Tyva (Tuva), southern Siberia, Russian Federation

Excerpts from a Report of a Mission to Tyva commissioned by Oxfam GB (Integrated Community Development and Biodiversity Conservation in the Republic of Tyva)

Tuva 1History and Culture of Tyva

Tyva is located in southern Siberia within the Russian Federation. It is some 170,500 km2 (17.05 million hectares) in size with a population of about 300,000, a third of whom live in the capital Kyzyl. It has been inhabited for at least 40,000 years, with the Scythian period (from approximately 1000BC) leaving significant burial mounds, stone circles and petroglyphs. This was later followed by Hunnic, Turkic, and the Mongol regimes (the last from 1207 to 1757). Tyva was then under the Chinese administration of the Qing dynasty from 1758 to 1911. It declared independence as Tannu-Touva in 1921, and then was integrated into the Soviet Union in 1944, making it the youngest region of the Russian territory.

Tyva comprises mountain steppe and taiga forests within which nomadic herding is the main livelihood practise. The climate is extreme continental, with annual temperature swings of 80°C possible (from -40°C in winter to +40°C in summer), though more usually from -30°C in winter to +25°C. Livelihoods rely on herding of seven types of animals, and four regular seasonal migrations to make use of available grazing and water resources. Livelihood success is built on systems of sharing and cooperation (called temnejir), and on knowing nature and living with and in it. Wild animals and plants have always been a vital source of food, making Tyva a typical hunter-gatherer-herding culture (see Vainshtein, 1972; Lee and Daly, 1999).

There are four core aspects of Tyvan culture: the beauty of the natural landscape, reassuring presence of animals (both domestic and wild), respect for family life, and humility before the spirit masters. Tyvan nomads have called themselves a people with “a long stride”, indicating a free people on the land (Levin, 2006).

According to Ilya Zakharov of the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics (Flesch, 2000), Tyvans are more closely related to indigenous native American peoples than any other groups outside North America. Shamans use the feathers of predatory birds in head-dresses, and believe that this practice was taken to the Americas by migratory peoples. In the Stalin era, animist shamans and Buddhist lamas were persecuted and often killed. Today, though, traditional practices have revived and there are now some 300 active male and female shamans in Tyva. Shamans are used by many Tyvans, and every family can call upon a regular shaman. They are consulted regularly, or collected to come to a particular site to perform purification ceremonies. “The main task of shamans”, says Kara-ool Dopchun-ool (Adyg-Eeren society), “is to protect nature. We act for the mountains, rivers, taiga and different landscapes of our homeland”.

Throat singing (also known as khöömei) is unique to Tyva, and derives from the land. It is considered a gift, though requires considerable training from the age of eight. Its under- and over-tones are seen to echo the association of a sonic landscape, sounds that derive from centuries of living on windblown grasslands and in taiga forests (Levin, 2006). These dual tones and timbral-centred music echo the empty steppes, burbling rivers, birdsong, and mountain landscapes. Some comprise short poems about nature, life and land; others are epics about good, bad and their homeland. The longest epic songs contain 500,000 lines of verse (the Ilyad has 16,000 lines, the Mahabharata has 200,000 lines).

Nomadic Pastoralism

Tuva 5Anthropologist Savyan Vainshtein (1972) described Tyva as “a paradigm of central and North Asian pastoral economies”. It is a remote land, cut off by mountains, and traditionally saw three main forms of land use:

  1. reindeer herding and hunting in the mountain forests,
  2. cattle and horse herding and hunting in the high forests and meadows, and
  3. steppe pastoralism and hunting in the dry uplands of the south and east.

Seven animals are herded (cattle, sheep, goats, horse, yak, camel and reindeer) and nine livestock in total raised (plus pigs, poultry). These forms of land management have been consistent and stable for at least five thousand years, and probably back to the beginnings of livestock domestication. Nomadism is a central part of Tyvan livelihoods and cultural values. One family said unanimously, “we are always happy when moving.” During the quiet period in summer between sheep shearing and grass cutting, many highly anticipated festivals are held. These include food preparation, wrestling, archery and horse racing. In Soviet times, many of these festivals were forbidden, as was Tyvan national costume.

However, during the Soviet period, land management was switched to large fixed collective farms that used livestock breeds unadapted to the extremes of the Tyvan environment and climate. Collective farms thus had to import grass in winter from elsewhere in the USSR. Large-scale crop cultivation was similarly externally-subsidised, with large-scale wheat and barley cultivation supported by considerable expenditures on irrigation systems and external inputs. The Soviet view of traditional land management, as exemplified by historian and ethnographer L P Potapov in 1969, was that it was no more than “technically-backward nomadic pastoralism”.

Tuva 3Yet neither the modern breeds nor crops survived the economic and political transition after the collapse of the USSR. Traditional breeds have been reintroduced since the early 1990s, and numbers are increasing: national cattle numbers, for example, have doubled since then. They are still considerably lower than in the 1950s, though, when there were two million sheep and goats compared with half that number today. There also remains a need to improve the quality of a narrowed genetic stock. Some populations had fallen dramatically, such as camels to just 100 animals, and reindeer to 1000. There are plans to exchange animals with Mongolia and Irkutsk region, though the quarantine arrangements remain to be solved.

There is some small-scale vegetable cultivation in Tyva, and some cereal (mainly barley) cultivation, though yields are very low (typically 2-300 kg ha-1 rising to 2000 kg ha-1 in good years). All crops require gravity-fed surface irrigation to survive. Milk is a vital product and is used to make a total of 29 different products – including yoghurt, cheese, drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and additives for other foods.

The Tyvans, also known at various times in history as Soyat, Mady, Uryanghai, Todjins and Tuvinians, have evolved a strong social system of mutual help called temnejir that manages the collective use of lands, collaboration between aals (family groups), shared hunting and help with hay and crop harvests. Most aals move four times per year, usually a total distance of some 50-60 km. This is known as vertical migration, rather than the alternative model of meridional migration. The culture is deeply connected to nature – to landscape and elements, to wild animals and birds, and to their livestock. Livestock are the primary assets of herder families, and the horse has been central since its local domestication. Siberian horses are sturdy, with a thick coat, and have been known to be able to run 80 km at a stretch.

Winter camps (kyshtag) are situated in the lee of a hill to protect them from strong winds. Water is obtained from snow. Spring (chazag), summer (chailag) and autumn (küzeg) camps are always by a river. Winter camp periods are the longest (typically September/October to April/May) and thus tend to have permanent storage or dwelling buildings alongside latticed yurts, together with indoor byres or corrals for animals. Summer camps are in different places year on year in order to protect grazing resources. In some parts of Tyva, though, livestock herders still move long distances – for example 100-130 km from the river to forest taiga. Prior to the establishment of the international border with Mongolia in 1921, it was common for herders to winter in southern Tyva and migrate up to 150 km south into what is now Mongolia for summer grazing.

The main problems for livestock farms are epizootic diseases, stealing and some predator losses to wolves (not generally significant) and occasionally to snow leopards (known to enter corrals and kill up to 80 sheep and goats at one time). The lack of value-added options mean that herders cannot make much money from their produce. The lack of credit prevents investments in small business ideas. In winter, severe cold is not a problem, but when the snow is very deep and develops a hard crust (such as from temporary temperature rises and then strong winds), then livestock are unable to break the surface to get to the grass beneath. Large losses can occur, such as occurred in the winter of 2008-09.

In the course of migrations, everyone in the district knows where everyone else is going to be located. The livestock themselves also come to know each family’s location and easily follow the pathways between. In the past, steppe grazing land was held by different aals; now it is technically held by the district administration. Some farms are owned by the district administration, and herders are paid to manage the livestock. Wages are very low. “The labour is very hard”, said one herder, “but this is a tradition for our family, so we still do it.” “Our life is natural”, said another herder.

Hunting and Gathering

Hunting has always been a vital part of the subsistence Tyvan economy and culture. Every folklore legend mentions hunting, and many types of animals have long been hunted for meat and for fur, including squirrel (diing, syrbyk), beaver, lynx, sable (kish, aldy), hare, otter, fox (dilgi), ferret, bear (adyg), wolf (börü), roe deer (elik), Altai maral (syyn; noble deer or red deer: Cervus elaphus maral), Siberan musk deer (tourgu; Moschus moschiferus), Saiga (dzeren; Saiga tatarica), marmot (tarbagan; ground squirrels of Marmota spp) and wild boar. Traditional methods of hunting included simple or m-shaped bows, whistling arrows to flush out squirrels from trees, pole lassos and lariats (arkan), collective battues up to 10 km in size, brushwood hides in the salt marshes (kujur), and more recently guns.

Family diets are also supplemented with many types of berries, cedar nuts (kuzuk) and lily bulbs in summer, and in some locations by fishing for grayling, pike, perch and trout (by bow, spear, with nets from rafts, or ice-fishing with nets). Like many northern peoples, birch bark was a key part of the household economy, used for wigwam covers, for food and drink vessels, and for roofing material. Yurts were made from spruce lattice work and felt.

Despite the long and deep cultural traditions of the use of wild resources for livelihoods, there has emerged a narrative to suggest that any hunting threatens to the aims of nature conservation. This is predicated on the assumption that all types of hunting have the same principles and similar outcomes, and that local people hunt solely for economic reasons. In this way, those who hunt have been portrayed as poachers, thus having made a transition in policy terms from legal to illegal activity. In their recent study of hunting in Tyva and Altai, Halemba and Donahoe (2008) indicate that hunting activities have often come to be considered as poaching, and it is assumed that people hunt only for economic need. But for Tyvans, this is not the case: “the cultural reasons for hunting far outweigh economic considerations”.

Local people define proper or real hunting as when certain customs are carried out: respect for animals and spirit masters, having proper hunting knowledge and skills, taking only enough to eat, and asking permission from the spirits to hunt. One person from Möngün-Taiga commented, “a poacher is not a real hunter. A real hunter will only kill one or two animals, even if he sees ten”. Hunting to feed the family and community is an almost universally accepted concept and practice. The tradition of ülüg determines that the hunter shares meat with the rest of the aal, leaving the hunter with the head, hide and back meat.

Nonetheless, poaching and illegal sports hunting is recognised as a real problem. Tyvans do not believe that hunting for trophies is acceptable. The demand for falcons from the Middle East puts pressure on predatory bird populations. There is also demand for snow leopard pelts in China. And sports hunters from outside Tyva have been reported to hunt the endangered argali mountain sheep from helicopters.

Natural Areas and the Landscape

Tyva is known for its remarkable landscapes, distinct ecosystems, and many rare species. Various forms of protected areas have recently been established. It is evident, though, that the natural capital of Tyva has arisen partly because of the local forms of nomadic land management, and is thus partly an emergent property of this shaping. There is a strong tradition of respect for natural places: every one has an ee, a master or spirit guardian.

Tuva 6There are nine Federal Parks in Tyva and 16 Regional Parks. Tyva has the highest mountain in eastern Siberia (Möngün-Taiga at 3970 m, 13020 ft), and internationally important populations of snow leopard (Uncia uncia), argali (Ovis amman: wild sheep), great bustard (Otis tarda) and wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). The Saiga antelope used to be extant but was wiped out in the 1950s. In the south of the republic, Erzin district contains three clusters of parks and buffer zones that form a part of the larger Upsanur Basin flowing into Upsanur Lake in northern Mongolia. Erzin also contains 348 objects of historical importance (burial mounds, stone circles, petroglyphs). Petroglyphs date from about 5000 years BP (before present), and the Scythian burial mounds (some of which contained bronze and gold artefacts) date from 3000 BP. There are estimated to be some 11,000 burial mounds along the whole border region with Mongolia.

Ubsunurskaya comprises 284,000 ha next to the Mongolian border and the Uvs Nuur Basin Biosphere Reserve (an area of 640 by 160 km). The region comprises a mix of wetlands, sand massifs, dry steppe, rocky mountains, high forest and alpine meadows. Some 56,000 ha are in core protected areas, and the remaining 228,000 ha comprise the buffer zone. The region also contains the highest concentration of burial mounds in Asia, and is the source of the headwaters for the great Siberian rivers of Yenesei and Ob.

Six animals are particularly important in Tyva. The argali (Ovis amman) mountain sheep is some 120 cm high and up to 140 kg in size, with corkscrew horns. It is endangered and threatened, though still hunted. The bear (adyg) is a powerful spirit animal, and is rarely talked about directly. Tyvans believe in being very respectful of bears. This is a common view held by northern peoples across the world (cf Nelson, 1983). The marmot is the most important species to hunt on the steppes. The meat and fat are considered medicinal. The marmot has recently been placed on the Red Data list, and hunting is no longer permitted, despite its high cultural importance. The snow leopard is rare and endangered, though it can cause significant losses to herders if it gains entry to byres or corrals. People are generally respectful towards wolves even though they are predators; they do not want to draw their attention. In Tyva, there is a bounty on wolves (4000 rubles).

The Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) is recognizable from its unusual, over-sized, and flexible nose structure. The nose warms up air in winter and filters out the dust in summer. It originally inhabited the Eurasian steppe from the Carpathians to Mongolia, but today are only found only in a few areas in Kalymykia (Russia), Kazakhstan and and western Mongolia. All the saiga in Tyva were shot in the 1950s by Soviet officials on the grounds that they were pests (competitors) of domestic livestock. There are plans to reintroduce Saiga to Tyva.

Tuva 2Altai Osmans (Oreolecuciscus spp) are endemic to the lakes of the central Asian internal basin, where the lentic lakes have no outlets (Bogutskaya, 2001). These fish are under threat in some lakes from introduced fish, eg predatory pike (shortan, shurush). Pike were introduced to Lake Tore-khul in the 1970s by Soviet authorities, and have since so expanded in numbers that osman populations are under threat. An annual quota of 25 tonnes per year has been set to encourage removal of pike by net fishing, particularly by ice fishing in winter.

Beauty to Tyvans is in a landscape that is both wild and domestic. The winter camps can be dusty and dirty, and they prefer not to bring guests at these times. But in spring and summer, the sheep and goats are clean and bright on the green steppes. Beauty is also rocks, water, some trees, birds calling, grass rippling to the horizon, an eagle or falcon flying high, circling and calling. In summer, the grassland can be carpeted with flowers. The livestock are fatter too, and so more beautiful. Beauty is also in the red and orange berries and cedar nuts of July and August. A traditional Tyvan greeting is: “are you livestock healthy; are they well?” There is joy in livestock that are clean and fat.

Wild fires in the taiga are a threat to both forests and wildlife if uncontrolled. It is a tradition to set fires to encourage new grass growth, to kill ticks, and to destroy grass seeds with twisting awns that bury themselves into sheep and goats’ skins. However, fires appear to have become more common in recent years, though it is not known whether this is due to accidents, climate change or changes in the management of forests. It is thought the current economic crisis has forced more people to rely on the taiga for food and fuel resources, and that this may in turn have increased the incidence of fires.

The Threat of Climate Change

Tuva 4As Tyva approaches the second decade of the 21st century, large changes can be expected over the next twenty to forty years. These will have a substantial effect on all the people, institutions and environments of Tyva. A major priority will be to build economic and social resilience and adaptability into the culture and economy at all levels. In their latest report on climate change and its consequences in the Russian Federation, Rosshydromet (Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring) has concluded that climate change has already had a greater effect in Russia than in other parts of the world (Rosshydromet, 2008). The consequences for the future are severe. They conclude that their own studies concur with the scientific findings of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report published in 2007 (IPCC, 2007).

The summary of changes to date are as follows:

  1. Mean warming for 1976-2007 was an increase of 1.33°C, greater than global warming means.
  2. The largest increase in minimum and maximum daily temperatures occurred in the cold season; and the number of frosty days decreased;
  3. Annual precipitation increased during 1976-2006 by 7.2mm per decade;
  4. Annual river run off increased by 5-40% for 1978-2006 relative to 1946-1977; run off increases in the Yenesei basin were 8%; the greatest increases were in the European part of Russia;
  5. Satellite measurements show a decrease in snow cover in the past 30 years;
  6. Snow depth increased in regions where low annual mean temperatures were combined with increased winter precipitation (eg in southern Siberia);
  7. The number of days with snow depth of greater 20mm has increased across the whole of Russia (by 6-10 days per decade);
  8. Snow ice in the Arctic has declined by 9% in area per decade since 1979, and was at its lowest extent ever recorded in 2007 (data not yet available for 2008).

In addition to these changes over the past two to three decades, the predicted changes in climate will have a further substantial effect on Tyva and surrounding regions:

  1. The increase in annual mean temperature will be greater in Russia than global warming, with the largest rises in winter (predicted increase of +3.4°C by 2050);
  2. The number of frosty days will decline;
  3. River run-off will increase, particularly in Siberian rivers;
  4. Additional precipitation in Siberia will be in the solid phase (snow), increasing snow depth and resulting in more melt in spring with consequential flooding;
  5. Vegetation zones will shift northwards in central Asia;
  6. Car transportation along zimpik roads and frozen rivers will become more difficult;
  7. The indoor heating season will decline by 3-5 days by 2015 compared with 2000;
  8. The incidence of infectious and parasitic diseases of humans and animals will increase, particularly tick-borne encephalitis, Lyme’s disease, haemorrhagic fever and malaria;
  9. Long periods of dry and hot weather will increase the incidence of forest fires: the number of days of flammability risk will increase by 5 days by 2015 over most of Russia, and 7 days in Siberia.

All of these predicted changes will have subtle effects on Tyvan natural and cultural systems. Deeper snow in winter will affect livestock viability and increase the pressure on herding families; parasitic diseases will also affect livestock; spring flooding may affect choices of spring camp sites; and shifting vegetation zones may mean migration patterns have to change. It is vital that ways are found to make livelihoods and rural economies more resilient to future shocks and stresses.