Russia's Amur River: native people on worry about livelihood in wake of Chinese spill

Yevgenia Osadchaya is beside herself with worry, wondering how her family will survive when the toxic slick flowing from China pollutes the Amur River that provides the livelihood for her family and her native Nanai people.

The native peoples of Russia's Far East, many of whom rely on the Amur for their food and income, are among those most endangered by the imminent arrival of 100 tons of benzene released into a tributary upriver after a Chinese chemical plant explosion on Nov. 13.

Russian authorities expect the slick to cross the border Dec. 10 or 11, and three days later reach the regional capital Khabarovsk. Restrictions on eating Amur fish could last a year or even several, as toxins linger in the winter ice and riverbed, experts say.

The native people "live from fish. But trading in fish will likely be banned," said Natalya Zimina, spokeswoman for the Khabarovsk regional government. She said authorities would strive to inform the villagers that eating the affected fish is even worse than drinking the water.

Just under 11,000 Nanai people live in the Khabarovsk region, the largest native group here, according to the 2002 Russian census. Other minorities include the Evenki with 4,500 people, Ulchi at 2,700 and Nivchi numbering some 2,500.

Many of the Nanai, who retain their own language, are fishermen whose eastern Siberian ancestors once made clothes from scaly fish skins and who still make shoes from fish. Samples of the skins are shown at the village museum in Sikachi-Alyan, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) downriver from Khabarovsk.

Svetlana Oninka, a history teacher who runs the village's one-room museum, noted the importance that fish plays in traditional Nanai dishes, even sometimes consumed raw.

Nina Druzhinina, head of the village administration, said residents have been warned already not to drink Amur water or eat fish. The spill is just the latest example of civilization impinging on traditional customs here, she said.

"It's hard to have a traditional life when you have legislation," she said, naming restrictions such as fishing and hunting quotas. The Nanai are already also coping with years of industrial pollution by chemicals such as phenol, which affects Amur fish in the winter, giving it a chemical smell.

At least this village of 314 Nanai residents has another way besides fish to support itself. Stone carvings dating from 14,000 years ago are a steady draw for thousands of visitors a year. Residents make small fur-lined talismans with traditional symbols for health and long life, or small figures in native dress, to sell to tourists for 50 rubles (US$1.75, Ђ1.50) each.

Still, Osadchaya worried that even that small trade could be devastated by the chemical spill. To help make ends meet and supplement a pension she says is not enough to support her family, her daughter makes the souvenirs, while sons go fishing.

Osadchaya said she used to work here at a workshop that produced traditional Nanai slippers, but was shuttered in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed. "It's getting worse and worse," she said. "The fish are destroyed, now the water is destroyed", reported AP. P.T.

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