September 17, 1998
Russian Inuit hard hit by nation's economic woes
Yu'pik doctor tells of vanishing native populations in the Chukotka region, isolated by geography, joblessness and the lure of the city.
IQALUIT Russian Inuit are fighting for their survival as they struggle to overcome low births and high mortality rates amid nationwide economic collapse.
Some Yuit, or Yup'ik, as Russia's Inuit are known, even go so far as to say they're fighting to save themselves from extinction.
"The only thing that's going to help is active effort to improve the situation today," Dr. Lubov Otrokova, Russia's only Yup'ik surgeon, said at during the most recent Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) meeting in Nuuk, Greenland.
Economic crisis and political turmoil in Russia this year have worsened the situation for all northeners, but in the Yup'ik homeland of Chukotka, population decline has reached critical proportions.
Birth and mortatlity rates in Russia's far north show that Yup'ik, who number less than 4,000, are having fewer babies and are dying, on average, 8 to 15 years earlier than is the norm for developed countries.
From 1986 to 1998, the birthrate in Chukotka, separated from Alaska by the narrow Bering Strait, plummeted from 40 births per 1,000 to 21, nearly a 50 per cent drop.
"The regeneration of the population is one-quarter of what it was," Dr Otrokova said.
In one Chukotkan community, for example, 16 children were born in 14 years.
Another community lost 27 per cent of its population in one year, either from out-migration or death.
Tatiana Achirgina, a member of the Russian ICC delegation, said the population of the small Chukotkan village of Novo Chaplino, a community of 400 residents, dropped 18 per cent in one year alone.
Of the 72 people who left the community, 30 died from diseases which plague Russia's north.
These refugees are not fleeing military conflict, but economic collapse.
"Our native communities are full of unemployment, whole industries are closing," Tatyana Kharchenko, a Russian social worker, said.
Many Yup'ik residents have headed to larger urban centres looking for jobs. Many of these economic refugees are women of child-bearing age, who are foregoing marriage and children.
World takes notice
For decades the plight of the Yup'ik escaped circumpolar attention, but in recent years, and aided by their association with the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Russia's Inuit have been able to share their story with their northern neighbors.
The tale is bleak.
They tell of chronic deficiencies in health care, insufficient housing, high unemployment, suicide and disease. Descriptions of ecological disasters resulting from major contaminants being discharged into the Bering Sea and improper nuclear-waste disposal are common.
The health care system in Chukotka is in shambles. Treatable diseases go untreated. Mental illnesses remain unchecked and venereal disease runs rampant.
"People have no idea what safe sex is all about," Dr. Otrokova said. "Juveniles are infected fivefold as in the past."
Part of the reason for this, she said, is the lack of preventive medicine and education.
Health system bankrupt
Staff at the region's medical centres are incapable of treating their patients effectively because of a lack of money. A mother of three, Dr. Otrokova said that she herself must wait months on end to get a paycheque.
"The health care system is looking after the problems second-hand; they're giving no prevention."
Because of this, many cases of cancer, one of the leading causes of death in Chukotka, are not diagnosed and treated until the final stages.
She said the incidence of diseases such as stomach cancer, respiratory tract illness and lymph and skin cancers have risen sharply since 1997.
"Unfortunately, the reasons aren't being studied."
Fewer people are eating traditional country foods, resulting in decreased nutrition.
Lilia Shamonina, who lives on a federal reserve in Chukotka where hunting and fishing is restricted, has seen her diet deteriorate since the establishment of the reserve.
"Many people remember the animal rights while they forget the human rights," she said. "If we had the right, we could provide for ourselves in food and clothing."
Many within the Russian delegation who attended the ICC meeting in Greenland this summer admit to feeling envy when they listen to descriptions of Denmark's relationship with Greenland, which will celebrate 20 years of home rule government next May.
"Today in Russia, the politicians aren't anywhere near these types of approaches," one member of the Russian Association of Aboriginal Peoples of the North (RAIPON), said.
"There's a need for dialogue, so we can solve the serious problems of our people...there has to be parity in this relationship," he said.
The Russian Association of Aboriginal Peoples of the North believes that no real change in social and economic development can take place without achieving a measure of self-government.
"We need to have this legislative basis, like air. This is why we're not hopeful with our government. We tell our countrymen they must rely on themselves, on their traditional knowledge," the RAIPON spokesman said.
Tatyana Kharchenko is more optimistic.
Kharchenko said native arts, such as sewing and embroidering slippers, are main sources of income in many communities and young people are picking up these skills, learning to be self-sufficient.
"We're attempting to make use of our traditions, our customs," she said. "Three years ago, I had reason to be sad, but today I know I can help."