"The fish are smelling like oil and the water in the rivers, it's undrinkable," said Nikolay Rochev, the head of Izvatas, a group that represents the Izhma Komi people who herd reindeer in the forests, wetlands and tundra of a France-sized area in central Russia.
Rochev was in Canada for a meeting of the Arctic Council, the group of eight nations that ring the North Pole that offers the main international forum for regional cooperation. His group belongs to the federation of Russian aboriginals that is one of the council's permanent participants.
On Friday, Russian Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi told the council that his country is determined to develop its Arctic resources according to the highest international standards.
"We are certain that this should happen, but only happen with great care and stewardship for the environment and with the necessary respect for the people who live there."
Asked if he believed that, Rochev's response required no translation: "Nyet."
Russia has no public oil spill inventory. But Greenpeace — which brought Rochev to Canada — used satellite data to count up at least 1,000 spills over the last two years in the Komi region alone. Greenpeace estimates the volume of all Russian spills at six million tonnes per year — six times the volume of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hundreds of kilometres of seismic lines and uncounted wellsites and other infrastructure cut up the landscape. Drilling occurs as close as 100 metres from homes, said Rochev.
Toxic water from the wells is often simply pumped out on the ground. Last year, 150 reindeer died at a single site within minutes after drinking from one such pool.
Abandoned wells are left in muddy, tracked-up disarray for years. Pipelines block reindeer migration routes.
Meanwhile, promises of jobs, schools and other benefits from Russian companies such as Lukoil, Gazprom and Rosneft have failed to materialize. Companies make annual payments to communities that amount to a few dollars per capita.
Public hearings, oversight, transparency? Nyet.
"We are fed up with the situation when oil companies ignore us," Rochev said. "There is no legal leverage to change the system."
In a recent survey, Izvatas found that 70 per cent of the local people were somewhat or heavily dependent on the land for hunting and gathering. As well, the Komi still raise 80,000 reindeer.
But the increasingly tainted land doesn't just hurt the Komi in the pocketbook or larder, said Rochev. In his language, the word for "forest" and "home" are the same.
"It's for spiritual surviving," he said. "It's about keeping their traditional land use."
One municipality is so angry it passed a resolution banning Lukoil from its area even though it has no legal right to do so, said Rochev.
"Politically, it's a very strong signal in Russia, where such steps are impossible to imagine."
But Rochev knows his main weapon is public awareness and publicity.
He's also trying to bring Arctic aboriginals together to speak with one voice on energy development on their lands.
"We have to unite indigenous people from different Arctic states," he said. "The earth is quite small."
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