Light at the edge of the world



Posted on 21 September 1998  | 
Gland, Switzerland: You might be forgiven for wondering just what and where the Republic of Sakha is. Certainly few of us at the WWF International Secretariat in Gland, Switzerland, had much idea when a remarkable letter arrived from the President of the Republic.

Indeed, not only were we somewhat ignorant but we were also rather sceptical when the President, Mikhail Nikolayev, told us in his letter that he intended to place 700,000km2 of his country under environmental protection as his Gift to the Earth under WWF's Living Planet Campaign. Yes, that was 700,000km2  an area twice the size of Germany.

Naturally we soon found out about Sakha, which is part of the Russian Federation and was formerly known as Yakutia. The country is about the size of India but with only one thousandth of the Subcontinent's population, or about a million people. On that basis, it is clearly a fairly empty sort of place, and in fact it consists mostly of taiga and tundra. One found oneself speculating on whether anybody would be very much interested in the official protection of such a large part of it. Shortly afterwards another question presented itself when President Nikolayev and a delegation including his environment minister arrived in Switzerland with a group of experts and a series of large maps to explain what began to look like the biggest land planning exercise I have ever witnessed.

It was also one of the most impressive protected area systems in the world. There was no doubt that the Sakha people were very serious about their plan, but the question that arose concerned their reasons for undertaking it.

After all, Yakutia had been in the Soviet Empire, which since its collapse had become something of a byword for environmental degradation. So what was it that inspired in the Sakha people such dedication towards the conservation of nature?

In September, some two years after President Nikolayev's letter arrived at WWF, I went to see for myself  just as the scale and significance of the financial crisis in the Russian Federation was becoming evident.

I flew to Moscow and from there six hours eastward to Yakutsk, the Sakha capital. It sits on Siberian permafrost that reaches 300 metres below the surface and thaws to a depth of only three metres during the short summer. Yakutsk cannot be reached by road or rail from anywhere outside the republic and only in summer can ships navigate through the Arctic Ocean and along the Lena river to the capital.

Getting anywhere in the vastness of Sakha is not easy, either. I had the benefit of a helicopter, from which I could appreciate to the full the staggering natural beauty of the country  huge boreal forests with bright yellow birch trees in this season, thousands of lakes and wild rivers and vast wildernesses populated by bears, moose, wolves, reindeer, and red deer and much else besides.

I also began to see why the Sakha people had decided to make their Gift to the Earth. Everywhere I went, from government officials to school children and the inhabitants of a remote Ewenke settlement, I found an overwhelming desire to hold intact the country and the culture it has spawned. This land on the edge of the world, almost half of it inside the Arctic Circle, has been settled since the early Stone Age, and the modern population has the same attachment to it as its ancestors did.

There is an old proverb that says, Every glade has its name, and the country too has its renown. As the Sakha writer Alelsei Mihailov puts it, the book of nature lay open for the people to read and, although history has changed the way of life for many, even now they have not lost their closeness to nature or their ability to read her language.

The great national festival of the summer, the yhyakh, begins each June with ritual thanksgiving to the powers that control the lives of the Sakha: a ceremony of feeding the fire, an address to the spirits that protect horse-breeding, and the sprinkling of grass and trees with kourmiss, a fermented liquor prepared from mares' milk.

Nature, then, is very much part of everyday life in this remote and beautiful country, and from this familiarity springs the desire to conserve it. But there is another reason why the Sakha have taken the decision to protect such a huge area of their land. In the days of Russian domination, Yakutia was known as one of the world's great repositories of minerals, metals, and fossil fuels  everything from gold and diamonds to coal and gas. For decades these resources were ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of greater Russia, and there is no doubt that they brought some benefits to the Sakha, too, in the form of schools, colleges and infrastructure. Overall, however, the memories of control from Moscow are bitter, and even now it is Russia that profits from most of the mining operations.

Now that Communism has gone and free-market capitalism is the order of the day, the natural resources could come under even greater pressure  the more so because of the current financial crisis in the Federation. But with their newfound independence allowing them to indulge freely their love of nature, the Sakha people have taken a radical step to guard a large part of what they regard as their most precious resources against a world that may not care for them as much. WWF will certainly continue to support them in their endeavours.

(994 words)

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