from The Observer, 13 August 1995
From the moment that Prince Philip first set foot in the remote Dolgan village of Kristy in the bleak, wild heart of the Siberian arctic, he was being videoed by the natives. Like most of the world's indigenous, endangered peoples, the 5,000 Dolgans who roam the vast Russian tundra defy romantic stereotypes.
As well as video cameras, they have televisions, VCRs, ghetto-blasters, central heating, china tea cups and smart modern suits. But for the Prince, who was visiting in July as international president of the World Wide Fund for Nature, some of the older Dolgan women dressed up in their traditional arctic fox furs, and cooked dried fish on a fire in a smoke-filled wigwam.
After nibbling the fish, the Prince and a small media scrum, braved hordes of voracious mosquitoes to talk to the locals. With the help of his Foreign Office interpreter, who wore a startlingly incongruous panama hat, he asked one Dolgan where he lived. "Here," the man replied, vaguely indicating the crumbling array of wooden shacks clinging to the bank of the River Khatanga that comprises Kristy.
The Dolgans have scratched a living from the tundra, one of the world's most vulnerable and inhospitable natural environments, for centuries. Traditionally nomadic, they ranch and hunt reindeers for their meat and skins, they kill arctic foxes by the score for their white furs and they fish the plentiful lakes and rivers that characterise the endless, frozen plains of the far north. Under communism many of them were corraled into villages, but they carried on hunting and fishing much as they always had - and sold their furs to the state.
But now they are in trouble. "The young people don't want to work here any more," said Kristy's sharp-suited chief, 36-year-old Valery Alexeyevich. "They have no teachers because many of the people are old. They want to earn a lot of money, but there is no money for our kind of work. So they go away."
Alexeyevich preferred communism because at least it had provided a guaranteed market and a fixed price for their goods. Having to compete in a free market without any marketing infrastructure or expertise was impossible, he said. "I myself do not want to work here any more because it is too difficult. I want to go away to be a farmer in the south."
Although not all villagers are as pessimistic as their chief, gloom about the future is widespread. Sitting beside a gently murmuring television screen in her brightly-beaded arctic fox fur boots, 36-year-old Janna Jarkova expressed her fear that the pure Dolgan race is heading for extinction. "I am worried about the degradation of the Dolgan nation because of marriages with Russians from outside," she said. "My husband is a mixture of many many nations. He is not a pure Dolgan."
The Dolgans are also worried that the growth of large commercially-run hunting expeditions from elsewhere in Russia or Europe could deplete the numbers of reindeer or fox. They are concerned about toxic pollution which flows down the River Pyasina and blows in the air to the arctic from the huge metal-smelting city of Norilsk to the south. They fear that the Russian government, in a desperate bid for hard currency, will open up pristine areas of the tundra to mineral, gas or oil exploitation.
Most insidiously of all, the Dolgans are afraid of leaking radioactivity. Five hundred kilometres across the Kara sea from the Taymyr peninsula, in shallow waters off the island of Novaya Zemlya, the former Soviet Union dumped six nuclear submarines and countless drums of radioactive waste. An unpublished report by the International Atomic Energy Agency's marine environment laboratory in Monaco reveals that the drums have already begun to leak. It says that a leakage of less than a quarter of the large amount of radioactivity contained in the submarine reactors could have a "significant" impact on the health of local people.
The Dolgans share the vast Taymyr peninsula in northernmost Siberia with four other smaller ethnic groups: the Nganasans, the Entsens, the Nentsens and the Evenkens. According to a study by Professor Jens Dahl from the University of Copenhagen, there are in total over 900,000 indigenous people in the north and far east of Russia, including 382,000 Yakuts and 344,500 Komi.
Around the rest of the arctic, there are 85,700 native people in Alaska including the Inupiat and Athabascan Indians; 30,000 native people in Canada including the Inuit and the Cree Indians; 47,000 native Greenlanders; and perhaps 70,000 Sami people in Scandinavia. In all there are over 1.1 million indigenous people encircling the north pole, speaking perhaps 50 different languages.
Although there are many differences between them, it is the similarities that are striking. They all depend upon hunting and fishing but have lost control of the land which sustains them. They all face threats from commercial development and mineral exploitation by outsiders keen for quick profits. They are all vulnerable to air or water pollution from industrial plants or waste dumps far away.
Sadly, according to Professor Dahl, they tend to suffer similar social problems too: a high incidence of alcoholism and suicides allied with a pervading feeling of defeatism. Their populations all seem to be in terminal decline.
"For indigenous people, their relationship to the land is fundamental," explained Ole Henrik Magg, the president of the Sami parliament in Norway. "But local and global pollution is gradually turning the environment into a nightmare, and most arctic areas are already affected. The most difficult environmental situation is in the Russian north where large areas are rapidly becoming unfit for human life."
The arctic's native people, in other words, are perhaps its most endangered species. Like polar bears, brent geese and beluga whales, they need the world's protection and help. They need policies designed to reawaken their hopes, to reinvigorate their prospects and to renew their lives.
The solution demands nothing less than a radical redefinition of conservation. As well as preserving flowers and animals, conservationists have to protect native people. That will inevitably involve them in some awkward public relations problems. How can organisations dedicated to protecting wildlife support the right of native people to kill wildlife?
This is a challenge that the World Wide Fund for Nature is meeting head on. Robin Pellew, the British director of WWF, points out that as a general rule hunting by indigenous people has a relatively small impact on animal populations and is hence environmentally sustainable. "Indigenous people are the best conservationists," he said. "We should empower them so that they can manage their traditional homelands in the way they have done for centuries."
In the Russian arctic, WWF is forging partnerships with the native people to press for larger areas of the tundra to be designated as strictly protected nature reserves, or 'zapovedniks'. As well as providing legal protection against development, the reserves give native people the exclusive right to carry on hunting.
One of the largest zapovedniks in northern Russia is the Great Arctic Reserve, which covers 41,700 square kilometres around the north coast of the Taymyr peninsula. Since it was designated in 1993, the Russians have already announced plans to expand it. A significant part of WWF's annual investment in Russia of 10 million dollars helps run this and other Russian reserves.
On his tour of the Taymyr in July, Prince Philip kept repeating WWF's essential message to the Dolgans: "No conservation can be done anywhere in the world without the support of local people." For all his pessimism, the Dolgan chief Valery Alexeyevich, agreed. "Zapovedniks are a good thing," he said. "They protect the rich abundance of nature which would otherwise be damaged by man. They conserve nature so that it can then be used and sold."