“This land is our treasure. We won’t get another one”
Support Indigenous communities defending their home
Numto, the Heavenly Lake: A community’s fight to save its most sacred place
Founded in 1997 to help protect the fragile Siberian Uvaly ecosystem, Numto nature preserve also has significance for Indigenous peoples of northern Russia. It is here, on the border of Yamal and Khanty-Mansy region, where two ancient Taiga cultures come together.
For generations, the Nenets and the Khanty people have bred reindeer, fished, picked berries and gathered. They travel hundreds of kilometers to come together and conduct sacred rituals at Lake Numto. ‘Num’ holds a special place in Indigenous mythology and is often equated with the sky itself. Lake Numto means heavenly lake. It is considered one of the most important places of worship for the Indigenous People of the region.
The park also helps protect the adjacent wetland, the Numto watershed. The Russian scientific community has recommended that the Numto wetlands be listed by Ramsar as an internationally important waterfowl habitat.
The heavenly lake of Numto is threatened by an oil company Surgutneftegas; oil operations would wreck local communities and spell disaster for its wildlife and ecosystems. Among the rare and endangered birds who live here or pass through on their annual migration is the striking Siberian white crane or snow crane.
Join us, add your voice to support the Nenets and Khanty people in protecting their home.
The People of the Heavenly Lake
Lake Numto’s religious significance for the Khanty and the Forest Nenets people can’t be understated. According to the myths of the Indigenous Peoples of the Ob North, the supreme god himself used to descend to drink from its waters. Other legends say that the lake itself is a deity, or an ancient warrior lying on the ground. The lake is the body of the warrior, one of the gulfs is his head, two of the islands are his eyes, another large island is his heart, and the many rivers that flow into and out of the lake are the prodigious warrior’s arms and legs.
It is forbidden to chop wood or pick berries on the lake’s islands. It is also forbidden to set fishing nets in the ‘neck of the giant’, a narrow strait between the Gulf of Ukhlor and the main part of the lake. No woman has ever set foot on the “heart” of the lake, the Holy Island. No one may wage war here. The Indigenous people believe that those who break these ancient commandments will live short lives.
This is the sacred place where many Khanty and Nenets people gather to perform rituals. They sacrifice reindeer and tie colourful fabrics to the trees: black to protect against illness, yellow for the Sun God, red for the Fire God, white for Numto itself — the all-encompassing supreme God of the Skies.
On the lakeshore stands Numto village. Officially its population is about 200 people, with 40 families living in its camping grounds following their traditional way of life. They breed reindeer, fish and forage. But every year it becomes more and more difficult for them to keep to the old ways as the oil companies encroach on their lands.
Vasily Pyak, a reindeer herder from Numto, worries that it may become impossible to continue his way of life:
“We live with constant anxiety, we’re always on edge. No five-year plans here; we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. There is no point in increasing the number of livestock. I’ll rear more livestock, and then I will lose them to the roads. They told me they wouldn’t build here, and then I had a look at the map and it’s clear that there will be a concrete road a kilometre away from my camp. If they lay a road here, where will I graze my reindeer? They’ll wander along the road, cars will run them over. Build a fence? You cannot fence in a reindeer! It is a semi-wild animal, to put it into a corral is like a prison. And why has it come to building fences anyway?”
When the commercial exploitation of the Khanty and Nenets woods began, the lives of the Indigenous people started changing immediately. Natalia Vylla, a Forest Nenets and a native of Numto, told us about her childhood:
“I remember very well the nomad life we led with my grandma and grandpa – oh, how I loved it! I couldn’t count yet but I would count on my fingers how many times I slept, one day, two days… It meant in so many days we would move to a new camp. I knew from the night before – if they started to pack up the sacks and the bags, it meant tomorrow we would kaslat [move camp]. We used to always leave a clean site when we moved on, not like these days…And the joy is gone now. It is always the same, these surroundings just get on your nerves.”
“The oil drilling is a great psychological stress for us,” says Natalia. “I once met a young boy. When he saw the oil facilities being built around where he lived, he said, “They’ve come to kill us”. I began to ask myself, why does he say that? Because it’s hard for him to bear. I was shocked myself when I saw our dear, sacred sites where we visited our ancestors and pitched our tents being destroyed.”
Natalia worked at a meteorological station for many years before becoming a ranger for the Numto nature preserve about a year ago. Her husband Pawel is a fireman. They’re struggling to come to terms with the changes in the life of their people and to establish a dialogue with the oil companies making themselves at home on their Indigenous lands.
Pawel has seen many industrial accidents in the park. Once, they walked into a knee-deep oil spill in an abandoned drill site and the inspector accompanying Pawel “got grime all over his valenki”, shin high traditional boots. He also told us about the sites where oil sludge accumulates – reindeer wander in, become trapped and die, helpless. Animals do not understand the concept of borders. “I’m sure it will bring in profit to the state budget”, says Pawel. “Two dozen reindeer, who cares? It’s only a livelihood of one Khanty.”
Pawel is certain that wetlands form an important part of the ecosystem. He is very concerned about the fact that oil company Surgutneftegaz is planning to drill for oil here, in the valuable wetland area of the park. “We live here and we will stay here”, says Natalia. “We won’t leave. This land is our treasure. We won’t get another.”
In an attempt to preserve her homeland, Natalia has written a memo for the employees of the Surgutneftegaz oil company who work on the territory of the Numto nature preserve. The memo has information about the unique characteristics of this land and its inhabitants, and lays out the rules and codes of conduct for the employees of the oil companies while on park territory. Natalia regularly visits the drilling facilities: “I explain everything to these Sloppy Joes and give them time [to fix things].”
Despite the oil invasion of the native woods of Numto, the villagers still leave their doors open and always welcome guests with a cup of tea and a good meal. The lives of the Khanty and the Forest Nenets is intertwined with nature: they craft objects out of wood, birch bark and other natural materials, pick berries, fish. Women work and do embroidery, and every family has folk costumes (sakhi and malitsy) embroidered in the astonishingly beautiful Khanty and Nenets patterns.
Ludmilla showed us a whole doll family: the mother, the father, the granny, children.
Ludmila Lozyamova, whose house stands at the very edge of the village surrounded by birch trees (the sacred tree of the Khanty and the Nenets), makes ragdolls. If the few tourists who wander this far out ask, she sells the dolls for souvenirs.
Ludmila has a photo album full of old pictures – in one, an old house by the lake where her family used to live. So much has changed: they no longer pitch raw-hide tents or ride reindeer, but she still loves the woods: “As soon as I come to Surgut I tell my little daughter, I want to go home… I want mommy… And she answers, Mom, but you’re grown up now!” For people of her generation, coming of age has gone hand in hand with their lands being polluted.
Ludmila and other villagers get up early. This far north one must hurry to get household chores done while it is still light: Numto only has electricity for a few hours a day. While we are at Ludmila’s house, her neighbour Gennady Pyak drops by for a visit.
He tells us that 15 kilometres away a concrete road is being built, and there are plans to erect a drill rig. The noise is unbearable and machinery is strewn everywhere. Gennady doesn’t know where he is supposed to graze his deer and if they build a rig that will put an end to any fishing, he says.
A joyful man, his mood lightens as he tells us about his love for his Khanty wife and sings two Khanty songs about “in summer we ride motorboats and in winter we ride reindeer, and one hears the voice of reindeer”, and another one in Nenets about how a courted bride laughs at her suitors.
Irina Maksimovna Pokacheva came to the village from a camp on a “helicopter day” (it takes place once a week). She told us that she had moved to Verkhnenadym when the reindeer began to disappear in Kogalym, before any oil companies arrived. The Khanty woman shared one of the many legends about lake Numto in her native tongue.
Levan Segachev invited us into his house on the lakeshore. He is a ranger for Numto nature preserve. He lives in the village with his wife Anna and sons Tolik, Gosha and Vanya, while his eldest daughter Karina goes to a boarding school (at the moment there is no school in Numto). Anna served us berries which she had brought from Surgutsky District because this year they had no blueberries in Numto. The wetlands had been flooded with water which never drained for most of 2015. Many villagers remark on the climate changes they have experienced: winters are far warmer, no more permafrost, the lake thaws very early in spring, water is everywhere and the roads are flooded. Levan explains that the incompetent oil companies build their roads incorrectly and interfere with normal drainage.
Levan keeps records of the animals in the park. There are rare bird species here and many different animals. The ranger told us that a white-tailed eagle came to the park from the drill site. Levan is very concerned by the oil company plans: they might not find any oil here, the ranger says, but they will definitely chase away the birds.
Reindeer herder Vasily Pyak shares his concerns. The prospective drill site of Surgutneftegaz is just 10-20 km from Vasily’s camp and is a spot where wild geese have rested during their migration since his grandfather’s time. He once saw 5,000 geese gather at the lakeshore in a matter of hours. Three eagles swooped in and caught a goose each. Other geese scattered, and when they were taking flight their wings made a sound like thunder. But the numbers of geese is dropping, they are changing their routes to find a cleaner refuge.
According to Vasily, the reindeer’s health is also suffering: their hides are thinner, their hair is limp and they’re have even lost their legendary strength and stamina. In the past, one could swiftly get to Khanty-Mansiysk (about 300 km); now the deer run for 50 km and then just lie down.
When asked about oil spills, Vasily tells us that near Lyantor, in the areas of ongoing oil development, the fish smell of diesel oil – making them effectively inedible. The natives come all the way to Numto to fish. Vasily is certain that Numto can survive without any oil companies: “The closer they come, the more problems we have. I see no advantages whatsoever.”
The Khanty and the Forest Nenets cannot imagine their lives without their native land. The forests and wetlands are their home where countless generations have lived in harmony with nature. The people of Numto say that the arrival of the oil workers is akin to a land grab: right now, oil rigs surround their native lands and come right up to the holy lake of Numto.
Photography Aleksey Andronov
Video Vlad Zalevsky
Article Elena Sakirko, Konstantin Fomin