Lake Imlor is nestled deep within the Russian taiga in western Siberia. More than half of Russia’s oil production comes from the surrounding region. For the Indigenous Khanty people who live here, the lake is sacred. They have worshiped on its shores for generations. But the lake and traditional way of life are in peril, and the lake’s last defender is threatened with jail.
According to Khanty tradition, every big clan has a special place, created “by nature itself for purity of thought and peaceful meditation.” Sacred sites like these have strict taboos enshrined in local law: do not make fires, chop down trees, hunt, fish, or do anything that might disturb the spirits.
Every sacred site has a ‘keeper’ who manages ceremonies and maintains respect for the environment – a responsibility handed down through generations. Reindeer herder Sergey Kechimov, a descendant of shamans and folk musicians, is the keeper of Lake Imlor. This is his home.
But year after year, Russian oil operations have edged closer, crowding out Khanty villages, destroying forests and pastures, and bringing with them fires and pollution.
With the land no longer able to support grazing, one by one, herder families left. Some sought jobs in new towns built for oil workers. But Sergey and his wife Capitalina decided to stay – it is their land and he has a special duty to care for it. Their small log cabin is the last occupied home on the banks of Imlor.
Once a place of peace and quiet with no roads, the lake now is surrounded by oil wells and pipes owned by the Russian oil and gas company Surgutneftegas. At night gas torches from drilling sites light up the sky. Yet Sergey continues to watch over the troubled lake. By day he confronts poachers, drives away dogs, and attempts to keep order on the lake’s shore.
“Sometimes I come to the lake and find a Russian poacher fishing,” says Sergey “I ask: ‘what are you doing here? You cannot fish here.’ These run-ins always end in abuse and insults,” he adds.
Run in with big oil
Last September, oil workers from Surgutneftegas company arrived bringing dogs, hunting without permission and leaving rubbish. The oil operation stepped up and oil spills became more severe.
Despite the onslaught, Sergey remained steadfast in his duty to the lake. Writing dozens of complaints, inspiring others to do the same, and keeping up his regular patrols, he soon became an irritation to the company.
One day, Sergey says, a pack of dogs belonging to the oil workers attacked his deer. Then one of the dogs attacked him. The old man took his gun and shot the dog.
A few days later, police came and demanded he sign some papers in Russian. Sergey’s Russian is poor – learning it had little value in the forest. He later discovered that he had signed a confession to threatening oil workers with a weapon and extorting money. The case was transferred to court. The process may last for months and Sergey could face two years in prison.
Locals see the charges as a blatant attempt by the oil industry to scare off Indigenous opposition to oil drilling, and to get rid of a man who literally stood in its way.
Meanwhile, the company Surgutneftegas has big plans for Lake Imlor. The area hosts part of the rich Fedorovsky oil deposits, that have been explored and developed since the 1980s. Under the lake itself, the company claims, lie up to one million tons of oil.
Oil production in Russia is a horrendously dirty business. Drilling on the banks of Lake Imlor has not yet begun and already oil leaking from nearby pipes floods into the water. In July, the local town Nefteugansk was literally flooded with oil. If companies were forced to pay for the destruction they cause, surely they would be less inclined to embark on reckless projects like drilling for oil under a sacred lake?
Greenpeace Russia has just returned from the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region where Sergey lives. The trip is part of an ongoing campaign to expose the disastrous impacts of oil drilling that companies are hoping to hide, deep in the taiga forest.
Sergey showed us the impact of the industry on the Khanty people and their native land. Together we witnessed catastrophic oil spills. Finding the leaks was easy. It was far harder to find any healthy forest that has not been polluted by the toxic spills.
For nature and Indigenous people, pollution is not the only threat here. In the paths beaten by the oil industry came poachers. On shores littered with debris, hunting cabins appeared. Discarded cigarette butts and campfires spark blazes that ravage what remains of the forest.
A reserve of sorts was established on Imlor lake, but this was according to the company’s own version of “protection” for the lake. It amounted to allocating a portion of the land for Indigenous rites. That land turned out to be nothing but a small reservation in the midst of the oil fields as the oil development went ahead, contrary to the community’s demands.
With the oil operation now set to venture into the water, the sacred lake is in greater danger than ever. What’s worse, if the lake’s guardian is taken away, there may be no one left to speak out.
But people are coming together in support of Sergey, Indigenous rights and Lake Imlor. The recklessness of the oil companies is increasingly under public scrutiny. National and international media are now telling the story of the old man’s stand to protect his land. Day by day, hope is growing that the lake will not lose its brave keeper.