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New York Times
February 19, 2003
If Trees Are Family, an Oil Pipeline Is Ungodly

ZUN-MURINO, Russia -- In her sunlit kitchen, Nellya A. Prushenova does the dishes in a pail of steaming water that she melted from ice, and talks animatedly about a frightening new neighbor.

It is not human, or even animal. It is a new oil pipeline, which will run near this tiny village in the mountainous Russian region of Buryatiya, just north of Mongolia, into China. Oil companies and government officials say it is important — it will bring money and forge a new trading tie.

Ms. Prushenova does not see the allure. The main problem, in her words, is the construction. Bulldozers will be tearing up the land her grandparents grew up on. Trees will be cut down. Worst of all, the sacred places — a bald patch on a mountain, a hill — are in risk of being violated.

"Bad things happen when trees are cut down," said Ms. Prushenova, a rail-thin history teacher in the local school who brings in extra income as a fortuneteller. "A child can get sick, or all of our cattle might die. Maybe there will be a flood. Our nature is very easily offended."

Her anxiety is shared by a small group of villagers in this settlement of 1,500 people. The villagers practice Buryat shamanism, a set of beliefs that centers around a reverence for nature. Trees and rivers are worshiped. The main prayer rite in the spring celebrates, as Ms. Prushenova says, "the earth waking up." Angry gods can make much mischief.

Beyond angry gods, there is another reason why Ms. Prushenova is incensed by the coming pipeline. It will run in a narrow valley between two mountain ranges, part of the Tunkinsky National Park. The swath of plains, forests and rivers is an old trade route into Mongolia. A wall of snowcapped mountains rises behind the village, 37 miles from the Mongolian border.

Development in the park is banned, and last year one of the villagers took the initiative to send a letter to the ministry of natural resources in Moscow to remind the government. An answer came back, months later, confirming that, under the current laws, the territory cannot be used for the pipeline.

But the oil company, Yukos, has proposed moving the park's boundaries. It argues that the park, set up in 1991 with hasty, Soviet maximalism, penalized the dwellers of the valley, who were left in a legal bind, banned from cutting wood for their stoves. A pipeline, they argue, will generate jobs, be less invasive than oil extraction and leave a corridor only 130 feet wide.

Ms. Prushenova would not have known about the pipeline had it not been for an energetic environmental activist, Nina Vecher, 57. Ms. Vecher, a physics teacher turned activist grandmother, says she does not believe the promise of jobs. Who, she asks, realistically expects Yukos to hire a bunch of cattle herders.

Moreover, fees to be paid for damages during construction were set in Soviet times and have been practically obliterated by inflation. Lastly, no one can guarantee there will not be spills.

Together with environmentalists from Irkutsk, Ms. Vecher has traveled all over the district here, telling people about the pipeline. Friends of the oil company struck back by publishing an article in a regional newspaper asserting that the environmentalists, financed in part by an American grant, secretly plotted to thwart Russian economic interests on behalf of America.

Ms. Prushenova cares little about American spies. She has a more immediate concern: feeding and clothing her 14-year-old daughter on $120 a month. Chickens live in the kitchen in a coop she built herself that doubles as a table for one of the village's few phones. Rugs knit from old sweaters are on her floor. Firewood, costly on her tiny budget, is the only source of heat.

The oil company argues that taxes paid to local budgets will help to breathe life back into the region. Buryatiya, one of Russia's poorest regions, will receive $20 million in revenues, according to Yukos, during the building of the pipeline through 340 miles of Buryat land.

"You can't stop progress," said Mikhail Zamyatin, head of production at a Yukos oil refinery in the neighboring region. "They did it in Alaska. Why can't we do it here?"

That argument has some convinced. Valentina G. Aslamova, a retiree, said ecological degradation began several years ago, when the national park could no longer fend off illegal timber cutters. The Yukos pipeline, she said, would at least bring cash, and might eventually lead to gas supplies in the region, now heated entirely with wood.

"Let Yukos come," said Ms. Aslamova, who has lived in the valley for all her 73 years. "The forest is being chopped down anyway. It could give some jobs to our young people, who are dying from alcoholism."

Wood poachers are a far greater danger to the area than the pipeline, Ms. Aslamova said. In midnight thefts, men — sometimes villagers themselves — cut down large swaths of forest to sell to a growing new market in China.

"We can't control it," said Aleksei A. Bordashov, deputy head of the park's ranger force. "Three years ago, this cutting barely existed."

The topic brings a sadness to Ms. Prushenova's face. She knows who among the villagers is responsible. Other cutters come from far away, like the men who will come to build the pipeline.

"Technologically we are becoming more modern," she said. "But we've lost the sense of living. I'm not against civilization. But my forefathers are from the trees. I am afraid for them."

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