Deep in the Siberian south, tucked along Russia’s border with Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia, lies the Altai – a fairy tale land of snow-capped peaks, deep crystal lakes, and rare wild animals. The region is home to the critically endangered snow leopard, several Indigenous cultures, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today the Altai is beset with many of the challenges that face stunning but isolated natural areas across the world – the onslaught of tourism, poaching, and the heedless extraction of natural resources.
The Altai mountain range, especially its highest peak, the 14,540-foot Mt. Belukha, attracts increasing numbers of tourists from Russia and abroad every year, all eager to hunt, fish, raft, and explore the Siberian wilderness. These tourists cause long-term damage to the very natural areas they arrived to admire. The Katun River, sacred to Indigenous Altaians, has been under threat from dam proposals for decades; efforts to keep the river wild is what set off the local environmental movement in Altai. Meanwhile, hard times and sky-high prices for animal body parts in Asian medicinal markets have spurred many locals to kill snow leopards, argali mountain sheep, and other creatures in this poorly protected wilderness.
The latest threat to the region is a proposal to run a gas pipeline from Russia to China through the Altai’s unique high-altitude Ukok (pronounced “oo-koke”) Plateau. Since 2006, Russia’s energy giant Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) have been inching toward an agreement that would lay a pipeline across one of the most fragile and beautiful corners of the world.
The pipeline could also open the way for a road between Russia and China that would allow more resource extraction.
Earth Island’s The Altai Project, which has been supporting local activists fighting to protect the natural and cultural heritage of the region, is leading the international component of a campaign initiated by Altaians, Telengits, and Russians to reroute the pipeline. Activists, community groups, and scientists who have banded together to form the Save Ukok Coalition hope to pressure officials to reroute the pipeline by focusing the world’s attention on the controversial project.
Maps of the pipeline’s anticipated route indicated that it would pass through several protected areas and disturb hundreds of natural monuments, ancient burial mounds, and thousands of Stone and Bronze Age petroglyphs. There has been little opportunity so far for effective public participation in the decision-making process. It’s unlikely the project will provide jobs to local people since construction labor is usually brought in from afar. Neither will the pipeline deliver cheap natural gas to Altai, as it’s just a transmission line. Yet rumors about how the project will bring jobs and cheap gas to the region persist.
Meanwhile, Gazprom representatives proclaim that the entire project will have minimal environmental impacts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pipeline is slated to transect the Ukok Plateau – a relatively pristine natural area high in the Central Asian tablelands. The plateau is a broad expanse of permafrost wetlands and alpine meadows ringed by snow-capped mountains. An area of great biodiversity, it is essential territory for steppe eagles and lammergeier vultures, as well as many other rare and threatened birds, mammals, and plants. The plateau is a protected regional nature park and part of it lies within a UNESCO World Heritage site called “Golden Mountains of Altai.”
Public access to the plateau is limited, and several areas are entirely off limits. Altaian Indigenous peoples, particularly the Telengit, hold the plateau sacred and have worshipped and laid their dead to rest here since time immemorial. “When I visited the plateau I understood its cultural and environmental importance in an instant. It’s a magical place where even the least spiritual person feels an immediate connection to the sky and the land,” says The Altai Project Director Jennifer Castner.
Building a pipeline through the plateau will expose the permafrost and fragment the region’s wetlands. It will have immediate and irreversible effects on the fragile tundra ecosystem.
“We look at this issue from the perspective of our traditions, customs, and the security of our people,” says Roman Tadyrov, chair of the Ere-Chui Telengit Community Association. “If we lose the permafrost, we lose our pastures, and that means we lose our livestock. Without our livestock the Telengit have nothing.”
If approved, the pipeline would run through the Telengits’ Territory of Traditional Natural Resource Use – an area the Telengit have set aside for fishing, hunting, and grazing their livestock, as well as for ethnological and ecological tourism. Many of these activities, and with them the very existence of the Telengits’ culture, would be threatened by the pipeline.
The pipeline also poses a threat to sites of great archeological importance. “The Ukok Plateau was well known to the scientific community long before it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998,” says Mikhail Paklin, head of the Russian Center, a local community advocacy group, pointing to the 1993 discovery of a female Scythian mummy who became known as the Ukok Princess. “There are monuments on Ukok from the Stone Age, Eneolithic, Hun, and Turkic epochs. If the pipeline goes through and the permafrost melts, we will lose all these archaeological sites. We will not only be chopping down our future, but throwing stones at our past.”
Gazprom and CNPC could lay the pipeline along an existing road through Mongolia, where it would be less ecologically damaging. But the companies don’t want to consider this option, partly because involving a third country would increase costs, and partly for political reasons. A transit country wields significant power, as the world saw recently when Ukraine blocked Russian gas to Europe.
Many Altaians believe there’s another hidden agenda behind the pipeline proposal – China’s interest in setting up a road link between Russia and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Altaians fear that China is using the pipeline as a wedge to open up that border in order to have easier access to Russia’s natural resources.
The pipeline can be opposed on legal grounds, says Urmat Knyazev, an Altai Republic deputy and an elected leader of the greater Altai Indigenous community. “According to federal laws, before beginning any economic development the opinion of Indigenous people must be considered, and there must be an ethnological impact assessment. None of these laws have been followed in the pipeline project,” he says.
Over the past year, The Altai Project’s partners in Russia have appealed to government agencies, Gazprom, and CNPC to reconsider the pipeline route, but so far all requests have been ignored. Now they have turned to international allies for support.
“Today our only hope is for broad-based international support, and we turn to you with a request to send letters of protest in our names,” Telengit leader Tadyrov wrote recently.
Speaking of the Ukok Plateau, Altaian elders have said: “You must not touch this land.” With hard work, luck, and a little help from the ancestors, together we may be able to convince Russia’s leaders to heed this wisdom.
Help The Altai Project assist the Telengit, Altaians, and other stakeholders to protect this treasured, sacred land from destruction. Write a letter to Russian and Chinese officials.
Check altaiproject.org for the latest updates. Help us spread the word about Altai and all that is at stake for its people and wildlife.
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