), whose only condition is that existing licensed territories be excluded from the proposed Biosphere Reserve.  To facilitate planning, the okrug administrator orders the Surgut administration to provide a map of existing and projected license areas in the Yugan basin.  From raion and village adminstrators, as well as from the zapovednik staff and the Khanty community in Ugut, the GOSKOMSEVER official also receives assurances of support.  An ethnographic team (us) commissioned by GOSKOMSEVER travels throughout the region collecting signatures from Khanty families who want to establish Biospher Reserve.  Not one is opposed, even among those in Kinyamino who had signed the earlier "Maiskneft" agreement.  They have only two questions: Can we keep out oil companies? Can we still hunt and fish in the traditional way?  The ethnographic team is also charged with drawing up reasonable boundaries that would exclude existing license areas. 

LATE JULY 1996.  The Khanty and the zapovednik staff, working with the ethnographic team, are shocked to discover from the map provided  both the number and size of licenses.  Many of the parcels were apparently licensed without the consent or even knowledge of local Khanty families whose lives they will ruin or the Khanty leaders of the "Yagun Yakh" community.  This is certaily true of the "Ledyanoe" parcel, which was tendered without the knowledge or approval of Kaimysovy family,  and the "Chietinskoye" parcel, which was apparently licensed based on the signature of the extended families that lives on the territory but not the others.  A part of one license territory apparently extends inside the southeastern boundary of the zapovednik.

DECEMBER 1996.  The "Unt'neiskaya Kulunskaya" parcel on lower Bolshoi Yugan is scheduled for tender.

MARCH  1997.  As the attached letter from Karasyov, Deputy Head of KMAO for Resources top the Surgut Region Adminstrator, Sarychev, indicates, the administration of Khanty-Mansiiskii Autonomous Okrug was again preparing to tender parcels of  land for oil development in the basins of both the Malyi Yugan River [ "Achimovskoye", "Yuzhno-Kinyaminskii] and Bolshoi Yugan River ["Ai-Kuruskii"], land historically and currently occupied by Khanty families and officially identified early in the 1990s as family hunting territories, without the knowledge or consent of the Khanty families involved or the consent of the Yaoun Yakh community.

Administration, Khanty-Mansiiskii Autonomous Okrug Tyumen' Oblast 626200 Khanty Mansiisk Prospekt Mira 5 FAX: 3-26-83, 3-34-60  Telephone: 3-20-95 Initial Number   23; 13 March 1997

Dear Alexander Victorvich [Sarychev]:

The Administration of Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug asks to deliver in the nearest future the agreement of the administration of the region [Surgut] for entering in the sixth competition and auction in KMAO for the obtaining rights to use the following parcels of underground resources:

Auction: Severo-Kogalimskii, Severo-Yagunskii, Ust'-Kotukhtinskii, Chigorinskii Competition:Ai-Kurskii, Achimovskii, Verxnenadymskii, Vostochno-Sakhalinskii, Zapadno-Kamynskii, Severo-Kamynskii, Severo-Konitlorskii, Srednevatlorskii, Tonchinskii, Yuzhno-Kinyaminskii.

  Copies of maps denoting the borders of the parcels with underground resources located ont he territory of Surgut region, and also their preliminary coordinates suggested at the meeting of thecommission on geological exploratory work for 1996, according to the territorial program (Protocol No. 3 of 17.12.96) are attached.

   Along with this it is also necessary to deliver socioeconomic proposals of the regional adminstration on the enumerated parcels of underground resources for including them into the conditions of the competition and auction.

   On the Severo-Kogalimskii, Severo-Yagunskii, Chigorinskii, Verxnenadymskii, Vostochno-Sakhalinskii, Zapadno-Kamynskii, Severo-Kamynskii, Severo-Konitlorskii, Srednevatlorskii, Yuzhno-Kinyaminskii parcels of  underground resources, within which borders there are rodovye ugod'ya (traditional family hunting territories) agreements must be made with their owners about the conditions of usage of the rodovye ugod'ya and to the economic proposals of the administration and the owners of rodovye ugod'ya in order to include them in the terms of the competition and auction.

Send your response to the following address: 626200 Khanty-Mansiisk, Sutormina Street 20 a, OGUP "Tenderresource" Telephone: 32158, Fax: 36789, 36791

Deputy Head of Administration, Autonomous Okrug, for Usage of Underground Resources               V. I. Karasyov APRIL 1997.  Karasyov's letter prompts an immediate protest from the head of the Yaoun Yakh Khanty community, V. S. Kogonchin:

[Official Seal New York of the Native U. N. Community Center for Protection of Human Rights "Yaoun Yakh"] Julian Burger

8 April 1997 Tel. 277-789

The Native Community "Yaoun Yakh" of Khanty people, Ugut village district, Surgut Region, Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug,  refuses consent to deliver for the sixth competition and auction in Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug for obtaining the rights to use underground resources of the following parcels:

Competition: Ai-Kuruskii, Achimovskii, Yuzhno-Kinyaminskii Taking into consideration the current practice in Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug that deposits are being sold without the consent of native people, we ask you to support us in protecting our rights to use the lands of  rodovye ugod'ya (traditional family hunting territories) and the right to pursue traditional kinds of activities.

Chairman, Native Community, "Yaoun Yakh"

V. S. Kogonchin

It thus appears that, in direct violation of Russian Federal law and international protocols, 

1) Parcels of land generally have been tendered for oil production, depriving the Khanty people, who survive by subsistence hunting and fishing as well as the sale of furs harvested ontheir territories, of the only means of supporting their families, and without the knowledge and consent of the Khanty landholders, in apparent violation of the law, without the knowledge and consent of those native people interested including the community "Yagun Yakh," in apparent violation of the law;

2) the "Tailakohovskoye" license includes a portion of the terrotry of the Yugan Zapovednik, in apparent violation of the law;

3) the process for securing the 1993 Maiskneft agreement, though ultimately corrected as a result of watchdog efforts by local activists, reflected, as initially begun, an attempt to intimidate Kinyamino residents with a fait accompli, again in  apparent violation of the law, concerning the process for securing agreements; and,

4) the recent schedulings for tender of "Achimovskoye" and "Multanovskoye" parcels represent a deliberate strategy to subvert the expressed will of the Yuganskii Khanty to preserve their hunting territories as a Biosphere Reserve,  as was made known to the village, regional and okrug administrations, by selling as much of their land for development as possible without the Khanty's prior knowledge or consent in order to make the proposed Yuganskii Khanty Biosphere Reserve territory so broken up as to be unsuitable for Biosphere Reserve status.

5) the recent schedulings for tender of "Achimovskoye" and "Multanovskoye" parcels were not undertaken according to the procedure defined in the recent environmental law approved by the Duma in December 1995, requiring independent ecological and ethnographic expertise.