Thursday, October 23, 2014

In Tuva

Today I arrived home to find a copy of Jules Pretty's new book, 'The Edge of Extinction: Travels with Enduring People in Vanishing Lands' had arrived.

I had a (minor) hand in its making because I am the cause of one of its chapters by issuing Jules' invitation to Tuva that forms the basis of Chapter 4. I was working with WWF Russia thinking of ways that community development and poverty reduction could be woven into approaches to nature conservation. One of the great challenges of conservation is thinking how indigenous groups are in fact your best allies rather than enemies, as they are often perceived, being turned into 'conservation refugees' by governments keen to 'preserve wildlife' (as with the Bushman in Botswana expelled from national parks, imprisoned for 'poaching').

I had called Jules, whose work I knew of and admired, as an expert on sustainable agriculture, nature and culture, for advice on who we might hire as a consultant to help us shape a programme. He volunteered and a few months later, we found ourselves en route to Abakan (in the neighbouring republic) and along the military road into Tuva.

It was a wonderful trip, encountering a diverse range of people - from high official to camel herder, from shaman to museum guide, from conservation guard to throat singer - all framed in landscapes of both great beauty and stunning urban decay. In the latter I recall walking across Kyzyl's, the capital's, industrial zone - complete silence except for bird song amongst the abandoned buildings, rotting back to earth.

For me the highlight came on what happened to be my birthday when we visited a local shamans' lodge and the new national museum (even though it was its closing day) where we saw the extraordinary exhibition of Scythian gold (see above) and was treated to a throat singing concert.

Tuva is geographically at the heart of Asia (and there is a monument to this effect) and is the only constituent republic of the Russian Federation where the indigenous population is in a majority. One of whose consequences is that its traditional nomadic way of life is deeply respected rather than marginalised, shamed.

But how difficult it is to maintain that pride in the face of outside questioning. I remember our going to a site held sacred with the director of the National Parks Service. He held a short, Shamanic ceremony of blessing before inviting us to explore, but not without first apologising. It was an apology utterly unnecessary for either of us and yet the feeling of the necessity was there. Modernity presses in, everywhere, and its assumption of progressive superiority is insidious.

Jules' book is, in part, a taking to task of that imposition with the stories of people who configure their place in the world differently than the mainstream and from whom we might learn. I look forward to reading it whole.

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