Situated in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia, Altai Republic contains an unusually complete sequence of vegetation zones, with alpine, permafrost tundra, steppe grassland, steppe, wetlands, taiga forest, and meadows. 12% of its species are endemic, a higher percentage than in European mountain systems. Altai is home to rare and endangered species including the snow leopard, argali sheep, and saker falcon. The mountain system itself is a divide between closed, arid watersheds of Inner Asia and massive rivers flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean. (Klubnikin et al., 2000) Many small and larger rivers have their source within Altai and are so pristine and free-flowing you can often drink from them.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity states: “At least 40% of the world’s economy and 80% of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources. In addition, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to such new challenges as climate change.”
Altai is a biological and ecological gold mine but also has deep cultural roots that sets it apart from other parts of the world. Turkic Altaians have occupied the area for thousands of years.
Altai is part of an ever-changing assortment of unions, khanates, and empires belonging to the Scythians, Pazyryk, Oirats, Turks, Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Mongols and others. The primary modern-day belief system is known as Tengrianism (aka: Tengrism), a balance of Tibetan Buddhism, shamanism, and animist spiritual beliefs. Genghis Khan’s mother was Altaian! This history can still be seen in the landscape today: 60,000 speakers of the Altaian language, intact traditional lifeways, ancient kurgan burial mounds, Stone and Bronze Age petroglyphs, and sacred sites and rituals still used on a daily basis.
One way to think about why Altai is important is that its landscape is ecologically on par with the Amazonian rainforest, Antarctica, and other large unique ecosystems. Another, best summarized by Danil Mamyev, director of the AruSvaty Traditional Knowledge Center: “Altai’s sacred sites should interconnect with both humans and other sacred sites around the world in order to complete a global network for the generation and exchange of traditional knowledge and spirituality.”
Rich with biodiversity and culture, Altai should be allowed and encouraged to thrive for the sake of its own people and for global health, sustainability, healthy ecosystems, and current and future opportunities for discovery, economic opportunity, and new solutions to old and new problems alike.