We’re Losing the Land: Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. Part 2

Text and illustrations: Elena Sakirko
Indigenous peoples are connected with the space around them – with the forest, water and wild animals – on a very deep level, and climate change affects their daily life, traditional economic activities and living standards, as well as the inner feelings of the individual, his connection with his ancestors, and his cultural identity.

For an indigenous person, changes in nature therefore involve a complete and total transformation. But what exactly is changing for them and can the way of life of indigenous peoples help save our planet?
Climate change affects indigenous peoples on several different levels.
Climate change affects indigenous peoples on several different levels. First of all, the natural territories in which these peoples live are experiencing sweeping changes. For example, many of them talk about the appearance of new, invasive animal species.

“The raccoon dog has come from the Far East, and it’s destroying bird nests terribly,” says Polina Shulbayeva, a representative of the Selkup people from Tomsk Oblast.

“The number of silkworms that completely ravage the dark coniferous forest has increased. This not only kills the forest, it kills the whole ecosystem. There will be nothing left there, the beasts will abandon the place, because the territory is absolutely dead.” In Komi, people are also noticing the appearance of new species of insects and birds. “

“[There are] some kind of weird unfamiliar birds, I don’t recognise them at all. Their numbers are swelling, and they make a hell of a noise,” as Ivan Ivanov, a Komi man, expresses his indignation. Old familiar territories are undergoing a metamorphosis: where there once were meadows with berries, now there is a waterlogged swamp, or vice versa – it has become overgrown with brushwood.

The residents of Ivankino in Tomsk Oblast say that they now have a damp, cold, through wind blowing across their territory. “Clearly, there isn’t the forest now that there used to be, to shield us from this wind. A lot of our forests have been cut down,” says Yulia Gorbachyova, a member of the Selkup people.

“Man is destroying nature. And the climate is changing.” “Immense social changes are taking place, and, naturally, the climate is changing,” concludes the Khanty woman Agrafena Sopochina.

She says that the indigenous people in the Surgut District have been practically deprived of pastures for reindeer husbandry in the taiga: these grazing lands have suffered from fire, and then been cleared away for oil development, cities and towns have been built, and the domestic deer were shot.

Photos from the personal archive of Yulia Gorbacheva, Ivankino village, Tomsk region

In addition to changes in the territories themselves, everyone is noticing the changes in weather conditions and natural cycles. This has a direct impact on the traditional economic activities of indigenous peoples, their sustenance, and hence their health, access to transport and social security. Change prompts feelings of anxiety and fear, and the sense of losing a deep connection to the core of their culture.

One of the most important negative impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples has been the unpredictability of the weather.

“For our people, the success of our activities has always depended on the ability to predict what tomorrow will be like, what will happen the day after tomorrow, in a week from now, or in a month’s time... What the winter will be like... The particular strategy to opt for always depended on this,” says Vyacheslav Shadrin, a representative of the Yukaghir people. “Where to set up a nomad camp and when? And then nature began to deceive us. The old people say nature has lost faith in us. This is a new challenge. It turns out that your knowledge is difficult to apply in this situation. In the past, you could predict the behaviour of an elk, for example, predict where he would go. And now it’s difficult to predict the animals’ behaviour, because the climatic conditions have changed and the weather has changed.”
Photos from the personal archive of Vyacheslav Shadrin, Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)
Many freak natural and weather phenomena are becoming commonplace, fires and floods are increasingly in frequency. As a result of the increase in snow cover, of increased precipitation in general, and the melting of the permafrost, more and more water is flowing into the rivers of Yakutia.

Therefore, according to Vyacheslav, some low-lying areas are now prone to flooding from spring all the way up until autumn. On the other hand, sudden changes in temperature cause frosts, preventing deer and horses from being able to graze. Fires have begun to break out much more often, annually, and are growing in scale.

“Last year, 12 million hectares were engulfed in forest fires,” says Vyacheslav. “Besides the fact that it threatens human lives, most of the hunting grounds are being taken out of use too, and the entire infrastructure is being destroyed… There are also side effects: respiratory diseases, i.e. asthma and allergies, are very common now. This is all because of the constant forest fires.”

Galina Tuimesheva, a Tubalar woman, tells how climate change has affected her native village of Yailyu: “I remember from my childhood: when it rained, it didn’t scare us at all. On the contrary, we could run out in our little dresses and go barefoot in the rain: it was all so joyful that even a thunderstorm never bothered us. Nowadays, whenever it’s even a little bit rainy it gets cold very quickly, I want to put on more clothing, and the people of Yailyu put on their boots and jackets, and put up umbrellas, to escape from the freezing rain. The winters have become very wet. We often have above-zero temperatures in winter now, and the snow melts.”

Ivan Ivanov admits that a few years ago he could not have imagined how climate change would end up being something directly concerning himself, as it had always seemed a matter of things happening “somewhere far away”: “Now I am already noticing some seasonal things: summer’s getting hotter, winter’s changing, and the weather’s changing too, getting unpredictable. While in the past you might have had a frost of 30-40 [degrees below zero], and it was quiet with no wind at all, and you could easily put up with it, now it’s 35 [degrees below] and it can get windy. Now there are these big swings back and forth. We used to have a frost and it would last for a week. Now it can be zero during the day, and minus 25 at night. This wasn’t the case before! The summers have hot, dry months. We’ve had very little water this last year, and there wasn’t much in the spring.”

In Tomsk Oblast, one serious consequence that has affected the lives of the indigenous Selkup people is that the old winter ice-road through the Vasyugan swamp is no longer freezing over.

This has led to a shift in the migration calendar of the local fauna, as well as impacting ice fishing in winter. “Obviously, if the roads don’t freeze, then it can be very difficult to deliver food and essential goods, medicines and much more to remote and small settlements in the wintertime,” says Polina Shulbayeva, “and this is already making itself felt in both the socio-economic and cultural spheres. Sometimes students can’t return home when term is over because there is no road or communications, and so they miss out on the opportunity to return for the holidays, to see their relatives and friends. Students who come from the villages find it rather hard in the city; they do adapt, but they have a physical need to return home in order to build their strength and recharge their batteries. That is, the influence is not just physical, but a mental one too, and this affects their health from various different angles, including the psychological.”

Polina believes that even the works of art and handicrafts produced by indigenous peoples can be used to ascertain how the climate is changing, how and which animals have migrated, and to clearly see the changes brought about in the calendar of traditional economic activities: “The fishermen in the swamps used to wear trousers and jackets cut from fish skin stitched together with sinews, and these clothes didn’t get wet. But we used to have nalim [freshwater cod/burbot], for example. Now there aren’t any nalim to speak of, we have so few of them these days. Now we have the example of modern alternatives made of pike skin; there’s a different structure to this [material], a different subcutaneous fat layer, and so the technique for processing it is completely different, and the final colour of the skin and its thickness are different. It turns out that traditional knowledge is changing, adapting to the changes that are taking place. This is an indicator of changes in the health of the state of the environment and the people, its social, economic and cultural change, adaptation and development.”
Photos from the personal archive of Darya Egereva, Ivankino village, Tomsk region. Traditional food from the village of Ivankino, Smog from fires covered in summer. Because of the smog, they could not leave for the village, they closed the navigation
The disappearance of animals and fish leads to changes in the customary diet, and can affect a person physiologically and spiritually. The fact that there are hardly any fish left, which were formerly and genetically so vital to the Selkups, is also having an effect on this people’s language and culture.

“If we lose an element of traditional food like the nalim, the language and words associated with this fish are lost too. Its skin, bones, the tools for working it, everything that once concerned the nalim is now lost, we won’t know it any more, even its name in our native language,” Polina states.

Valentina Sovkina, a Sami activist, believes that the loss of stability and cyclicality are indicators of climate change. Now “nature is in a fever”: it is no longer possible to predict the weather by means of the established superstitions.

In addition, the forest-tundra has begun to encroach on the tundra, and thickets of trees have appeared in Murmansk Oblast. Dietary habits are changing: traditions and the old way of life are disappearing. Valentina notes that there are much fewer traditional berries: “We used to harvest barrelfuls, but nowadays God forbid we collect a bucketful to at least have that much in our homes. As a child, I remember that we always had lingonberries, soaked cloudberries by the barrel, and we scooped them out with small bowls as little ones, this lasting through until the next summer. We didn’t need apples, bananas or grapes... We had our own berries, and that’s what we ate. And it helped to strengthen the immune system as well. I don’t remember us ever being sick with colds; our vitamins always saved us from that.

Valentina Sovkina. Stills from a documentary video from the life of the Saami on Seydozero, a girl in a boat - Valentina Sovkina, with her grandfather and her aunts

A more direct and obvious impact exerted on the territories of indigenous peoples is that of industrial development, with all that this brings in terms of water pollution, deforestation, and the extermination of animals.

“Everyone has heard about the accident at Norilsk Nickel. As for our region, the breaking of the dams built by the diamond company ALROSA in 2018 was a terrible accident,” says Vyacheslav Shadrin.

“Huge areas lost access to drinking water and fish. Of course, ALROSA took measures: they brought in drinking water, installed treatment facilities, and so on. But that was all afterwards.

And the environmental damage still remains with us.” Vyacheslav calls this the “new wave of industrialisation” and regards the “seizure of land” to be the main problem: “Our people say this: we’ve been around for millennia and have always found a way out. We’ve always adapted to the various changes. But we can’t adapt without our land. The main consequence of industrialisation is precisely that we’re losing the land. Both literally and figuratively.” In addition, Vyacheslav notes that in Yakutia, climate change is not a theory for the indigenous peoples: “Most of our settlements in the North are located on the banks of rivers, which are quickly eroded away. This means that sooner or later the question of their closure will arise. Or else we could prevent this by reinforcing the banks. And we expect such measures to be enacted by the state as part of its regional programmes for adaptation and mitigation of the impact of climate change.”

ndigenous people often interpret changes in the environment as nature’s response to human actions.

In this vein, the Selkup woman Natalya Platonovna Izhenbina relates the following: “Grandma said there would come a time when humans will run, and the earth will fall away behind them, that there will be an abyss. We grew up on the notion that the earth must be protected and the laws of the ancestors must be observed. I try to follow all our rules, but around me I see others either littering or setting fire to the forest... All of this is now having its effect on nature. As a child, you had to be sparing down to the last drop of water. You held a ladle and put your hand so to prevent a drop of water from falling to the ground. You took it over to the saucepan, and poured the water out. Guard the earth: do not dig in vain, do not run on the earth in vain. We collected potatoes and then scattered the earth as if nothing had been growing in it. That is, for it to rest. And as for the forest: if you go into the forest, you try not to break the branches, because this hurts your hand and it hurts the tree. They always tried to collect fallen wood, they took care of the forest. And now the forest is being destroyed. At times it seems that nature is fighting against humanity. Angry at man for causing such damage. Sometimes it turns cruel to people, and this is also because someone has sinned somewhere.”

Agrafena Sopochina has worked out her own formula for interaction with nature. The formula goes “nature-man-nature”, whereby a human being, if he takes something, must return it in a form in which nature can process it.

Today, according to this representative of the Khanty people, this state of affairs has begun to collapse and is being replaced by “the formula of ‘nature-man-technology-minus nature’ which has come crashing into aboriginal life.”

“Technogenic man takes everything from nature and processes it into waste, which he then leaves to nature, but nature can no longer process this in a way that would correspond to natural laws,” as Agrafena Semyonovna concludes. “Through technical means, the majority of mankind takes much more away from nature than he uses to his benefit. This negative connection has grown to such a scale that humanity now feels and sees the universal destruction across the planet.” Indigenous peoples are not excluded from this “technology minus nature” formula either, in so far as this destructive connection has first and foremost hit their lives in particular.

Traditional knowledge: you teach us, and we’ll teach you

Can indigenous peoples somehow resist climate change? Can traditional knowledge help in this regard? What needs to be done to mitigate the negative consequences and adapt to the new conditions of life?
Polina Shulbayeva believes that in order to preserve nature, adapt to and reduce the consequences of climate change, it has long been necessary to switch from industrial mining and deforestation to alternative sources of energy.

But apart from this, indigenous traditional knowledge related to community-based management of territories, traditional practices, and new information technologies may prove to be of assistance too. “Indigenous peoples have various different management systems with their own specific methods, techniques, practices, etc.,” says Polina. “Collecting dead wood that helps safeguard against fires, monitoring animal migration routes and calving sites, tracking changes in temperatures, freezing over of waterways, high water levels, the calendar, migration, invasive species, growth of wetlands, the drying up of rivers, the presence of parasites in fish, etc.”

Polina is an expert in the field of biodiversity and climate change and, as a representative of indigenous peoples, she plays an active part in various processes seeking solutions for nature conservation and climate change mitigation for indigenous peoples, on both the domestic and international level. Polina is adamant that such management systems need to be disseminated, and such knowledge is now recognised, respected and promoted in international endeavours for use as the most sustainable approach that will enable us to preserve nature for posterity.

At the UN level, the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform has been established under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Moreover, 2021 saw the creation of the platform Climate Change Adaptation: Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous Peoples Inhabiting the Far North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia. Its aim is to foster the exchange of experience in the field of climate monitoring and adaptation to climate change based on traditional knowledge, and it was initiated and created by indigenous peoples themselves in partnership with the scientific community.

Photos from the personal archive of Polina Shulbaeva, Novy Vasyugan village, Tomsk region, photo by Tatyana Fateeva

Valentina Sovkina argues that there is much talk today about the indigenous Arctic peoples being the guardians of their territories, but all that this has amounted to so far has been restricted to the level of “grand slogans”, because in order to put it into practice proper account must be taken of the specifics of the way of life of these peoples, and this does not mean a “return to antediluvian times and living like the indigenous peoples did”.

“We are now faced with the problem of a rupture in the transfer of knowledge,” explains Valentina, “because we no longer live in the conditions in which our ancestors did: from childhood, our youth is no longer spent in the tundra. Children are taken to the village because we have compulsory education. I remember looking at my classmates, sitting at their desks and shedding tears, looking out the window into the forest – they had no clear notion as to why they needed all this.

And as a result, almost half of my classmates are gone, they were lost, they failed to find themselves in this world. And it seems to me that there should be a more understanding policy towards indigenous peoples, to say that we aren’t coming along to break you, but we come to you to join with you in union: you teach us, and we’ll teach you.

If you have to transport children into and out of the tundra, then we’ll help you use the same helicopter to bring the children into the tundra for the whole summer, if it’s impossible to have them do without school. But if you could set up mobile classes, then the appropriate technologies must be developed and employed. It’s not very clear to me why we are imposing civilisation on people today who don’t actually need it, thanks to being internally happy to live in nature.”

Valentina currently heads the elected Kuelnegk Nyoark Sam’ Sobbar (the Kola Sami Assembly), is a member of the Aboriginal Forum and the Sami Women’s Forum, and is a firm believer that indigenous peoples truly are the guardians of their native territories, that traditional knowledge helps, and that it is vital to understand the peculiarities of the culture and life of such peoples and help them ensure the continuation of traditional activities in a changing world. And, most important of all, that indigenous representatives be included in decision-making.

“These days, laws and regulations are often adopted without taking into account the opinion of the indigenous peoples themselves,” continues Valentina. “Up there they think they know what’s best for us and put their plans into implementation, and as a result they bring us utter devastation. Then they say ‘sorry, we made a mistake because we didn’t consider the opinion of the indigenous peoples’. This principle must be observed: ‘nothing involving us to be done without us!’ We are willing to work together to come to an understanding of the situation, but we must also be understood ourselves, and not regarded as backward peoples. We are all different, but the goal is the same – to come into the world without violating, but interacting with and respecting each other.”

Vyacheslav Shadrin, vice-president of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), notes that traditional knowledge is of help in finding solutions, but that changes are happening so thick and fast that they cannot be overcome without the assistance of the state.

“We need a programme to support the traditional activities of indigenous peoples: reindeer herding, hunting and fishing,” the expert says. “We need programmes for the development of settlements, and a programme for clean drinking water. Due to the fact that the riverbanks are constantly being washed away, the water is very polluted, and we have to think about ways to provide coastal settlements with drinking water. It is clear that the indigenous peoples themselves will not be able to cope at all. Well, another conclusion to be drawn here is the danger of losing the land altogether, which is associated with industrial development.

There are examples of what to do in such situations. I have a term for this – ‘legal coercion to dialogue’. This is necessary in order to get issues resolved not only to the benefit of the industrial companies, but taking into account the opinions and protecting the interests of the indigenous peoples. In Yakutia, for example, more than half of the entire territory of the Republic is currently classified as TTP – ‘Territories of Traditional Nature Management’ (this comes to over 150 million hectares in all). Or to take another example: we’ve already carried out four dozen ethnological expert appraisals to determine what compensation must be given to our communities.”

Ivan Ivanov, chairman of the Committee for Saving the Pechora, believes that at the present moment, environmental and climate interests are being sacrificed for profit. Changes require political will, and they have to concern the specific approaches to any form of activity.

“Traditional knowledge is all about such conceptual things: how to approach any project, and from what ethical standpoint: a balance must be achieved between the long-term prospects for the very survival of humanity as a species,” Ivan argues. “Climate change leads, in essence, to a decrease in human habitats and the deterioration of conditions, and, in fact, to extinction. I therefore think that a lot of things can be adopted before we even consider exploiting something.”

Galina Tuimesheva says that the on-going changes are of great concern to the indigenous inhabitants of the ​​Lake Teletskoye basin.

“Some fight openly, others just pray to their gods,” says Galina. “I am a member of the Sacred Altai group, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to save the flora and fauna of the Altai Republic and preserve it for posterity in its original form. We go around talking about our disagreement with the drafting and application of laws and statutory instruments that threaten our nature protection zones and sacred places with destruction, or threaten the extinction of flora and fauna, and rare, Red Book listed sites.”

Daria Yegereva, an indigenous peoples representative at the UN climate change platform, says that her kinfolk now have to risk their lives defending their land, and that we will only be able to help slow climate change through changing the system itself.

“Until our government and business start thinking about more than just profit, nothing will change,” says Daria. “Indigenous people don’t own any land in the Kolpashevo District now. It’s all long since been leased out among private companies and tenants. But they stand up for their land all the same. They keep a check on poachers. At some risk to their own lives. Until there is a guarantee that they are protected, rather than have everything on a one on one basis, then we are just waiting until something unfortunate happens. Until we get this, or until everything in Russia is exterminated, and this goes beyond the extermination of resources, as a lot of animals and fish will perish with these resources, then nothing will change...”

Going back to the formulas developed by Agrafena Sopochina, an ethnographer, translator and specialist on the language and culture of the Surgut region Khanty, it may be assumed that the preservation of the culture of indigenous peoples is possible only with the development of some third approach that will take into account the conceptual connection between man and nature, and that will enable in practice the inclusion of representatives of indigenous peoples in the processes controlling the state of the natural environment.
“Our time has witnessed an encounter between two civilisations with two different formulas for life, seeing them come close to each other and merge in part,” says Agrafena. “One society has centuries of experience in wiping away nature with the pollution caused by the products of its life-sustaining activity. This is the majority of humanity. And the other (the smaller) society has never even encountered such a phenomenon as the large-scale pollution of nature at all. Moreover, this pollution does not come from them, not from their subsistence activity. For thousands of years one thing has been an unshakable rule for this part of humanity: to take from nature only as much as you need. Suddenly, on their ancestral lands, others began to take more from nature than was necessary. At the same time, natural resources were extracted in a barbarous fashion, reducing the territories where nature has been treated carefully for thousands of years. In addition, the natives, the peoples of the North and Siberia, have not yet managed to develop methods and techniques for preserving nature and its riches in the new realities. There has not been sufficient time to develop any such techniques and methods, as only a few decades have passed so far. And the peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East lack not only economic, but also legal levers of control over the state of the environment.”

The article was written on the basis of materials from 9 interviews with representatives of indigenous peoples (conducted in December 2021). Interview participants:

Polina Shulbaeva is a member of the Selkup people and native of the village of Vasyugan in Tomsk Oblast. Now Polina lives in Tomsk, where she came to study when she was 16 years old, but every summer, for holidays and weekends, she goes to her relatives. Polina is the coordinator of activities in the field of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and a member of international working groups under the CBD, IFFCS, IPBES and others.

Daria Egereva, Natalya Izhenbina and Yulia Gorbacheva are members of the Selkup people, originally from the village of Ivankino in Tomsk Oblast. In addition, they represent the regional organization "Union of Indigenous Peoples of the North of the Tomsk Region", which includes several local organizations and people from different parts of Tomsk region. Now Daria lives in Moscow and is a member of the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, as well as the representative of indigenous peoples on the UN platform on climate change. Natalya and Yulia still spend a lot of time in Ivankino. For the winter, Yulia leaves for Togur (Kolpashevsky district of the Tomsk region), Natalya - for Kolpashevo, where she leads the creative association "Tussayoka" (Sparkle). She teaches the Selkup language and culture. With women, they sew souvenirs and participate in fairs.

Vyacheslav Shadrin is a member of the Yukagir people. Vyacheslav was born and raised in the village of Nelemnoye in the Verkhnekolymsky ulus of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Currently he lives in Yakutsk and is the Vice President of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia).

Ivan Ivanov is a member of the Komi people, currently he lives in the oil-extracting village of Nizhny Odes, where he moved in early childhood. Now he heads the Save Pechora Committee, an environmental non-profit organization working in the Pechora River basin.

Galina Tuymesheva is a member of the Tubalari people, a sixth-generation indigenous resident of the village of Yailyu in the Altai Republic. She is a member of the non-governmental organization "Sacred Altai", which is trying to preserve the nature of their native land.

Agrafena Sopochina, a member of the Khanty people, grew up on the territory of traditional nature use in the forest, now she lives in the village Lyantor, Surgut district. Agrafena is an anthropologist, translator, specialist in the language and culture of the Surgut Khanty, she also actively defends the nature of her native land and the rights of her people.

Valentina Sovkina is a Saami activist born in a family of fishermen and reindeer herders. He is the head of the elected body - the Assembly of the Saami of the Kola Peninsula), a member of the Aboriginal Forum and the Saami Women's Forum.