MOSCOW (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsina) - The Buryats, one of the ethnic minorities of Russia, have traditionally inhabited the shores of Lake Baikal (southeast Siberia).

Now they are asking the authorities to set up reservations for them. "We always considered ourselves lucky, "chosen" by the lake, but in the 21st century we have found ourselves hostage to its majesty," says Valery Starkov, deputy permanent representative of the Buryat Republic under the President of the Russian Federation. "I was born here and remember how at first people called Baikal "the pearl of Buryatia," and then "the pearl of Siberia," and "the pearl of Russia." Now it is classed as a world heritage site, but this has done nothing to improve the living conditions of our people," Starkov states. He expresses his concern about how native Buryats, fishermen and hunters, are so restricted by environmental protection laws that it is practically impossible for them to live off the land. He explains, "That is why we are becoming interested in the idea of reservations. At least then we would be able to survive."

The word "reservation" may not quite be the right one for this context, given its association with the forced settlement of native Indians in the United States and Canada. Nevertheless, the situation must be extreme if the Buryats themselves are suggesting that they live in special areas, particularly as the Buryat Republic enjoys the same rights as other members of the Russian Federation to scientific, technological and cultural development. So what has happened?

In 1996, the 10th Session of the World Heritage Committee included Lake Baikal, a unique water body, in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Seventy percent of the lake's shoreline is within the Buryat Republic. Formed in prehistoric times as a result of the movement of tectonic plates, it is the deepest lake in the world and contains 20% of the world's fresh water. Nature hid this amazing lake in the mountains, surrounded by taiga, but people have inhabited its shores since the dawn of time. The lake has always provided the native inhabitants with food and water and has nurtured them spiritually and culturally.

While there certainly is prestige value to having Baikal listed as a world heritage site, the people who have been living right on the shores of the lake for centuries immediately suffered as a result. The authorities are proposing to increase the protected zone around the lake from 70 meters to 500 meters, but UNESCO is challenging this and wants the environment protection zone to extend for at least 1.5 kilometers. "All we get is lots of restrictions and no compensation for the "inconveniences," Starkov complains. "The people who live by the lake are entirely dependant on it for their living. Cattle-breeders, for instance, have had to move their farms to new locations, and then there is still the problem of additional expenses on constructing water treatment facilities. We need these facilities because all the many local rivers (except the Angara) flow into the lake. We need modern dust absorbers and ash collectors as well."

All oil drilling in Buryatia is currently banned, and there is no access to the rich deposits of lead and zinc. Nor will there be any access in the future to these natural resources as they fall within the boundaries of the new environmental protection zone. UNESCO is insisting that the zone be expanded from 30,000 square kilometers to 90,000 square kilometers. However, if the Buryat Republic suffers significant financial losses as a result of Baikal's status, then society must take care of those people who find themselves shackled by the UNESCO listing.

As the boundaries of the zone have yet to be fixed by law, the debate continues. A key report, "Lake Baikal: Environmental Protection Measures," which is based on the latest research findings of a range of institutes and agencies that are studying the ecology of the lake, was recently the subject of a very heated discussion at the Ministry of Natural Resources. "For the time being the natural resources of Baikal are able to counter the harmful effects of industrial pollution. However, we cannot be complacent and so it is our policy to minimize the negative effects on the lake of anthropogenic activities," Natural Resources Deputy Minister Valentin Stepankov stressed. "Of course, the people who have lived on the shores of the lake for thousands of years do not cause as much damage as the industrial enterprises, such as the pulp and paper mill," he added.

Experts from the ministry are drafting a government resolution on the mechanism to determine the water protection zone for reservoirs in Russia, including Lake Baikal. This normative act will guide the decision on where the new boundaries of the Baikal environmental protection zone should be. But would the Buryats, or "swans" as they call themselves, be able to live far from the shores of the lake? (The Buryats consider swans to be sacred and have adopted them as their symbol.) This is a pressing humanitarian issue that needs to be addressed, and not just by Russia. It was the world community that decided that Lake Baikal was part of "the world's heritage" and so it must take some responsibility for the consequences.

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