Miscellaneous Altai commentary…

Yesterday’s meetings did indeed devolve into discussions, but I missed almost all of it. Well, with the exception of an early brainstorming session about determining the geography of climate change adaptation and a “mega-corridor” for wildlife. Considering that we were discussing the Altai-Sayan ecoregion here in south-central Russia, western Mongolia, China’s Xinjiang Province, and far eastern Kazakhstan, I was a bit surprised to hear proposals to extend the “mega-corridor” across to Lake Baikal, Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, and even the Himalayas, but from the perspective of things such as snow leopard habitat or other keystone species, I suppose the argument can be made.

Instead, I spent hours poring over budgets, project plans, and then just catching up on Altai news with Chagat Almashev, local director of the Fund for Sustainable Development of Altai. As the only established and (mostly) effective Republic-wide focused non-profit organization in the Republic, the FSDA is The Altai Project’s key partner in Altai. While I wish that FSDA would play more of a conservation and indigenous advocacy role, it does excel at supporting smaller non-profits and initiative groups in the region as well as providing key trainings (nature guides, Leave No Trace, homemade souvenir production, etc.) and work with local indigenous groups to map sacred sites and protect their rights to land and sacred sites. Outright advocacy and activism is a very difficult path in the Altai Republic as those that do speak out are shunned and effectively cut off from the government. Still, I don’t understand all the intricacies, and often find myself wishing that Altai Republic’s greatest asset – the people – could speak out en masse on important issues. I don’t imagine that a mass response could be ignored on any issue. Ah well. In such a small community – Altai Republic’s entire population is 200,000 – everyone seems to know everyone at least a little bit, and that greatly adds to complexity, particularly in a region where tribal and clan associations are still important.

The Altai Republic’s new federal Sailyugem National Park still only exists on paper, due to slow progress at the federal level in terms of budgeting and putting various approvals for staffing, infrastructure, etc. into place. Everyone is eager to see the new National Park in operation, for it will protect some of critical habitat for argali sheep and snow leopards. (The Jan 09 helicopter crash that revealed gross poaching by local and federal government officials took place on the Park’s future lands.)

Gazprom’s proposed natural gas pipeline from Siberian gas fields across the Altai Republic into China is still on the table. It seems that a Gazprom delegation has applied for tourist permits to visit the Ukok Plateau. I’m oh so sure that they have bigger plans than roasting marshmallows over the campfire, however. And the federal press leaked yet another article about incremental progress in Russian and Chinese negotiations over price. Still and all, analysts assert that the pipeline is nothing but a bargaining chip in the larger energy market and thus unlikely to ever see completion. Let’s hope so. Lastly, it seems likely that another V-shaped stretch of mountain ridges between Lake Teletskoye and Kosh-Agach to the south will receive protection as the Republic-level Ak-Cholushpa Nature Park – less protection than a federal protected area, but better than nothing for the snow leopards and other species that live there.

I’ve been looking around for potential new partners while attending this workshop. It seems that a staffer at Altaisky Zapovednik (a zapovednik is a strictly protected nature reserve, where essentially no humans are permitted) has established a new non-profit called Tri Glavu (sic) to conduct environmental education and general conservation work. I’m looking forward to spending more time with its founder, Svetlana, over the next week, on our expedition to Lake Teletskoye.

I promise to have more exciting pictures once we hit the road again. This morning, I think we are heading to the nearby village of Verkhny Uimon, a settlement that is still home to the Old Believers (a schism group of the Russian Orthodox church) who fled repression centuries ago and still live and practice the old ways today. They have a wonderful history and anthropological museum as well as a whole house nearby full of Nicholas Roehrich’s artwork. Both buildings and most of the homes in the town are built using traditional Russian architecture and building techniques. It’s always worth another visit, especially when the other choice is visiting a nearby red deer (maral) farm and seeing how they are raised for their antlers (with their claims for increased virility and energy) and their meat. These farms are an important part of the local economy as Koreans and Chinese purchase their horn production and tourists come to soak in their horn-infused hot tubs. Apparently not an activity for those with cardiac problems. Later in the afternoon, we gather again for a final plenary work session. I’ll be interested to see if anything approaching an initial workable climate adaptation plan or “mega-corridor” comes out of it. Obviously there would be much work to be done before any results would be seen, and I have my doubts as to how much of a visible trickle-down would occur for local flora, fauna, and humans.

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