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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tribes Win Help From Oil Giants

KHANTY-MANSIISK, Western Siberia -- Traditionally, oil companies in Western Siberia have ruled wherever oil has been found. At the end of the day production comes first and foremost, even at the expense of the environment and the local natives who depend on it for their very existence.

Today some of these natives are holding their heads higher, now that local authorities have conceded to their demands for a return of key rights to their rodoviye ugodiya -- historic tribal lands.

Under a law on the use of subsoil passed by the local parliament in April, drilling and oil production in the area populated by the Khanty and Mansi peoples is possible only after a formal agreement with tribal leaders. About 143 square kilometers of the Khanty-Mansiisk region's 534 square kilometers belongs to the Khanty and Mansi tribes.

"Today we work on the level of agreements between the oil companies and tribe leaders," said Alexander Philipenko, governor of the region.

In return, the natives ask for river boats, snowmobiles and diesel generators, though some have grown bigger appetites, said Mikhail Lazarev, head of the local committee on national minorities.

"At one stage they tried to pass a bill that would give them 5 percent of the profits from oil production on their territory, but it was outlawed as unconstitutional," he said.

The Khanty and the Mansi trace their history back five centuries. They are relatives of the Yugorian tribes who raided parts of medieval Europe before settling in Finland and Hungary. Others migrated to Russia's Far North, where some 28,000 remain, of which only 7,000 are Mansi.

Yeremei Aipin, president of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, said a typical tribe of three or four families can survive on a diet of venison, fish and other catches "only if the ecology has not been ruined."

"We need to keep the balance of interests," Philipenko said. "This is the only way the native peoples can live, and if the oil companies invade their world, they will simply perish."

The Khanty-Mansiisk district, one of Russia's main oil producing regions some 2,500 kilometers northeast of Moscow, accounts for about 60 percent of crude produced in the country and holds oil reserves estimated at several billion tons. Its native peoples are not alone in making authorities recognize their claims to their homelands. Other indigenous peoples of Russia's Far North, like Yamaly, Nentsy and the Russian Eskimos, are becoming more assertive about their terrestrial sovereignty.

With federal programs for the Russian Far North cut back in recent years because of scarce funding and the virtual collapse of centralized delivery schemes, the Khanty and Mansi are still largely at the mercy of the oil companies for food transport.

Surgutneftegaz from time to time flies a helicopter to a small settlement on the Tromyegan River, where people eagerly gather to await each delivery of basics like flour and salt -- and some not-so-basic basics like vodka.

Alcoholism is one reason locals say the life expectancy among Khanty and Mansi averages only about 36 years. The harsh environment and lack of medical care also contribute to chronic health problems.

The local authorities' agreement to make compensation, however small, for allowing oil drilling is at least a sign of change in official thinking about the tribes and their fate.

"Let's not forget that they had been here before we came," Philipenko said.