Bikin National Park, an area of 1,160,469 hectares in the Far East of the Russian Federation, is the largest protected old growth forest in Eurasia’s pre-temperate zone. The forest was under great threat from being destroyed by extractivist companies, but a small indigenous community managed to stand up to both the companies and the Russian authorities to create a National Park to protect their land.
We hear from Pavel Sulyandziga, indigenous activist and member of the Udege indigenous group native to the Bikin forest, who describes his pivotal role in the creation of the park, and Polina Shulbaeva, who is the Russia Indigenous Coordinator for the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB).
Being able to live in and use the land is why Bikin Park is unique, and I think a lot of our success was due to the unity of the Udege people. Other indigenous people should understand that the situation completely depends on them. They should fight, and struggle to convince the authorities to share power with them, and not just take some subordinate role.
Our land is an extremely attractive area for companies, especially for timber production and gold mining. In the 1970s, before it became a national park, a part of Bikin forest was sold to Hyundai, the South Korean company, so that they could use its resources. At that time, my people consisted of eight Udege groups who lived along different rivers within the park, but after the company came, four groups ceased to exist.
The disappearance of these four Udege groups wasn’t a genocide, they weren’t getting killed, they just vanished. They disappeared because the trees were destroyed, and without the river and the forest, they cannot survive.
When this happened, we made a decision to fight for our land, our tiger forest, otherwise we would face the same fate as those four groups of Udege.
- Pavel Sulyandziga, Russian indigenous rights activist, of Udege nationality.
- Polina Shulbaeva, Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North / International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity
- Boreal forests
- Conservation and sustainable use
- Knowledge, culture and spirituality
- This case study forms part of LBO-2, originally released in 2020. Updates and interviews took place in 2022.
The history and creation of Bikin National Park
We managed to get Hyundai off our land through several court proceedings, in which we were represented by a legal advisor and attorney from California who had experience working for indigenous rights in America.
In 1991, I also managed to meet Boris Yeltsin – the head of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union at the time – and invited him come to our land and see the issues we were facing. He passed the issue onto his deputies, and his advisor made the decision to suspend all work in the Bikin territory. Despite this, companies kept trying to take our land.
“Even when we have laws in Russia to protect indigenous rights, it doesn’t mean the law will work.”
From that time until 2007, there were just so many people wishing to take our territory; some companies involved in timber production, lumber and especially gold miners. The companies tried to enter into negotiations with us to change our minds, but we did not give our consent. It was a struggle for 20 years, but we managed to protect our land this way.
In 2007, the land of Bikin forest went to auction. There were seven bidders, including us, and the other six were all big companies and businesses. I think you can imagine how hard it was for us to compete with them. But we decided to use some mechanisms to help us.
- Firstly, there was the Kyoto protocol, which binds developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The companies who were bidding emit a lot of pollutants, whereas the Udege people did not. This was one advantage we had.
- We also entered into negotiations with Germany and a German bank, with support from WWF. Because we were unable to raise the money needed to win the auction, the German bank said that they would give us the money to lease the land from the Russian government in the form of a grant. But even with the money they were offering, we still couldn’t compete with the budgets of these big companies.
- At the time, I was a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. I told the Russian federal authorities that if they sold our territory to a company, I would go to the UN and declare that a genocide was taking place against our people. The government in Moscow then ordered the local authorities to give the land to the Udege people. On the day the bidding was held, the commercial companies removed their bids and we won the land with the help of our sponsors.
Despite finally getting legal ownership of our land, over time there was a degradation of our community and of the Udege administration that were managing the land. Some people began to sell parts of the land to companies and private entrepreneurs, and illegal hunting also began there. Some members of the administration started to fall into corrupt practices, and people were afraid to speak out against them because they had the authority to confiscate their land.
Then the offer came to me to take on the role of President of the National Park. I assembled a small group of people who weren’t afraid to speak out against the Udege administration and we began discussing what to do. And we understood that the establishment of a national park was one of the compromising solutions that would help us achieve our goal while satisfying both businesses and the government.
We began negotiating. We came up with seven demands for the national park, which we thought were going to be really difficult to get accepted; they would need to change Russian legislation to allow us to carry out our traditional way of life in the park. But to our surprise, they accepted all our demands.
In 2015, Vladimir Putin signed off the order to create Bikin National Park, and it was created with co-management and ownership between the Russian state and the Udege people.
We established the Udege Ethnicity Committee, and even though at the beginning the community were against the idea of a national park, we managed to convince them.
The creation of a National Park was not the best solution, but it was the only possible solution. It’s not perfect, but it’s working.
The Siberian Tiger
It’s important to note that the President and his administration fulfilled our demands to create a national park, not because they want to help the Udege people, but because of the tigers that live in Bikin forest. In 2010, a summit was held in St Petersburg to protect tigers, and Vladimir Putin, the President at the time, had to show that he was working to protect the rare Siberian Amur tiger.
Around 10% of the endangered Siberian Amur tiger population lives in Bikin park, so it was a key area to help protect them. The population of tigers was declining back then because of all the industry, and because there is a huge demand for tigers in Oriental medicine – many people try to kill them and hunt them to make medicines.
But as we Udege were managing to keep the industry away, our air and lands remained pure so the tigers could live successfully and peacefully.
The government created the national park for the tigers, not for the people. But, it suited us back then and so we agreed.
The tiger is one of the sacred animals of the Udege people. As Udege, our belief is that if someone kills a tiger, there will be a huge punishment and the tiger will take its revenge. It’s a huge sin, and this sin will not be forgiven by the gods. There has never been a situation where a Udege person has been punished by a tiger, because we perceive them as our brothers, and we don’t hunt them. We don’t touch tigers, and they don’t touch us – that’s how it works.
The Udege’s strategy
What was the secret of how we managed to resist? There are 1700 Udege people in four villages. A huge state or business could have smashed us. However, I can see several factors of why we succeeded in creating Bikin National Park:
- The unity of the Udege people. We agreed that we would be together and united, and that any problems we have should be resolved together. If I was alone, or if we were 10 or 100, they would put us in prison or get us killed, it would be easy for them. But the state couldn’t kill us all. District and regional authorities would come and try and push me from my leadership post, trying to sow discord in our community by saying that I was neglecting the people, that I was receiving bribes. But we trusted each other and didn’t let it affect us.
- We actively looked for allies to help us. We aren’t a large group, so the government could destroy us if they really wanted, but we attracted Russian and foreign scientists to Bikin to research it. They became convinced of its uniqueness and called it the Russian Amazon, the lungs of the northern hemisphere, proving that it was extremely biodiverse and contained unique and endangered flora and fauna. They wrote papers on why it should be preserved and not handed over to industries.
- The high level of education of the Udege people. Our elders constantly told us how important education was. Many of us left Bikin to pursue higher education, but we then returned to our village. During the crisis in the 1990s, [the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a constitutional an financial crisis] across Russia many highly-educated people left their small villages to get jobs in the cities, but this didn’t happen in Udege. The specialists stayed in the village and contributed to their community, thinking not only about survival, but also about the development of their people.
Because of our experience and knowledge-sharing among our community, we didn’t believe the empty promises of rich people and businessmen when they came to convince us to sell our land by offering us better economic and industrial opportunities. Instead, we worked on trying to create those opportunities for ourselves.
How the park works now
The park charter stipulates that the National Park was created both for the preservation of nature and for the development of the Udege ethnicity. It also ensures the existence of a Council of Udege people, who will elect the Chancellor of the Council, who also becomes Deputy President of the park.
The Council of Udege people guarantees the participation of indigenous peoples in decisions on protecting nature and wild species, and coordinates programs and projects that may affect their traditional way of life. The council also develops guidance on norms and behaviour for local communities and monitors the preservation and use of traditional knowledge.1
The regulations developed to manage the park include clear delineation of zones, and the million hectares that have been zoned for traditional indigenous management cannot be reduced. All local residents retain the right to visit the park freely, wherever they live, and indigenous hunters can carry out traditional economic activities free of charge in their historical hunting grounds.
The remaining part of the park is a reserve, where activities are limited. But in these areas, Bikin rangers – many of whom are indigenous – work to protect the endangered flora and fauna.
It’s unique because it’s not just that Indigenous people can live on and use their territory, but they can also protect it in an official capacity.
Almost all the Udege hunters are employed by the park. Indigenous park employees carry out tasks related to protecting and controlling the territory and to community-based monitoring, which makes use of traditional knowledge, practices, and rituals together with new technologies and information systems. They also facilitate environmental education and ecological tourism visits in specific and limited areas. Outsiders are not able to visit Bikin park by themselves; they must go with a park ranger.
Researchers and representatives of environmental organisations such as WWF are helping to educate indigenous people about modern environmental protection technologies (such as camera traps, modern navigation devices, and unmanned aerial vehicles or drones).
Now, there are around 700 people who live in Bikin village. Before, they didn’t use to have a hospital, or electricity all the time, but now they have a state-of-the-art hospital and 24/7 electricity. Some of our young people left the land, but they returned when it became a national park, because there was work for them to do.
On 2 July 2018, the World Heritage Committee declared the park a part of the Central Sikhote-Alin UNESCO World Heritage site, confirming the uniqueness of this region. Bikin National Park is the first protected area in Russia with a goal to protect the habitat and traditional way of life of indigenous peoples, as well as their involvement in the management of the park.
Bikin National Park as an example for others
Bikin is not the only national park in Russia that have other ethnicities living in them. I would like to share our experience with other national parks in Russia, because our situation is unique.
To establish self-governance of this kind requires a sharing of authority. And usually, the Russian government doesn’t want to share the authority, they want to be supreme, they want to govern, they want to make 100% of the decisions. They don’t want to delegate or share power.
National parks are for protection, not for life – that’s how the Russian government sees it. You don’t have the right to hunt or fish on the territory or carry out any traditional activities. One example is Shorsky National Park in southwestern Siberia – it’s named after the Shor indigenous people who lived there, but since it became a national park, they can’t use the territory anymore.
Usually when a government makes a national park or a protected area, indigenous people in that area have two choices. Either they move from the territory because they can’t use it as they want to, or they stay in their territory but are unable to follow their traditional lifestyles. You can stay there, but your indigenous identity will die there.
The National Park in Bikin is a great example of how well indigenous co-management can work, but obviously it was such a struggle to get there. It will still be very difficult for other indigenous groups to convince the Russian authorities, and I think that holds true around the world as well. Hopefully by sharing more stories about Bikin National Park, we can convince other people (both indigenous groups and governments) to do the same.
One of my indigenous colleagues from outside Bikin said to us that we were lucky, because we had tigers. And it was a very important aspect – it was the Siberian tiger, the Amur tiger that attracted Putin’s attention. I would recommend that other national parks look at their wildlife and see if there is something to preserve that could also be seen as symbolic.
“Bikin park is a unique territory with a unique management and governance system. It’s a great opportunity to copy this practice to another territory in Russia and in other parts of the world”
The future of Bikin National Park
I think the national park is a good guardian angel against any kind of violent onset from industries or polluting companies. What worries me most are the rights of the Udege people. They could make some amendments to the legislation that could worsen our status. However, I don’t see any tendencies of this so far. Everyone is happy – it’s a good compromise that satisfies all parties.
I think that the fact that the Council was established is great. There are people of my ethnicity there. They participate in meetings and they make important decisions. But I think also it’s important to increase their weight, their role in decision making inside the council. But maybe that’s the next stage of the park development and of the development of the area.
In the future I hope that it will change for the better. Currently the legislation requires some management by the federal authorities, but I hope that in the future it will be 100% managed by Udege people. Nothing happens quickly. I think perhaps several generations should pass before we get 100% administration. We don’t have enough experience at the moment, so with more experience and increased capacity, our administration will hold onto their integrity and will not allow themselves to be corrupted, like they were in 2007.
If people demand rights, they should understand that it’s a two-edged sword; with rights come responsibilities. If you claim your rights, you must be ready for the responsibilities.
I’ve talked to my people, and they are satisfied with the current situation. If we look at the situation we had before and what is happening now, I think there is a serious improvement and we have achieved a great deal.
Right now, what we have is enough, but we could do more. The sky is the limit.
- Bikin National Park (n.d.) ‘About Bikin National Park’. Available at: http://parkbikin.com
- Russian Federation (2015) ‘Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation November 3 2015 No. 1187, On the establishment of the Bikin National Park’. Moscow: Russian Federation.
- Bikin National Park (n.d.) Report on work done by the Federal State Budgetary Institution. Bikin National Park. Available at: http://parkbikin.com/netcat_files/17/119/h_897547bc047c83359a726bf81e55fb65