"We Live on what the earth carries on itself"

Agrafena Sopotshina


    Ulla Lehtinen: "Indigenous peoples and oil" events in Finland 1999 
    Olli Tammilehto: A civilised world or a bloodsucker of the earth? 
    Background information on oil 
    Russia's oil production 
    Florian Stammler: Where does our oil come from? 
    Yeremei Aipin: Russia's oil industry and the development of rights of indigenous people 
    Agrafena Sopochina: "We Live on what the earth carries on itself" 
    Yuri Vella: Kogalym-Lor - the lake where a man died 
    Bruce Forbes: Industrial development in the Yamal-Nenets Area 
    Lidia Okotetto: I no longer understand the tundra that has loved me 
    Grigorii Anagurichi: A clash of civilisations at the ends of the world 
    Charity Nenebari Ebeh: The Ogoni experience 
    Magda Lanuza: Oil production in Central America 
    Ecuador and oil 
    Arturo Yumbai Iligama: The war against the poor 
    Colombia, the U'wa and oil 
    Roberto Afanador Cobaria: Oil is blood of the earth 
    Workshop 1: The strategies of oil industry and the responses of indigenous peoples' movements 
    Workshop 2: Networking of indigenous peoples threatened by oil and gas exploration 
    Workshop 3: Northern Dimension
    Communique of the participants in the seminar "Indigenous Peoples and Oil" 
    Internet links 

Speech in the seminar

The negative development in my home country is one totality. However, a totality is formed from individual cases. I would put these cases in three parts: indigenous peoples, power and oil workers. Oil workers include forest and natural gas workers, construction workers who construct roads, lay railroads and electricity lines. We the indigenous peoples do not know the goals of the construction; neither do we understand their effect on our living environment. It is the power machinery and the representatives of the economic system that have all the knowledge. They know the technical and economic plans.

We do not know either how Russia's laws influence the new plans and our life. The power machinery and the builders also have this information, and they know the issue very accurately. They consider their activities through Russia's official judicial system. But our point of view is different. Indigenous peoples cannot understand that someone could tell lies, is a thief or criminal. We do not have such concepts. When a person with whom you have had confidential discussion betrays, or steals or kills your reindeer - such things we simply cannot understand. Oil companies base their actions on the legal guidelines of the state and not on the principle of the general sense of justice. There are no protections whatsoever or any consideration of the interests of indigenous peoples in the state laws. During Soviet times we were told that we are all Soviet people and therefore the same and that we all had the same rights. Why should the indigenous have special rights?

Indigenous peoples connect power with the builders: they think that oil companies are representatives of those with power. They are left on the other side of the barricades. People who are driven into a corner would accept almost any proposal. They secretly hope that this time they would not be betrayed even though they have been betrayed before. Thus they agree to promises. They sign all kinds of papers. In our Surgut district people are signing away their land. In this way they are agreeing to work being done on their land in return for almost no compensation. Among others the oil company Lukoil is signing agreements with the officials and trying to force indigenous people to give away their land with almost no compensation. In these agreements there are no pledges whatsoever for environmental protection. They try to strike them off the agreements. Neither we the Khanty nor the Nenets agree to this. We are struggling for our piece of land. We have numerous disputes with Lukoil. We are demanding good agreements, and that they should take notice of environmental protection. Lukoil does not favour it. 

We live on plants, animals and water - that is on what the earth carries on itself. Official and oil companies on the other hand depend for their activities on the things beneath the ground. It is important for the whole of humanity that nature is not destroyed. We the indigenous peoples want to provide for our life on nature. This appears difficult because the oil companies want to take over the land and state officials are helping them. We do not have powerful organisations that could on legal basis carry on negotiations with the oil companies and officials. It is not because we are not capable of organising, but rather it is because we don't have the technical and financial capacities for that. In the Surgut district we have however formed three self-governing communities.

The oil companies have of course all the necessary resources. They have money, expertise and specialists who pursue their interests. To us it would be important to get indigenous peoples' rights documented in the laws of the state. We do not want to be in a legal vacuum, rather we would like to represent ourselves. We negotiate by ourselves with the oil companies and officials. We define our own demands and interests. We try to make agreements always in writing or video-record the negotiations. This method has had positive influence. In Surgut we try to use only peaceful means such as negotiations. However, we can seriously negotiate with officials only through registered communities. Otherwise, they would not take us seriously. We have done this kind of work for four years now.

Excerpts from an interview

Preserving the culture of the Khanty is very important to me. At this moment we can discern three different cultural forms or lifestyles. There are nature-human-nature-people who live in direct and authentic relation to nature as before. Then there are nature-human-technology-nature's negation-people who deny laws of nature and the damages done by technological culture. The third are nature-human-technology-nature-people. They have already become urbanised but are returning. They have preserved the real relation to nature and have the baggage of technological culture at their disposal. These people returning from the city are important from the perspective of cultural preservation as a whole. They have begun to offer advice and administer local communities carrying on trades on naturally produced goods as well as forming them into productive units. These operate independently and do not belong to the hunting economy of the region. Of the eastern Khanty, also of the youth, about 90 per cent live in traditional fashion, so that their land is nowadays the support base of all the Khanty.

Indigenous people are not "natives"

When we visited Lapland, I came to the conclusion that the original, spiritual relationship of the Sami people has changed. Reindeer to them is a raw material, a product. We do not want that kind of development. In future the question is about adaptation and how it happens. It determines a lot. If we adapt on the terms of "your" technological society, it will turn out badly for us. If, however, we can find a common line that also takes into consideration the culture of the Khanty, then adaptation becomes easy. The question is what kind of possibilities is given us to adapt.

I also see the relation to the mainstream culture as important. I noticed that in Finland the relation to the Sami people is based on equality, just the way it should be for two different nationalities. The situation is more difficult in our country. The question is not just two different nationalities but a relationship between two different civilisations. The mainstream population does not respect us as indigenous peoples, rather we are considered natives who have no rights to defend their interests equally. Legislation must absolutely be put in place that can safeguard the status and future of indigenous peoples.

The Khanty woman lives an independent life

European civilisation has greatly influenced the spiritual culture and changed the social structures and in a similar fashion, the position of women. The Khanty woman of today lives on the one hand in a world and social structure that pertained 100 -150 years ago. On the other hand everything is changing in the direction of Europe.

Previously for instance, if a couple divorced the children remained with the father and the woman returned to her relatives. According to Soviet laws the children remain with the mother and that has caused problems. A divorced woman finds it very difficult to support herself from nature, much more difficult than for a man. That is why in my opinion the traditional manner was better. A divorced woman is in difficulties with her children.

In the olden times parents chose a spouse for their daughter, but now the man has to take the initiative. We do not sell grooms, at least I have not heard of any - except from the so-called anthropologists' books. Often we laugh at those tales. The Khanty woman is nowadays quite independent and decides on what she wants to do with her life. In a Khanty family spouses discuss among themselves on issues and on problem situations. True, everything depends on the relationship between the man and woman in the family. If a man is not viable, a woman can seek divorce, take the children along with her and even remarry.

Agrafena Sopochina is a linguist, writer, reindeer owner and a Khanty activist

A Hanti poem read by Agrafena Sopochina

Good mother

Dear mother

I become happy

Come to me 

In happiness and riches

Live with me

If unhappiness comes to me

Comes the last piece of bread

The last of piece of fish

You I will give

Every world of yours is lighter feather

Every deed of yours lighter than down