The Russian oil company Yukos is to build a 2,480km pipeline from Siberia to China to supply oil and gas, after discovering a new oil field in eastern Siberia which has reserves equal to those of Kuwait.
The deal, which will have oil flowing in three years, is of huge strategic importance to both Moscow and Beijing - providing Russia with a steady income and China with a guaranteed 600,000 barrels of oil a day to help fuel its industrial expansion.
The major part of the $2.3 billion cost of the pipeline will be borne by Yukos but the Chinese will pay $470 million to continue it from their border to Daqing, a further 800kms away.
Peresada Vladimir, foreign affairs adviser to Yukos, said the pipeline would allow the remote oil fields of the vast, underpopulated region of Evenkia in eastern Siberia to be pumped out. He added that the oil field was difficult to exploit, but that the economics of piping such large amounts of oil direct to China made it viable and minimised the risk.
The first oil to go to China will come from existing fields in west Siberia but will be supplemented and replaced by oil from the new fields as they are developed, making Yukos the largest oil company in Russia. But Yukos, keen to polish its international image as environmentally sound and responsible, has a problem. The oil field is home to the Evenks, a reindeer-raising and hunting people who claim the oil fields as their exclusive territory and have the backing of federal law, which reserves the area for their use.
The Evenks have the support of the United Nations Environment Programme and Grid, a Norway-based organization which helps the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (Raipon).
The Evenks have clung on in their remote roadless wilderness despite Stalin liquidating their medicine men and mystical religious leaders and "disappearing" their tribal chiefs. Later, Soviet policies turned them from herders into collective reindeer farmers.
Ironically, the freedom that the end of communism might have brought to enable them to return to their centuries-old way of life brought further disaster.
As the collective farms were abandoned and privatized, the reindeer were sold or swapped for vodka supplies with newly arrived oil prospectors who needed fresh meat. Almost no domesticated reindeer remain, although there are still some living wild in the almost unbroken forests.
Oil men say that Evenks, desperate for drink, were prepared to swap once-prized reindeer for vodka; the Evenks claim the oil men shot some of their reindeer herds from helicopters. Both versions of events are true.
Now the ancient Evenki saying "No reindeer no Evenk" is perilously close to coming true. The unique sub-species of sturdy, broad-backed reindeer bred by the Evenks, which they use for riding through the forest to hunt elk, deer, bear and trap sable, mink and red squirrel for the St Petersburg markets, is close to extinction.
The Evenks, deprived of their way of life, have high rates of alcoholism, suicide and murder.
In the village of Kuyumba, home to 150 adults and 50 children - nearly all of them native Evenks - six people have committed suicide in the last three years and 24 have been murdered, according to the local doctor, Natalia Goncharova. Ten of the murder victims were women.
Dr Goncharova is herself an Evenk and has spent 35 years in the village. She said: "With their traditional way of life gone, these men do not want to work. I would say 30 per cent were alcoholics, and there are only 20 people in the community who do not drink at all.
Across the river from the village is an oil depot supplied by barge in the spring, the only time the river has enough water to be navigable. The rest of the time the way to travel is by canoe, the main Evenk form of transport, or in the helicopters used by oil companies.
But back in Moscow the future of the Evenks is a sensitive issue. Backed by Raipon, which supports 24 groups of native peoples who are virtually unknown outside Russia, the Evenks know that the primary issue is land rights.
The problem is that the oil fields are in the Evenk territories and the local government of Evenkia has not translated federal law into local land rights. However, in spite of this protection, the newly elected governor for the region, Boris Zolotarev, has granted Yukos drilling rights in the same areas. There is deep suspicion because he is a former senior Yukos employee.
Although the issue of land rights remains unresolved, this is seen as the first positive step for the Evenks since Stalin intervened in their lives.
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