Saving Shambala from a Russia-China pipeline

Opening a remote border region to development threatens to destroy Central Asian wilderness and culture.

central asia
A boulder-strewn creek flows near the Tabyn-Bogdo-Ola mountain range on the Russia-China border [IGOR HEITMAN]

Kauai, Hawaii – Pristine wilderness in a remote corner of Siberia and a Stone Age archaeological legacy notwithstanding, Russia and China are working furiously to complete a natural gas pipeline agreement that would see the fragile Ukok Plateau in Russia’s Altai Republic forced open to development, driving one more industrial stake into the heart of the earth’s dwindling wild places.

The plot is familiar – giant multinational corporations want to develop a controversial gas pipeline – but the setting is anything but familiar. In a little-known border region of Russia’s Altai Republic, where southern Siberia’s Altai Mountains meet northwest China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the frontiers of eastern Kazakhstan and western Mongolia, national boundaries form an enormous “X”.

At the heart of this wild frontier, China’s Kanas Nature Reserve and Siberia’s Ukok Plateau share a 54km border and an uncertain future.

On the Russian side, the Ukok Plateau houses rare plants, animals, life-giving ecosystems and important cultural sites. Will this generation witness its demise?

The snow-covered Altai Mountains are the only crossing between Russia and China west of Inner Mongolia, some 2,500km away. The Ukok Plateau is a near-mythic land of glistening blue lakes, rivers, glaciers, waterfalls, marshes and high steppe lands where Altai argali sheep, Saker falcons and snow leopards dwell. The plateau is critical in stabilising the climate, is a key Central Asian watershed, is a home to populations of endangered species, and is spiritually important to Altai indigenous groups.

In 1998, UNESCO made the area a World Heritage site. But today, this vast region is threatened by a natural gas pipeline which, if built, would slice down the middle of the Altai Republic through the fragile Ukok Plateau, potentially destroying aeons of natural and cultural wealth.

In 2006, Russia’s state-owned Gazprom – the world’s largest producer of natural gas – and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) signed an agreement aimed at implementing construction of a proposed 2,600km natural gas pipeline running from northwest Siberia southward through Altai, over the Kanas Pass into China.

Thirty years of business – at what cost?

Gazprom indicates China’s demand for natural gas could reach 400 billion cubic metres by 2020 and says it possesses “sufficient gas resources and capabilities” to add China to its already vast portfolio. According to a 2010 agreement between Gazprom and CNPC, Russia’s gas giant would supply 30 billion cubic metres of gas per year for 30 years, with exports forecast to begin in late 2015.

Now, as Gazprom and CNPC work towards the endgame of pipeline negotiations, opponents to the project are accelerating their efforts. If the pipeline follows the proposed route it will bisect a region that is culturally and spiritually essential to indigenous Altai peoples, most notably the Telengit, a traditionally semi-nomadic population for whom Altai and Ukok has been a land of physical and spiritual sustenance for millennia. 

This Russian UNESCO World Heritage Site is threatened by the development of a natural gas pipeline [IGOR HEITMAN]

It is here that Telengit grazed their animals, buried their dead and paid homage to their ancestors, as evidenced by the region’s many kurgan burial mounds and other important archaeological sites dating back to the Stone and Bronze ages.

Snow leopards and sacred peaks

The windswept Ukok Plateau, a literal and figurative Shambala, is home to the Five Sacred Peaks, among Siberia’s highest. Both the plateau and Altai region serve as a primary watershed between central Asia and the Arctic.

The Altai Mountains are home to the Biya and Katun rivers, which converge to form the Ob river system, among the world’s longest. The plateau and surrounding high-altitude wetlands and forests are vital for providing fresh water to millions.

Last October, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stepped into pipeline negotiations, presumably to facilitate a break in the impasse – believed to be around a $100 per unit gap – which prevents a final agreement between Russia and China.

The pipeline also faces steadfast opposition from Russian grassroots activists, indigenous groups, environmentalists, independent scientists, and a coalition of NGOs who want the Altai Republic to be spared the pipeline and, more importantly, destructive infrastructure such as roads and railways. To develop this largely pristine wilderness would create a gaping wound in Siberia’s southern flank from which critical natural resources could be siphoned off, leaving Ukok and the Altai permanently diminished.

Among those leading the fight to save Altai and Ukok is Mikhail Shishin, president of the Fund for 21st Century Altai, an NGO based in the Altai city of Barnaul, southeast of Novosibirsk.

The 55-year-old philosophy professor and environmental activist was a central figure in establishing the Golden Altai Mountains World Heritage site in 1998. He pulls no punches when considering the pipeline:

“As a result of this construction, permanent damage will be inflicted on [both] the World Heritage site and the Ukok Quiet Zone Nature Park. Moreover … it is held sacred by Altai’s indigenous peoples. A number of gross violations of Russian and international laws and regulations are already obvious.”

Meanwhile, it appears that Gazprom isn’t waiting for a final agreement to begin plotting the pipeline’s route. Shishin says Gazprom has already begun erecting markers along the pipeline’s proposed route and conducting other exploratory work – all in the absence of programme documentation or a government Environmental Impact Review.

Last summer, Gazprom sub-contractors and consultants were spotted on the Ukok Plateau for 10 weeks conducting soil tests and drilling. Towards the end of this period, an unexplained wildfire burned 4,000 hectares in the area. Whether the fire was related to Gazprom’s work or not is unclear, but it could be a precursor to an increased human presence.

As Shishin, whose organisation is allied with Greenpeace Russia, WWF Russia and a broad coalition of domestic and international NGOs, charges, as of today, “there is no legitimate or approved project design, nor are there any permits to conduct any project works whatsoever”.

In Moscow, Mikhail Kreindlin, director of protected areas programme for Greenpeace Russia, says the construction of a pipeline within either the World Heritage Site or the Ukok Quiet Zone Nature Park would be a blatant violation of Russian federal law and international legal constraints.

A ‘failure to meet international commitments’

At its 35th session, the World Heritage Committee stated that a decision to construct a pipeline across the Ukok Plateau would be grounds for transferring the Golden Mountains of Altai World Heritage property to the list of “World Heritage in Danger”. This would represent Russia’s failure to meet its international commitments to UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

If the pipeline was to be built, Kreindlin says, “it would inevitably damage the habitat of endangered plant and animal species”.

The Ukok Plateau is dotted with ‘standing stones’ placed by Stone Age nomads in the remote south Siberian wilderness [IGOR HEITMAN]

In the United States, the California-based NGO Pacific Environment’s Russia programme director Galina Angarova calls the Ukok Plateau “a very critical area”, both culturally and environmentally. More than the pipeline itself, Angarova fears associated infrastructure and human traffic would degrade the entire area.

A primary motive for building the pipeline, Angarova says, is so that private contractors and sub-contractors can line their pockets with profits stemming from grossly inflated government building contracts – which she describes as tantamount to theft. In anticipation of increased traffic to the region, the construction of a new airport in Altai’s regional capital of Gorno-Altaisk is already underway to service direct flights from Moscow, some 3,500km away.

Earlier this year, Angarova visited the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where she found support from an NGO named Cultural Survival, which helps raise awareness of the pipeline project and how it will affect the region’s people.

Short of a failure in negotiations and complete abandonment of the pipeline, Angarova hopes efforts to stall or even redirect the route will be successful. To that end, she collaborates with Jennifer Castner, director of The Altai Project, also a California-based NGO, dedicated to protecting the natural and cultural heritage of Altai.

Castner sees a long list of problems with running a pipeline through Altai and the Ukok Plateau – beginning with basic logistics. Within the 54km Russia-China border, Castner says there is only about 100 metres where the pipeline could be physically threaded into China – over the nearly 2,800-metre high Kanas Pass – opening a potential floodgate between western China and Russia.

Sucking out raw materials, tamping down dissent

As Castner says, “Gazprom wants to build this pipeline. I don’t think they care what they have to do in order to do it.”

China, according to Castner, wants to open an economic and transport corridor to access western Russia and “start sucking out all the raw materials they can”. There are significant lumber resources in the region – “a large cobalt deposit, a polymetal mining deposit, plus all the extra land”, she says. An opening in this now-impenetrable border would also facilitate the illegal trafficking of poached plants and animals, which are in demand as medicinal products in China.

“As it stands now, China has to go through Mongolia, Kazakhstan or the Russian Far East. It’s much more direct access to western Siberia if you cut the corner off.”

Furthermore, Castner says, from the Chinese perspective, development of the region legitimises the acceleration of settlement by Han Chinese in Xinjiang, a restive province that is home to Uighur minorities whom “the Chinese would love to have another reason to tamp down”. Such a Sinofication of the predominantly Muslim area would be consistent with settlement policies used to bring local ethnic and religious minority populations firmly under China’s wing in neighbouring Tibet.

One way to spare Altai and Ukok would be to reroute the pipeline through Kazakhstan – but it’s unlikely that introducing a third nation to the mix would appeal to Russia or China. Another scenario that could quash pipeline plans would be if China were to apply to UNESCO to have the Kanas Nature Reserve designated as a World Heritage Site. UNESCO has stated unequivocally that a pipeline passing through a World Heritage site would be unacceptable.

Castner says that if a deal is finalised, Gazprom would need to release details of the project as they conduct a federal environmental impact report, and would be required to conduct further public hearings. For now, however, she says Gazprom has largely avoided communication or providing information to the public.

Both Gazprom and CNPC failed to respond to requests for comment for this article.

If Gazprom and CNPC do reach an agreement and a pipeline is laid across this modern-day Shambala, it may be only a matter of time before an earthquake causes crippling damage to any human structures. Altai residents recall a period of powerful tremors that struck the region after the 1993 excavation of a 2,400-year-old perfectly preserved Pazyryk Scythian female, the so-called “Ice Maiden”, saying the earthquakes were divine retribution for disturbing the mummy.

Yet in spite of everything, Altai’s supporters remain determined. “I am hopeful,” says Angarova. “I cannot be but hopeful”. And Shishin shares her sentiment when he says, “The Ukok Plateau will be protected for the people of Altai and the entire world”.

Jon Letman is an independent journalist in Hawaii, covering wildlife conservation, and the politics of the Pacific Rim. Follow him on Twitter: @jonletman 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.