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Russia: Siberia's Altai Republic Seeks To Preserve Its Ecological Purity

The impoverished Altai Republic in southwest Siberia has one great asset -- its unique and unspoiled natural environment. Lily Hyde, who visited the region recently, reports for RFE/RL on the ecological effects of the small republic's economic decline and its attempts to attract tourists while doing minimal environmental damage.

Gorno-Altaisk, Russia; 20 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Altaians like to call their mountainous republic a second Switzerland. But in terms of sheer untouched wilderness, it clearly surpasses Swiss standards.

The Altai republic is one of the Russian Federation's most unspoiled and beautiful environments -- a haven for nature and adventure lovers. Ecologists and economists, government ministers, and villagers all want to use the natural environment to attract tourists and revive the republic's stagnant economy. But at the same time, Altaians want to preserve untouched the area's natural beauty. Vasily Manyshev, head of the republic's ecology committee, says:

"Our territory itself is a commodity. We don't have any other commodities, nothing that can be competitive and keep up with demand. It's a commodity we need to use wisely. People have understood that tourism is a business they can do and have to do."

During Soviet times the Altai mountains were a popular tourist destination, with well-organized climbing and horse-riding routes. But the USSR's collapse 10 years ago destroyed much of the tourist infrastructure. There are now almost no decent hotels, no campsites, few roads, no fuel available for helicopters.

Still, Altai remains popular with tourists from Russia and the CIS, and there are even a few organized tours from Western Europe. According to the republic's tourism committee, some 80,000 people were registered as visitors to the region last year. The real number was probably closer to 400,000.

But the republic itself benefits little from these visitors. All organized tourist groups pay for their trips in their home country, and the profit rarely reaches the Altai people. Meanwhile, independent visitors often cause environmental havoc by irresponsible behavior. Last New Year's Eve, some 1,000 tourists ascended Altai's highest mountain, Belukha, to greet the new millennium. The peak is thought to be sacred by many Altaians and others. The visitors left huge piles of rubbish that still have not been cleaned up.

According to Aleksandr Chekonov, head of the republic's tourism committee, such disrespect for nature is anathema to the Altai national character. The Altaian shamanist religion holds that every mountain and river has its own spirit which must be respected. Chekonov told our correspondent:

"The local mentality, the Altai population's, is a caring attitude to nature. People don't have to learn ecology, they are already mentally geared up for it. There's a cult of worship at mountain passes -- you must have seen the ribbons tied there -- or springs' worship, you can't spit in the water there, it's not [even] allowed to drive a knife in the ground, and so on.

"Undoubtedly, a tourist invasion leads to conflict on the spiritual level. A tourist doesn't understand local ways and doesn't take care of nature. Local opinion of tourism isn't entirely positive, because tourists have come, polluted the [river] bank, and left. So we are suggesting this system of national parks which will represent the interests [both] of tourists and local people."

Under the proposal, tourists will be allowed to stay only in certain areas of designated national parks -- which will be provided with all necessary facilities -- and will have to follow marked routes with guides trained in ecotourism. Chekonov looks to national parks in the United States and Africa as models.

But for the time being, neither the Russian nor the Altaian government has the money to implement such plans. The Altai budget received just over $43,000 (1,200,000 rubles) last year from tourism, a pitiful sum from what Chekonov calls the republic's most promising source of income.

About 22 percent of the republic's territory is already a UNESCO-recognized reservation, and some advocate turning the entire republic into a nature reserve. Another idea, floated at a 1998 interregional conference, is to create an international reserve which would include parts of China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. That would help control cross-border tourism, which at present irritates Altai staff at the Katun reserve on the Kazakh border. They say tours from Kazakhstan have trespassed on the reserve without paying fees or observing the reserve's rules.

Until Altai tourism does take off, the inhabitants of the republic's villages -- where unemployment is as high as 70 percent -- are using the environment in more harmful ways. They make their living from a flourishing trade in rare plants and animals.

Bear's gall bladders and maral [that is, Asiatic red] deer horns go to China and Korea for medicinal use. The musk deer is hunted for its glands, which are used in perfumes. According to staff at the Katun reserve, a rare breed of falcon can fetch up to $50,000 in the United Arab Emirates, and the endangered snow leopard's fur is in high demand.

So, one of the biggest problems faced by ecologists in the Altai republic, and in neighboring Kazakhstan, is protecting these rare species from commercial exploitation. The fear is that uncontrolled commerce could wipe them out.