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Yahoo! News: Russian islanders voice anger at foreign energy majors

By Dario Thuburn
 
NOGLIKI, Russia (AFP) – The only thing that the rich oil and gas reserves just off the sandy shores of Russia’s Sakhalin Island have done for Tatyana Kuklik is spoil her fish.

“The fish isn’t the same. It smells of oil,” said Kuklik, as she cut roe from Siberian salmon on Plastun Spit — an expanse of far eastern wilderness lined with ramshackle wooden fishermen’s huts along the water’s edge.

Kuklik is a Nivkh, an ethnic group numbering some 2,000 people that has lived off fishing for hundreds of years on the edge of the tundra on this remote island seven time zones east of Moscow.

Complaints by the Nivkh that massive energy projects are threatening their traditional way of life are part of wider and growing discontent against foreign oil majors among the population of Sakhalin.

“What did we get? Sod all,” said Sergei, a local man riding the night train towards the oil town of Okha in the far north of this 1,000-kilometre-long island, travelling from its southern capital Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

Locals say that foreign energy firms came promising jobs but actually hire few Russians and, when they do, discriminate against them on a daily basis.

“Why should I get 2,500 dollars for two months’ work and an American with exactly the same qualification get 28,000? Do you think that’s fair?” said Yura, a young man who works on one of the island’s two Western energy projects.

Sakhalin-1 is spearheaded by US oil giant ExxonMobil, while Sakhalin-2 is led by British oil major Shell.

Sakhalin-2 is in a bitter dispute with Russian officials, who accuse it of violating environmental laws to build pipelines through the island.

Sakhalin Energy, the company operating Sakhalin-2, says it respects environmental laws and that out of 17,000 people it employs on Sakhalin some 70 percent are Russian nationals.

The company also says it has spent tens of millions of dollars on upgrading local infrastructure, including schools, hospital and cultural centres.

But some local inhabitants say they have just had enough.

“It would be better if all the foreign companies just left,” said one local man working on the Sakhalin Energy project, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to a reporter.

The development of offshore reserves heralded a boom for Sakhalin, which has long depended on Moscow for hand-outs despite its wealth of natural reserves.

Some of that boom is visible in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the form of polished office buildings, a new hotel called Mega Palace and the variety of four-wheel drive vehicles roaming the city’s streets.

For many ordinary people, however, who continue to live with the prospect of patchy heating in the winter and power failures, that kind of wealth is not accessible.

“We thought the destruction was finally over. But we’ve seen no benefits in our village,” said Svetlana Mullanurova, a local mother protesting against the closure of a secondary school in Porechye on Sakhalin’s eastern shore.

“Petrodollars out of the pockets of the bureaucrats and into the schools!” read one of the placards put up by Mullanurova and other protesters picketing outside the regional administration building in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk this week.

Disappointment with the oil boom has blended in with general disenchantment linked to economic hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the Nivkh village of Venskoye, which once had a series of cultural amenities, there is just one family left living in a dilapidated house — the Muvchiks.

“There were maybe 1,000 people living here. Now there are five,” said Lydia Muvchik, 65, who recounted the decline of her village from the start of a Soviet re-settlement programme in the 1960s.

Muvchik, a pensioner, wrote a book of Nivkh folk tales entitled “The Beauty from Viskvo” whose publication in 2004 was financed by BP and Sakhalin Energy.

But she is no happier with her Western benefactors than many of her fellow islanders. She has yet to receive any royalties.

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