A lot of water under the bridge since the last time there was news from us at The Altai Project. We have been in quiet mode here.
The political situation inside of Russia has made our work extremely challenging, despite the ongoing need for conservation funding and other support for our partners in Altai. We are maintaining connections with our existing colleagues, however the planned merger and we announced in late 2015 did not come to fruition for strategic reasons. One of the reasons that The Altai Project’s work is so challenging is that, as of mid-2016, all of Altai’s conservation organizations and our main indigenous partner organization have been declared “Foreign Agents”. This federal law is designed to repress civil society with slanderous dishonoring labels, punitive fines, and excessively burdensome bureaucracy. Putin’s administration has maintained an iron (and corruption-driven) grip on governance and the media, resulting in witch hunts against effective conservation groups and generally cultivating hate, distrust, and discrimination against “foreign influence” in any form.
As a result, most of our partners in Altai have chosen to liquidate their non-profit status after being involuntarily labeled under the Foreign Agent Law. However! Because they are all incredibly dedicated advocates for biodiversity, cultural heritage, and wildlife conservation, they are simply continuing their work. Using informal alliances, volunteerism, and grassroots support they continue to protect wildlife, strengthen protected areas, and support indigenous heritage and cultural transmission.
What’s been going on in Altai in conservation?
Destructive placer (alluvial) gold mining continues to be a problem in northern Altai, but a second rainy and wet summer has limited rogue operations in some areas, while wide community and even local government opposition has slowed development in other areas.
Tourism is still a double-edged sword. Communities and protected areas across the region build and improve infrastructure, conduct trail development, and grow services to respond to increasing demand. The Facebook pages of Altaisky and Katunsky Nature Reserves and Sailyugem National Park are filled with imagery from this year’s busy season. At the same time, highly connected and wealthy big game hunters still take advantage of corruption and weak enforcement to poach and hunt unsustainably.
Snow leopard research, conservation, and education has grown. The Altai Project’s past grantee Sergei Spitsyn has focused on mentoring the next generation of snow leopard researchers, and as a result, camera trap data and other monitoring methods are revealing more and more snow leopards in Altai Republic. The most recent survey (early 2016) identified 31 individual snow leopards in Altai and researchers estimate there to be approximately 40 cats total. Particularly exciting is the number of females with their offspring – successful reproduction is a great sign of a healthy population.
Gazprom’s proposed Altai pipeline, now renamed the “Power of Siberia 2” (a sister pipeline to the west-to-east pipeline named “Power of Siberia”), seems to have settled semi-permanently on the backburner. It is still mentioned during Russia-China energy negotiations, but seems increasingly unlikely in the current economic climate.
Today, I will fly to Hawai’i to attend IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Honolulu. With support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, we will bring two indigenous leaders from Altai, as well as Chief Caleen Sisk of California’s Winnemem Wintu tribe to join a large delegation of sacred sites leaders from around the world at the Congress. In collaboration with Sacred Land Film Project, we are assembling 25 powerful indigenous leaders from around the world in order to underline the connection between indigenous peoples and biodiversity in sacred cultural and natural landscapes. These leaders will discuss success stories and tragic losses, conduct ceremony with Native Hawaiians, and address conservation experts from around the world at the IUCN Congress.
We are still seeking donations for our small grants program in Altai and to support our general operations. I would also be pleased to hear from you anytime to talk about our work and the current complexities of Russian grassroots conservation.
Thank you so much for your continued interest in our work!