The president of the Republic of Sakha, a vast, mineral-rich Siberian territory almost as big as India, was in Geneva on February 11 to sign an agreement with the World Wide Fund for Nature. A grant of $360,000 from the Swiss-based organization will help Sakha conserve one-quarter of its territory — an area roughly the size of France stretching up into the Arctic and constituting the world’s largest remaining tract of virgin forest. It is home to the endangered Siberian crane as well as to polar bear, walrus and reindeer. Under the terms of the agreement, the nomadic Evenk people indigenous to the region will be allowed to continue to hunt, fish and herd reindeer, but all forms of industry, such as mineral prospecting, will be banned. (Reuters, BBC World Service, February 11)
Claude Martin, director-general of the Fund, described the territory as "the world’s last great wilderness." He told the BBC that Sakha is so rich in diamonds and fossil fuels that it can afford to conserve part of its territory. Sakha was in the forefront of the Russian regions’ search for autonomy from Moscow, and the economic independence the republic now enjoys lies behind its decision to protect its natural resources.
The Siberian crane is sacred to the Yakut people who, while outnumbered by Slavs, make up one-third of the population of the republic. The Yakuts see the bird as a symbol of their cultural heritage. Western scholars say a Yakut cultural and spiritual revival has led over the past 15 years to a resurgence of traditional religion and rebirth of the Sakha language and literature. (Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, Perspective, Boston University, January 1992)
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