White Banner of Hope: Collaboration Needed to Promote Peace, Sustainability and Cultural Survival

People across the transborder region of the western and eastern Sayan Mountains recognize the sacred white banner (called tsagan hadag in Buryat-Mongolian) as a symbol of welcome, sincerity, purity, friendship, and hospitality. Perhaps a sacred white banner, held high by the antlers of a proud reindeer or the branches of the sacred fir tree, can therefore symbolize the friendship and commitment of Russia and Mongolia as they partner with the international community to ensure the sustainability of the last nomadic reindeer-herding peoples in the Sayan Cross.

The Sayan Cross refers to the area of the Eastern Sayan mountain range artificially divided by geopolitics into four quadrants, each subject to a different administrative regime, and each home to one of the reindeer herding communities featured in this special issue. The regions are: Tofalaria, in Irkutsk Oblast', home to the Tofa; Tozhu District in Tyva, home to the Tozhu; Okinskii Region in Buryatia, home to the Soyot; and the Hovsgol region of Mongolia, home to the Dukha. A plan for this transboundary region - the Lake Baikal-Sayans-Lake Hovsgol Peace Park - is one of several partnership proposals that have been in the works since the early 1990s. The park would serve not only as a protected zone, but as a medium for cross-border cooperation on ecological, cultural, trade, economic, and tourism opportunities and needs. A declaration signed by regional republic officials, non-governmental leaders, and indigenous representative bodies lent support to the project in 1998, and discussions surrounding the Peace Park concept helped enable transregional and cross-border dialogue on the future of the region's nomadic reindeer-herding cultures. This cooperation resulted in the 2002 adoption of the Charter Agreement on the Protection of the Transboundary Reindeer Herding Cultures of Russia and Mongolia, a vehicle of agreement between representatives of regional governments in Tyva and Buryatia (Russian Federation), and Hovsgol aimag (province), Mongolia, as well as reindeer herders in both lands.

These initiatives, along with the provision of veterinary care, health aid, and other services from Cultural Survival's Totem Peoples' Preservation Project in collaboration with the State Veterinary Laboratory of Mongolia and other international donors, have helped stabilize the reindeer population and have even increased herd numbers in Tyva and Mongolia. They have also enabled herders to bring their concerns to government officials. Government-NGO workshops sponsored by Cultural Survival's Totem Peoples' Preservation Project have raised awareness in their host countries and have promoted critical understanding of the ongoing and increasing threats to cultural survival faced by reindeer-herding nomads.

The traditional reindeer-herding peoples of Inner Asia face crisis conditions. In the Lake Baikal-Sayans-Lake Hovsgol transboundary regions they and their reindeer are in danger of complete cultural diffusion or loss within the next five to 10 years. Of the 8,500 Soyot, Tofa, Tozhu, and Dukha people in Russia and Mongolia, only about 400 are directly or indirectly involved in reindeer breeding and a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As many as 70 to 85 percent of the Dukha and Tozhu peoples are now settled and separated substantially from life in the taiga. These peoples have received minimal survival-level aid from the government, the private sector, and international nonprofit organizations. In the past five to seven years, the Dukha of Mongolia have received substantially more aid than the reindeer peoples on the Russian side of the border. All but a few Tofa and practically all Soyot have left the taiga—many of them long ago during the Soviet era. The decline in the reindeer herders' Native languages also illustrates their assimilation into their regions' majority cultures. The Dukha of Mongolia and the Tozhu have maintained their Native languages and speak them as their primary languages, but threats do exist, especially among youth (see page 53 this issue). The Soyot and Tofa have fully or nearly lost their Native language—the Tofa speak Russian, while the Soyot speak mostly Buryat and/or Russian.
Taking Action in the Sayan Cross

The loss of the reindeer-herding cultures of northern Mongolia's Lake Hovsgol aimag and Russia's Sayan Mountains can be averted only by immediate financing and a truly collaborative international effort to save the taiga's northern reindeer and to promote and sustain, economically and socio-culturally, the Dukha, Soyot, Tozhu, and Tofa peoples.

The Totem Peoples' Preservation Project will continue to work with the governments of Russia and Mongolia and the international community at large to help ensure the reindeer herders and their families are protected, aided, and able to continue. Further, the project will work to help these reindeer herders' and hunter-gatherers' lifestyles gain new respect, and secure these peoples' ability to advance their own development goals within the context of their rights as unique cultures of these countries. The Totem Project, in cooperation with native colleagues in Russia and Mongolia, has developed a priority action agenda for the protection of the reindeer-herding cultures of the Lake Baikal-Sayans-Lake Hovsgol region:
1. The Dukha, Soyot, Tozhu, and Tofa must gain recognized legal land tenure for their ancestral lands, and capacity and knowledge must be enhanced significantly among the herders, individually and in a united fashion, to improve their economic standing through subsistence hunting, reindeer herding and breeding, fishing and gathering activities, and supplemental income options. The governments in Russia and Mongolia should privilege subsistence hunting and herding over industrial activities, and should integrate herders' traditional lifestyles into protected territories through training and cooperative nature protection agreements.
2. Governments should afford reindeer-herding cultures fair and adequate representation on the local, regional, and national levels. While the Soyot, Tofa, and Tozhu are recognized in Russia as Indigenous Small-Numbered Minorities of the North, the designation alone does not provide sufficient representation on government matters that may affect their lifestyles, economy, and future. The Dukha must substantially advance their self-representation.
3. The religious life and Native spirituality of reindeer herders must be respected and guaranteed adequate protection. Furthermore, the cultural heritage and integrity of the reindeer-herding peoples should be fostered and enhanced through collaborative and well-coordinated projects that promote Native language, herder training, and traditional ecological and cultural knowledge.
4. Programs that enhance the individual health, family cohesion, and time together in the taiga, and the strengthening of the reindeer-herding communities are of utmost importance. Advancing economic investment and state policies that promote, rather than degrade, the viability of reindeer-herding and facilitate the distribution and marketing of reindeer herders' and hunters' products can aid in this arena
5. Government actions, industrial activities, development initiatives, and aid programs must work on the ecosystem level and respect the region's cultural ecology and reindeer habitat. Activities must incorporate traditional ecological knowledge in the design and implementation phases, avoid impacts that might threaten the restorative capacity of the ecosystem or cultures involved, and must not compromise Native rights and resources.

The world community (Western countries in particular) is responsible for increasing negative influences on these small cultures through unbalanced market pressures, international corporate trade, exploitation of natural resources, culturally insensitive tourism, and global-warming impacts on reindeer habitat. Thus these problems must be addressed through international collaboration that recognizes the point at which increasing numbers of tourists, research projects, and aid projects become unacceptable or degrading to the health of the region.

Aid programs can bring international financing needed to re-build the sustainability of reindeer-herding cultures. In participating in such programs, the world community can ensure that the Lake Baikal-Sayans-Lake Hovsgol transboundary region remains the homeland of the unique cultures that have, since ancient times, followed a path of ecological sustainability based on their relationship with the northern reindeer, a path in which the symbol of the Tsagan Hadag can be a banner of hope for the preservation of Native culture and landscapes.
Daniel Plumley is director and founder of the Totem Peoples’ Preservation Project.
References and further reading
Plumley, D. R., et. al. (1998, October). Traditional Integrated Development (TID) Planning for the Buryat and Soyot Peoples of the Okinsky Region, Republic of Buryatia, Russia. Cultural Survival Quarterly 22:3, pp 22-26.
International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. (1992). The Owners or Users of Land Within Mountain Protected Areas. In Guidelines for Mountain Protected Areas. Poore, D., Ed. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN. Pp 18-21.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: