Traditionally Integrated Development Near Lake Baikal, Siberia

The Okinsky Region is a mountainous, Vermont-size district southwest of Lake Baikal bordering Mongolia. It forms the panhandle of Buryaria, one of several so-called `autonomous' republics within Russia. A culturally based, locally designed, model land use plan is being implemented in the Okinsky Region in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia. As part of the planning process, the people of the `Oka' have adopted a far-reaching declaration that establishes dear policy guidelines for the preservation of their culture and the management of their natural resources. This experiment in proactive, traditionally integrated development could be a useful model for cultural survival elsewhere.

The population of the Oka is only about 5,000 people. Over 98% of the people are Buryat, nearly a third of whom claim some Soyot ancestry. The current struggle by the indigenous peoples to control their natural resources and preserve the remnants of their culture is the latest stage in a long evolution of cultural dynamics in the Lake Baikl region. The indigenous rights movement in the Oka is on one hand, representative of the struggle by native peoples throughout the former Soviet Union to regain control of their destiny On the other hand, their progress in identifying, articulating, and implementing their land use policies is quite extraordinary

A Brief History of Buryat -- Russian Relations

The Buryats are a Mongol people and the largest indigenous nationality in Siberia, numbering about 500,000. Buryat-Russian interactions began in the early 17th century when the Russian Empire was aggressively expanding eastward across Siberia. The Buryat Mongols-traditionally nomadic herders of sheep, horses, cattle, and camelswere the most numerous tribe in the Lake Baikal region. Having been part of Chingis (Gengis) Khan's empire in the 13th century, the Buryats had a tradition of military organization and equestrian skills. Prior to the arrival of the Russians in central Siberia, the Buryat Mongols subjugated neighboring tribes and extorted tribute from them. Thus, the Buryats were not inclined to defer to Russian interlopers and contrary to Soviet propaganda, they put up fierce resistance.

In what historian, James Forsyth refers to as `The Buryat Wars,' Russian troops battled Buryat Mongols for control of the Baikal region throughout much of the 17th century. The Russians inexorably exerted their dominance over the Buryats and other indigenous tribes of Siberia. By the early 18th century most of the Buryat Mongols, particularly those west of Lake Baikal, were effectively under Russian domination. Traditional Buryat grazing lands along the Lower Angara River, among others, were conceded to the conquering Russians. Driven from pillar to post, many Buryats in the Lower Angara basin moved farther west into the Sayan Range, into lands already occupied by reindeer-herding peoples, the Evenks and Soyots. In the Oka Region, the Soyots' language and culture were overwhelmed by those of the more numerous Buryat immigrants.

Cultural Erosion in the 20th Century

The 20th century has taken a heavy toll on Buryat culture. By the early 20th century, immigrants from European Russia had made the Buryats a minority in the Lake Baikal region, accelerating the rate of cultural erosion. In April 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, the Buryats organized an All-Buryat Congress; the participants called for Buryat autonomy within a continuous territory and a complete system of education in the Buryat language. The Russian authorities in Siberia were preoccupied with political events in European Russia and the movement for Buryat autonomy gained momentum. The Russian Revolution, followed by several years of civil war, created a power vacuum that allowed Buryat separatist leaders to press their cause. By 1919, a Pan-Mongol movement had emerged, with some Buryats promoting the concept of a Mongolian state that would unify Mongol peoples. This Pan-Mongol movement was supported by the Japanese-long-standing enemies of the Russians-whose attempt to promote Asian solidarity among the Mongols was not well received by the Bolsheviks. When the Bolsheviks finally gained control of the Lake Baikal region in late 1919 and 1920, they were quick to quash the movements for Buryat autonomy and a Pan-Mongol state. Buryat leaders of these movements were arrested and imprisoned and armed resistance continued as late as 1924. The socalled Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was established in 1922, but it was autonomous in name only.

As late as the 1920s, many Buryat Mongols practiced nomadic pastoralism. Buddhism still thrived in the Buryat-Mongol ASSR and some textbooks were being published in the native language. But in 1929, when Stalin assumed dictatorial powers, things took a sharp turn for the worse. The Russian Communist Party began a campaign of attacks on Buryat nationalism, Pan-Mongolism, and all religious activities in the region. Buddhist monasteries were closed and lamas were exiled. Nomadism was actively discouraged and replaced by collective farms. This repression resulted in a violent uprising by Buryats, which was forcefully put down by the Russian authorities. Suspected leaders of the uprising were beaten and murdered throughout Buryaria. Faced with the destruction of their culture, the Buryat Mongols carried out a mass slaughter of their own livestock, rather than submitting to the new ways.

In 1931, the Soviet Russian authorities replaced the traditional Mongolian alphabet used by the Buryats with Roman letters, apparently to stifle linguistic unity between Mongols in Buryatia and their cousins in Mongolia. The alphabet was changed again in 1939, this time to Cyrillic. By 1935, most Buryat lamas and shamans had been arrested or otherwise persecuted. Buddhist monasteries or datsans had been closed and forced collectivization had destroyed traditional patterns of pastoral nomadism. By the late 1930s, so many ethnic Russians and Ukrainians had immigrated to Ulan-Ude, the capitol of the Buryat-Mongol ASSR, that it had become essentially a Russian city; Buryats comprised only about 20% if the population.

Even Buryat mythology came under communist scrutiny. In 1948, the folk epic concerning Geser Khan-part of the oral tradition of Turkic, Tibetan, and Mongol peoples-was suspected by Russian Communist authorities of glorifying Chingis Khan (whose grandson Batu Khan had conquered Russia in the 13th century) and therefore being anti-Russian. For five years, the Russian Communist Party prohibited study and publication of the Geser legend. After much ponderous debate, the Soviet authorities finally concluded that the legend was not subversive. In the Buryat variation of the legend, many events in the life of Geser Khan take place in the Oka region, making this area particularly important to traditional Buryats.

Evolution of the Okinsky TID Land Use Plan

Concern about the pollution of Lake Baikal stimulated the development of the Soviet environmental movement and focused international attention on the Lake Baikal region. In 1990, the Soviet government requested the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to evaluate Lake Baikal and its watershed as a potential World Heritage Site (status that was eventually achieved in 1996). This request coincided with the completion of a Soviet study on the protection of the Lake Baikal Basin and an expedition and conference of Soviet and American scientists and environmental leaders concerning environmental threats to Lake Baikal. These events prompted a two-year project to recommend a comprehensive land use plan for the Lake Baikal Basin. The project, which was mostly privately funded, was carried out by a large team of Russian and American specialists led by American planner George Davis. A guiding principle of the study was that the Lake Baikal Basin should be a model of sustainable development based on agriculture, education, forestry, mining, science, and tourism. The result was a lengthy report, The Lake Baikal Region in the Twenty-First Century: A Model of Sustainable Development or Continued Degradation?, and 1:1,000,000 scale land use zone map, completed in 1993. Although the Okinsky Region lies outside the Lake Baikal watershed, it was included in the 1993 study due to its strong ecological, cultural, political, and infrastructural links to the Lake Baikal Basin.

The 1993 report, commonly referred to as the `Comprehensive Program,' provided an excellent framework for sustainable, traditionally integrated development in the Lake Baikal region, but it was only a beginning.

Meanwhile in 1992, Presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin signed a joint statement pledging American-Russian cooperation to protect Lake Baikal; helping to conserve Lake Baikal was now official U.S. policy USAID contracted Ecologically Sustainable Development, Inc., a non-profit organization founded by George Davis (who had led the team that wrote the 1993 Comprehensive Program), to develop several pilot land use planning projects in the Lake Baikal region. One of the pilot projects was a detailed land use plan for the Okinsky Region which was selected because of its relative simplicity: the population is small, dominated by indigenous peoples, and the potential land use conflicts (primarily concerning gold mining and forest management) are relatively minor.

The land use planning process for the Okinsky Region was grounded in the core principles of the 1993 Comprehensive Program. The goal was traditionally integrated development (TID) of the Okinsky Region-the integration of traditional Buryat and Soyot traditions, culture, and lifestyle into the active, daily lives of the people through a proactive land use and zoning plan, in harmony with a new Russia and the modern world. The first step was a detailed, regional resource assessment. Buryat, Russian, and American resource specialists worked together intermittently between 1993 and 1995 to identify biological and cultural resources, productive agricultural and forest soils, sensitive habitats, and other features. These data, along with existing roads, water supply, sewage treatment, and communication systems were plotted on 19 separate resource maps and integrated into the final land use plan. The final plan was converted to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) formats at East Siberian Technical University in Ulan-Ude.

The planning team was led by a resident local Buryat project director and an American project director who became a well known and trusted participant in the local planning process. In order to produce a viable TID land use plan, the planning team members needed to understand and respect local cultural traditions and folklore; build understanding and respect among community elders for the project; create community and local advisory committees to participate directly in the identification and mapping of local features important to native traditions and lifestyles; help the community identify economic, social, environmental, and cultural goals; help find ways to adapt traditional economic practices to modern economic realities; and facilitate, but not dominate, the process of designing a regional strategy for land use planning and development.

The Oka Declaration

The capstone to the Okinsky planning project was the creation and adoption of the Declaration for Traditional Integrated Development of the Okinsky Region-the `Oka Declaration.' The Oka Declaration is, in essence, an ethics and policy statement by the indigenous people of the Oka, in which they identify the aspects of their culture, lifestyle, and environment that they want to protect and conserve. Overwhelmingly adopted by plebiscite in February 1995, the Oka Declaration accomplished several important things: it affirmed local support for the comprehensive program for the entire Lake Baikal Basin, consolidated support for the proposed Okinsky National Park and Culturally Protected Landscape, articulated the cultural, spiritual, ecological, and economic priorities of the native peoples of the region, and finally, it provided a policy document for future decision making.

The reactions of Buryatia republican officials to the Oka Declaration have been mixed, in part because of gold mining. The Oka Declaration declares mining to be "directly antithetical to the traditional way of life for the native peoples of the Oka," however the largest gold mining operation in Buryatia is just now going into production in the Okinsky Region. With decreased federal funding, republican government officials are loathe to embrace a document that rejects mining as a legitimate activity. But neither do they want to be perceived as inhibiting legitimate indigenous rights. In the absence of a strong legal framework in the former Soviet Union, especially concerning the ownership and regulation of natural resources, the safest position is often no position at all. For its part, the Okinsky land use plan that emerged from the USAID-funded project designates an industrial mining zone where mining is acceptable. This industrial zone includes the major gold deposits of the region. So, although the Oka Declaration states that the people are philosophically opposed to mining, the land use planning process produced a workable compromise in which mining can proceed in a designated zone. Since the Oka Declaration was passed, the region has not permitted any mining outside of the designated mining zone.

Some officials have endorsed the Oka Declaration, as well as the more specific land use plan. The Governor of the Okinsky Region, for example, signed a decree specifically implementing actions that support the articles of the Oka Declaration. The Republic of Buryatia's Ministry of Forestry has endorsed the transfer of commercial forests to protected reserves, in keeping with both the Oka Declaration and the land use plan. The Minister of Ecology has expressed broad support for the Oka project and the Minister of Agriculture has provided direct support for the project's reindeer and yak breeding programs.

In the 1930s, Stalin tried to snuff out cultural identity and self determination among the indigenous peoples of Siberia. Now in a new political climate, these peoples are struggling to find their way in Russia and the world, to find the right mix of traditional ways and 21st century technology-a daunting task under the best of circumstances. For the people of the Okinsky Region, the process of constructing and embracing a common vision of the future has been a huge step in the right direction.


Davis, G. D. et al. 1993. The Lake Baikal Region in the Twenty-First Century: A Model of Sustainable Development or Continued Degradation? A Comprehensive National Program of Sustainable Land Use Policies for the Russian Portion of the Lake Baikal Region. Elizabethtown, NY: Ecologically Sustainable Development, Inc.

Fondahl, G. A. 1996. "Contested Terrain: Changing Boundaries and Identities in Southeastern Siberia." Post-Soviet Geography and Economics. v. 37, pp. 3-15.

Forsyth, J. 1992. A History of the Peoples of Siberia-Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990. London: Cambridge University Press.

Plumey, D.R. 1998. "Ecologically Sustainable Land Use Planning in the Russian Lake Baikal Region." Journal of Sustainable Forestry. v. 4, pp. 103-117.

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