In Langscape Magazine Articles

When Home Becomes a Protected Area: The Udege People and the Bikin River Valley in the Russian Far East

September 21, 2021

Aleksandra Bocharnikova

The Sikhote-Alin is a mountain range in Russia’s Pacific Far East. This territory contains one of the largest unmodified temperate forests in the Northern hemisphere. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that its protected areas are “considered to contain the greatest plant and animal diversity on the north-western coastline of the Pacific.”

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 Bikin River

The valley of the basin of the river Bikin, located not far from Krasny Yar. Photo: Aleksandra Bocharnikova

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One of the largest rivers that flow through the Russian Far East is the Bikin. The territory of the Bikin River basin is sometimes referred to as the “Russian Amazon.” This region is well-known, not only for its unique nature but also for its Indigenous Peoples, including the Udege and Nanai, who live in the Central Sikhote-Alin range. The cultural center of the Udege and Nanai is the Indigenous village of Krasny Yar. Many traditional festivals are carried out in Krasny Yar. Other Indigenous villages located in the same district are Olon, Yasenevo, and Sobolinoe.

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Udege

An owl in the Bikin River valley. Photo: Alexei Kudryavtcev

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Udege and Nanai peoples have been pursuing their traditional ways of life in the region for many centuries. They are hunters who also go fishing and gathering. Traditionally, Udege people considered that a tiger and a bear were their ancestors and they maintained a close relationship with the Bikin River. There are many legends about the history of the Udege people, the tiger, and the bear. One of the best-known stories has it that all Udege originated from the bear and that the tiger is their distant relative. In the story, there are two orphans, a girl and a boy. The girl was adopted by the bear, while the boy was adopted by the tiger. The girl married the wolf, and their children became the ancestors of Udege people. The boy married the she-tiger, but they did not have any children.

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Udege

The Udege and the river: People from the village of Krasny Yar and their guests. Photo: Tatyana Bocharnikova, 2004

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Udege

The Indigenous village of Krasny Yar. Photo: Aleksandra Bocharnikova, 2011

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In this part of Russia, there are no oil and gas resources. However, forests not only have cultural value for local people but also have become an object of industrial interest as a source of wood for both industrial companies and government. Logging in this territory has a long history. Industrial logging first took place in the river basin during the 1960s. A road to Krasny Yar was built, and a separate village for workers in the timber industry was erected. The traditional way of life of the Indigenous inhabitants became a source of conflict with people who wanted to cut and sell wood from the taiga forest. Not only members of the Indigenous communities, but also people from neighboring settlements, as well as scientists working in academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations — such as WWF Russia and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Far East and North of Russia (RAIPON) — were involved in this struggle.

Forests not only have cultural value for local people, but also have become an object of industrial interest.

In May 2001, the government adopted the special law On Territories of Traditional Nature Use of the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation, regulating the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous organizations played a very active role in lobbying legislature to adopt the special law, as well as the laws Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation and On Basic Principles of the Organization of Community of Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation, which since then have been pillars of Russia’s legislative framework on Indigenous rights. At the time of its adoption, the special law was seen as a landmark success. According to this law, Indigenous Peoples were allowed to create their own protected areas. However, in practice, they were not able to do so, not only in the Far East but also in other parts of Russia.

Local inhabitants drafted an appeal to the Russian government to protect nature from commercial logging. Indigenous Peoples, government organizations, and ecological movements decided to prepare the documents for the creation of a protected territory. This territory was intended to become a model region, but the federal government did not approve of the proposal. The main obstacle to the formal adoption of the proposal was the failure of the governor of Primorsky Kray (Primorsky province) to endorse it.

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Udege

The new cultural center in Krasny Yar. Photo: Aleksandra Bocharnikova, 2011

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Krasny Yar

House in Krasny Yar. Photo: Aleksandra Bocharnikova

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Timber harvesting is an important source of revenue for the regional government, while the establishment of a protected area would impose strong limitations on industrial exploitation. According to the proposed management plan attached to the nomination documents, the Territory of Traditional Nature Use would be divided into several zones. The regional administration prohibited commercial logging on the land of the proposed reserve. The timber companies appealed this decision, demanding a reduction of the protected area and the transfer of part of it to their concession area. Indigenous Peoples and environmentalists opposed the move, and the administration eventually rejected the appeal.

In 2007, however, the local administration gave logging companies permits to carry out what it referred to as “sanitary logging,” which in practice would amount to full-scale forest harvesting. The most problematic change was that Indigenous Peoples were now prohibited from hunting and fishing in the territory where they have traditionally done so, without first obtaining a special permit from the authorities in the far-away city. The court eventually ruled in their favor and repealed this regulation.

Indigenous Peoples were prohibited from hunting and fishing in the territory where they have traditionally done so.

Udege hunter

The Udege hunter and the boat: Ivan from Krasny Yar going fishing. Photo: Aleksandra Bocharnikova

The revised charter contained another provision that infringed on the interests of Indigenous Peoples. The use of mechanical transport devices in the territory of the reserve was prohibited. However, there are no roads in the reserve, and the only way for people to go to and from their hunting areas is by motorboat in the summer and by snowmobile in the winter. This prohibition thus made it impossible for Indigenous Peoples to maintain their traditional ways of life on the land. The territory of the reserve is very large and located 200 kilometers away from the village. Furthermore, the Indigenous inhabitants of the Udege and Nanai village of Okhotnichiy, situated in the territory of the reserve, were now barred from moving back and forth to and from their own village. Since the village has no functioning public services, this move effectively cut the villagers off from access to health care, food and any public services. When the Indigenous Peoples appealed the regulation in court, the judges demonstrated their utter lack of familiarity with the Udege way of life. “The court was absurd,” said Aleksei Kudryavtcev, a local resident. The judges stated that Udege should travel by horse and reindeer, as their ancestors did, not by motorboat. The judges were obviously unaware that Udege have never engaged in reindeer husbandry. This case became a violation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to adequate food, culture, and subsistence.

Udege

A fine catch of fish. Photo: Alexei Kudryatcev, 2006

In May 2011, one timber company signed a contract, leasing two lots within the territory that included a valued pine nut harvesting zone. This company exported wood to foreign countries. Local people held a meeting to organize a struggle against this development. In June, several hundred people joined a rally against the company in the neighboring village. The participants demanded that Russia’s forestry legislation be amended to prevent commercial logging in the forest reserve and to protect valuable pine nut harvesting zones. All in all, these developments were regarded as a major success, and a headline in the local newspaper read: “The Bikin forests have been successfully defended and their future safeguarded.”

Dramatic developments in this situation occurred shortly thereafter. In 2014, circumstances in the village of Krasny Yar became complex, because local people separated into two camps: one insisted on the establishment of a Territory of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU), a special type of protected area meant to support Indigenous Peoples and their traditional activities, while the other camp agreed with the establishment of the National Park. The federal government explained that it is impossible to create a federal TTNU because of problems with the Land Code. The only way to reconcile these diverging points of view was to make changes in Russian legislation, especially in the sphere of protected areas. The existing protected area system in Russia is mostly meant for the preservation of nature, not for the protection of Indigenous Peoples. For example, the Udege Legend National Park in the neighboring Krasnoarmeysky Rayon (a district in Primorsky Kray) was established for the purpose of saving the Amur tiger and other species, and nature use is prohibited in the park’s territory. Although the park was named “Udege Legend,” the rights of Indigenous Peoples were violated because they didn’t have access to their hunting grounds, and they had to establish their right to the satisfaction of the courts of justice.

The goal of establishing national parks is protection, not only of nature, but also of Indigenous communities living in the territory.

Action by NGOs, local people, and scientists resulted in changes to the law On Protected Areas of the Russian Federation. In the new version of the law, the goal of establishing national parks is protection, not only of nature but also of Indigenous communities living in the territory. In April 2015, President Vladimir Putin signed off on a List of Orders to complete the establishment of Bikin National Park. The Bikin Working Group prepared the documents, with feasibility assessment materials provided by WWF Russia; the Pacific Institute of Geography; the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East; and representatives of Indigenous Peoples. The President ordered that the Russian government should amend legislation in order to allow Indigenous Peoples to carry out their traditional way of life in the park. A decree establishing the national park was adopted by the Russian government on August 1, 2015, and the Federal Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment adopted regulations and a charter that envisions mechanisms for the Indigenous Peoples in the region to participate in the park’s management. The establishment of Bikin National Park can be seen as a victory for Indigenous Peoples because this area is the first national park in all of Russia where their interests are ensured.

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Udege

Festival at Krasny Yar: Performance of the village’s dance group. Photo: Alexei Kudryavtcev, 2007

Postscript (2021)

The creation of Bikin National Park enabled development in the village of Krasny Yar because local people were able to get jobs working in the park. The administration of Bikin National Park organizes many national festivals. Other protected areas co-managed by Indigenous Peoples have been created in Russia. Katylak National Park was created in Yakutia. The Gidansky Reserve became a national park in the Yamalo-Nenetz Autonomous Okrug.

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Bocharnikova, Aleksandra.

Aleksandra Bocharnikova, PhD, is a research assistant at the St. Petersburg Scientific Research Centre for Ecological Safety. Born in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, she was prompted to learn about Indigenous Peoples by a visit to the Indigenous village of Krasny Yar at age 15. She authored a manual for Indigenous Peoples in cooperation with Russia’s National Parks.