Sustainable but inconvenient – Two more folkways slide closer to the edge

by Rhodri C. Williams

Two feature stories in BBC World help to remind us how we are our own worst enemies. In two very different parts of the world, as we all go about our daily business of accumulating exotic and unsustainable consumer goods and producing carbon and toxic garbage, two traditional, sustainable and harmonious ways of life are quietly being snuffed out by the forces of globalization and politics.

First, BBC reports on the fate of the nomadic reindeer herders of the Yamal peninsula in Siberia. Sound like the kind of implausible lifestyle that sensible people would have thrown over long ago for office jobs? Turns out they have been more stubborn than you might think:

The Yamal region in northwest Siberia is the only part of Russia where reindeer herding did not decline or stagnate after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In fact, it has been steadily growing and today this area boasts the world’s biggest herds, with roughly 600,000 reindeer managed by 15,000 nomads.

Not an easy life, undoubtedly, but no one is forcing them to remain. On the contrary, after surviving the worst that communism had to throw at them, the reindeer herders of Yamal now risk losing their ancient way of life to capitalism. With fields further south depleted, Gazprom has moved north into Yamal, where enough gas may lie under the permafrost to “heat a quarter of the homes in Europe for the next 35 years.” Without significant recognition as an indigenous people, the herders have little to counter Gazprom’s economic might:

Unlike their counterparts in the Canadian and the Alaskan Arctic, indigenous people of the Russian North have no statutory land rights. So [community leader] Nikolai feels it is best to play the diplomat and negotiate with the company.

Although Gazprom has not been unresponsive, there is a zero-sum quality to the issue of land use in Yamal. As large as the peninsula is, every bit of it has been carefully divided between the various herds, and the incursion of gas infrastructure – accompanied by pollution and the introduction of wild dogs – has added to the inherent difficulties of transhumance.

Moreover, as though extraction were not bad enough, the article points out the effects of consumption – in the form of climate change – may put paid forever to indigenous pastoralism across the arctic rim.

Further to the south, the BBC reports on another traditional way of life that has just as improbably survived some of the most wrenching changes of the twentieth century, and may just as haplessly succumb to those of the twenty-first. In this case, the protagonists are the Palestinian inhabitants of the village of Battir, built along terraces on a hill south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank:

For more than 2,000 years, seven natural springs have given life to the village and its fields. Children still play, almost incongruously, in an old Roman bath built centuries ago at the spot, in the middle of the village, where one of the springs emerges.

The simple irrigation system used today is as it was in ancient times. Water is shared between Battir’s eight main extended families. A simple system of manually diverting water via sluice gates means that fruit and vegetables from the small plots on the lower slopes are renowned for their freshness and quality.

The issue in this case is not mineral extraction but security (as well as any other motives that might drive one country to push a security barrier deep into the territory of its occupied neighbor). However, the effect is likely to be the same. Barring a miracle, the Israeli barrier will cut off at least a third of the village’s land and destroy its irrigation system. UNESCO has complained, but given the location of the village on the 1967 green line, sparing it would require an almost inconceivable ‘concession’ by Israel:

Keeping the village of Battir and its lands intact would require Israel to do something it has not done thus far – to build part of the barrier on its own territory.

In teaching a course on indigenous peoples here in Stockholm, one of the texts I have relied on is a survey of the fate of indigenous peoples worldwide, “Victims of Progress“, by anthropologist John H. Bodley. While Bodley can be dogmatic in style, he makes one compelling central point. By destroying small-scale cultures capable of sustaining themselves on their own resource base, we not only victimize those increasingly scarce others but also ourselves.

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