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Pavel Sulyandziga: Indigenous Rights Activist From the Bikin River

“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders, Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspectives of those who live there. 

By Karina Kesserwan

Pavel Sulyandziga is Udege. The Udege people live in the Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai, regions along the coast of the Russian Far East. His particular group, Bikinka-Udege, live by the Bikin River in northern Primorsky Krai.

Often described as one of the most outspoken indigenous rights activists in the Russian Federation, Sulyandziga is a member of the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights, the chairman of the board of the International Development Fund for Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East “Batani” (batani means hero in his native language). He was the first vice-president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, was a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, headed the board of the Secretariat of Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic Council, and was deputy chairman of the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group.

Under his leadership, several large development initiatives concerning the indigenous peoples of the Arctic have been implemented, including a research project on how pollution introduced to food chains impacts human health.

Sulyandziga’s own field of research concentrates on the traditional economy of indigenous peoples. He recently moved to the United States, fearing for his family’s safety after receiving death threats in response to his activities to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. He told us that he hopes one day to return to his homeland to continue to contribute to the development of his people.

KESSERWAN ARTEAU: Tell us about your North.

PAVEL SULYANDZIGA: The Bikin is a river in the north of Primorsky Krai, flowing into the Ussuri, which then flows into the Amur. While my homeland does not belong to the Arctic, the temperatures there can reach 50 degrees Celsius below zero in winter. On average, the winter temperature is about 27-28 degrees Celsius below zero. Once, a man from Yakutia [one of the northernmost regions of Russia] was visiting us in the winter, and he was always cold, saying that "our 50 degrees Celsius below zero feels warmer than your 30 degrees Celsius below zero." In fact, the humidity is higher in our territory than in Yakutia.

A holy place where Udege people hold rituals before fishing or hunting

KA: What is special about this place?

PS: The taiga in the Bikin River Valley has become a pilgrimage site for scientists studying biodiversity and climate change. First, this taiga is considered to be the largest preserved forest in the Northern Hemisphere and it produces the largest amount of oxygen. It is called the Russian Amazon. Scientists say: The Amazon forests are the southern lungs of the planet, and the taiga of Bikin is the northern lungs.

Second, because the taiga in the Bikin River valley is the place where the north and south meet, it is home to native plants and animals from both directions. Larch, cranberries, and other northern plants grow next to southern plants like wild grapes and lotus. It is interesting to observe how "the north" and " the south" have converged in this one place.

In Krasny Yar, with the Russian actor Boris Galkin

KA: Tell us about the people there.

PS: Bikin is home to indigenous peoples (Udege, Nanai, and Orochs) who are still engaged in traditional activities. The village of Krasny Yar is considered the unofficial capital of the Udege people. There are only 1,800 Udege people left. Of these, approximately 550 reside in Krasny Yar.

KA: What is the most beautiful thing about your North?

PS: Our most important asset is our taiga. We stood up to a lot of pressure from political authorities and industry to preserve it. There are huge reserves of gold on our territory (the third largest by volume in the Far East), massive coal deposits, and a large volume of wood, especially valuable species such as cedar, oak, pine, and ash. To preserve our environment, we entered into the Kyoto Protocol and took part in its emissions trading market.

Our greatest treasure is the Amur tiger, the largest cat on earth and ancestor of the Udege.

KA: Tell us about yourself and your work.

PS: I am a mathematician by training. I dreamed of creating a school for gifted indigenous children. But it just so happened that I had to take up politics in order to be able to protect the rights of my people.

I always believed that a people, as well as each individual, should be responsible for their own destiny—should solve their own problems and be responsible for their own development. Thus, I believe the most important thing is to help people, especially young people, get a good education. Our grandparents’ generation instituted that unspoken policy, and it allowed our village to survive and to develop, despite many difficulties along the way.

I saw other indigenous villages collapse and disappear (especially in the 1990s) due to the fact that there were no intelligent, educated people who could exercise, influence, or defend positions in negotiations with the authorities about plans for the economic and social development of their communities. Our elders encouraged us to educate ourselves. In our village, all the leaders—the chairman of the Council, the head of the school, the head physician of the hospital, the head of the kindergarten, the director of the hunting economy—are indigenous.

We have a lot of people with advanced degrees working as writers and artists, and our students study at universities around the world.

I took an active part in the legislative process in the late 90s and early 2000s in Russia, and we succeeded in promoting the adoption of three federal laws on the rights of indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, these laws are practically "dead" today, as many of the most important clauses on the rights to land and natural resources have been removed. Lawyers say that there was a total devaluation of the rights of the small-numbered indigenous peoples of Russia.

Pavel at 15 years old with his father and the now well-known painter, Ivan Dunkai

KA: How does coming from the North make you different?

PS: My generation was faced with aggressive domestic nationalism when we were forced to study in boarding schools located outside our communities. Almost every evening, intoxicated young people came to our boarding school to shout racial slurs at us and threaten to beat us up. Periodically, fights occurred. Many of our people have lived with this "inferiority complex" all their lives. I managed to overcome this complex thanks to the experiences I had among international students, where a person was valued not for the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes, but for their human qualities. That environment helped me understand that there are different people in every nation and that the nationalism I faced at the boarding school is not a reflection of the entire Russian people—at least not the best elements of it.

However, it was these events at the boarding school that made me interested in the history of my people. I began to record my conversations with elders and my parents about the history of the Bikin's Udege people and about our traditions and customs. I began to keep a diary with ideas, prepared lectures, wrote a poem about one of our legends, and wrote a film script about the customs of our people.

KA: Name a few successes in your North.

PS: One success I would like to mention is the creation of the Bikin National Park on the territory of my people, which will be co-managed by the indigenous peoples and the government of Russia. We held intense negotiations with the administration of the Russian president, and they agreed to all our proposals. This process was very painful for all parties, however, especially for the Udege.

However, there was also great resistance to this process from the Udege people. This was due to the fact that some dishonest “leaders” in the community were using the management of our territory for personal gain. Business interests attempted to manufacture public outrage among the Udege people by publishing misleading articles about the Udege being evicted from Bikin.

We created a group to better inform people. Members of that group faced death threats, some lost their jobs, and one has even seen his property destroyed. But our hard work was rewarded with the creation of the first co-managed park in Russia.

Now, we are helping to draw up a plan for the development of indigenous peoples in the park. [The plan was formulated by international and Russian experts on the basis of the proposals of the Udege themselves.] Another important challenge ahead is to monitor the activities of the Russian government and the Primorsky Territory Administration related to the park documents in order to prevent the exclusion of provisions protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

Children competing on traditional Udege canoes

KA: What are your hopes and fears for the future?

PS: I very much hope that my people—my descendants—will be able to live on the same clean land and preserved taiga, which we will leave to them, for hundreds of years to come. My fears are connected to the general situation of the world and to the general development of mankind, because my people and my little homeland are part of this great, insane world, which has become very small due to globalization.

*****

*****

This interview was conducted in Russian. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.

Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq.

[Photos courtesy of Pavel Sulyandziga]

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