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Andrey Shapran - Lands at the Edge of the World

Andrey Shapran – Lands at the Edge of the World

Why do some races of people seem to have an advantage over others? Why are some countries rich and others poor? Why are some people haves and others have-nots? For argument’s sake let’s say that having (education, health, work) is the ostensible goal of human society on earth and not-having (basic somatic needs insecure) is the place from which we came. Why are the majority of the haves people of Eurasian origin while the have-nots are the Native Peoples of the world? What’s the deal?

Luck mostly. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997, W. W. Norton) geographer Jared Diamond writes that as hunter-gatherers transformed to agricultural societies it was the nutrient-rich plants of Eurasia (barley, wheat) as well as the successful domestication of docile animals (cow, horse, sheep, goats) that allowed surpluses to be stored, and specialized societies to develop. The rest of the world initially had only one domesticatable animal (Llamas) and produced mainly low-nutrient maize and potatoes and have failed to figure out a way to lengthen the short shelf life of bananas. From the stores came surpluses, specialization, population growth, class hierarchy, bureaucracy, nations, and empires.

The bureaucracy par excellence had to have been the post-WWII Union of Socialist Republics under Stalin. Be it the 17th, 19th or 21st century, Russia has never been without political controversy, never without misunderstanding, never without raw beauty. She is so big that she always surprises and is always surprising, at least in part, because she is so big. And full of the unknown and the overlooked. Look at a map of Russia, pan to the extreme northeast of Asia to the edge of what was the landbridge humans crossed into the western hemisphere some 16,000 years ago and you will see the snub nose of the Chukchi Peninsula, facing off across from Alaska’s Seward Peninsula.

Bering Strait Map

Bering Strait Map

The tail ends of two vast landmasses, which once connected the world as Beringia, exist today in the form of the people, the dialects and traditions of Northwest Alaska and the Russian Far East. This is the ancestral home of the Chukchi, Evens, Koryaks, and Eskimos, the native peoples who have inhabited this land for millennia. As Latvian photographer Andrey Shapran said when he visited Mechigmensky Bay of Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, “Walruses, whales and other sea mammals are daily food for this people, and sea hunting is their daily life.”

Imagine that. No 9-5 at the office or school for the kids. No television or commercials. No Christmas shopping or summer vacations. No politics or perestroika, red scare or cold war. The only cold they know is waking up and hunting for food in the long Arctic winter. Brr. Most might choose bureaucracy over fending for oneself at open sea.

The small coastal town of Akani has long been a settlement of sea huntsmen where for centuries they have chased walruses and whales through the chilly Arctic waters on their annual migration. Yet during the Stalin’s reign the local people were relocated 30 kilometers to the south in Lorino, off the migratory path of their atavistic foodsource. Despite the infamy of Soviet bureaucratic prevailing wisdom, migratory patterns of walruses and whales remained stubborn, continually making their annual visit off the coast of Akani, where the local huntsmen come to try their luck, before cutting inside the Alaskan Peninsula and heading down the coast of North America to breed. Shapran points out, “The most lucky is who come out of the sea first.”

But what do we mean as Russian? These people live in Russia, speak Russian as well as their native languages, and they belong to Russian nation as before they were the Soviet people. Click To Tweet

Andrey Shapran – Lands at the Edge of the World

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

A Chukchi hunter takes aim at a Grey Whale with his spear - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

I ask him about the ongoing photographic series Lands at the Edge of the World chronicling the native people inhabiting the north-east of Russia, the South Kuril Islands, Kamchatka and Chukotka peninsulas, “Do these indigenous reindeer herdsmen, fishermen and sea mammal hunters practice traditional survival techniques the same way as their ancestors? How is it different or similar?”

“Yes, the ways are similar. But speeds have changed—huntsmen on the Chukotka peninsula today use modern high speed engines for their boats, herdsmen in the tundra often ride powerful off-road vehicles. Although generally the situation remains the same—the immense northern areas define the rhythm of life for these people.” Andrey continues, “A harvested whale on land is as amazing a sight as a live whale at the open water. No one animal looks the same as others. The ancient tradition of sharing the kill between all local people according to their needs perseveres and all are welcome to cut off his part of the common catch. It is the only way to survive in the extreme conditions of the north.”

Talking to the hunters, Shapran has heard tales of how it has become harder to hunt whales. To ease their toils (the I.W.C. annually allots them 140 Grey Whales), humanitarians have donated American-made dart guns, which the locals save for hunting the big Baleen whales that pass through their waters in late autumn, also using a kind of hand-made metal charge for Gray whales, but whale harvesting with such weapons is complicated, because only a precise hit guarantees success. The Stone Age arrows, spears and harpoons continue to dominate their modern hunts. Shapran adds, “They say even American-made firearm cannot compete with this ancient weapon.”

Hunting and butchering are such integral skills that are done almost as automatically as walking and eating. Several hours after the hunt and not a trace of the bloody carcasses remains on the shore. Here in the far north, life and… Click To Tweet

I ask the obvious question, “Is this lifestyle sustainable in 2011 and further into the future?”

“Certainly this lifestyle is rational here, but only small part of local population lives in a such way. Settlements and towns with heated houses, TV, shops which are full of food from our civilized world, all these things deprive people the opportunity to develop those qualities that are necessary in the tough conditions of the Far North. The percentage of people who live in the traditional way is very low, the young generation do not move on to the tundra or to hunt in the sea, because living, or even survival conditions there are absolutely diverse.”

As Shapran recounts a story from one of the whalers, saying, “…The whales attacked their boat twice—first time a wounded whale dove down under them and struck the boat bottom with his head…” he gestures like the old Chukchi hunter throwing up his hands, showing how hunters flew from the boat. “The next time, he did not fall out from the boat—it did not turn over. ‘Now,’ the hunter added, ‘I am fearful to go out to sea.’ But he has to hunt. He needs to feed his family.”

He continues, “The hunters venture out to sea at dawn, eating only once before coming back home, and often not returning until after sunset. Their meal consists of a piece of cold boiled meat, bread and tea from vacuum flask. Hunting always takes a lot of energy. A way back with a killed whale is always a difficult trial. The longer hunting continues, the longer coming home is. And they never go hunting alone. The sea, they believe, for sure takes a single man away.”

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

The carcass of a Grey whale on the shores of Akani - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

HM: “The World Wildlife Fund reports that in addition to some of the underdeveloped areas of the Chukchi peninsula being in danger of exploitation of natural resource deposits, such as oil, natural gas, and gold, ‘nuclear waste pollution from the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and spreading tundra fires are threatening the Chukotka’s ecosystem,'” I ask Shapran, “Are the indigenous peoples in any danger from outside economic interests disrupting their lives or their food supply? Do they benefit at all?”

AS: “The danger certainly is high. In the past the state interfered with the traditional northern peoples way of living trying to impose on them the ‘civilized’ lifestyle, but now it invades the living space of indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, looking back in history we can see the negative impact only after many decades or even several generations. So, may be it is too early to talk about benefits or harms, but obviously any so-called development must not be done thoughtlessly.”

HM: “Are these Northern people, the Chukchi, Evens, and Eskimos considered Russian?”

AS: “But what do we mean as ‘Russian’? These people live in Russia, speak Russian as well as their native languages, and they belong to Russian nation as before they were the Soviet people.”

HM: “The idea of nationality is a very peculiar issue in regards to the fact that so many nations were under the umbrella of the USSR, including the Baltic countries, eastern Europe, nations in and around the Black Sea, even Mongolia and the provinces of the far east, such as you have photographed. Is there an extended brotherhood of Russia that exists to this day? You are from Latvia, but are you included in the Russian family? What is the situation with all of these recent independent states in relation to modern day Russia?”

AS: “This is a very complicated question and it is impossible to answer it in one sentence. Every former Soviet Republic has its own point of view on this issue. To speak about that confidently you must visit these now independent countries and converse with local natives and Russian people, but I have not had such experiences. It happened, for last several years I have worked only in Kyrgyzstan, in its northern part, where not so many Russians remain and only native people older than thirty more or less can speak Russian. The older generation of Kyrgyz people still respects Russia and the Russians. Despite twenty years since the fall of the USSR they still call Russia ‘older brother.’ In Latvia, where I am from, lots of Russians live nowadays, but the nationalist attitude is quite highly represented and at the same time the situation in the Baltic region is quiet.”

HM: “Your photographic work with Great Patriotic War (World War II) veterans presents an alternative point of view for western audiences of living veterans of the war. Is there a big difference in experience when talking to veterans from Tobolsk as opposed to Riga?”

AS: “No, I did not feel any difference in this work. Lots of veterans who live now in Latvia were born in Siberia and relocated to Latvia right after the Great Patriotic War. And in spite of long years away from their motherland, as well as Siberians they speak Russian. But in Riga the nationwide Victory Day on May the 9th is celebrated quite differently than in Russia. This day is a day of unity for the entire Russian-speaking population of Latvia and the most important participants of it are old people in their Soviet military uniforms. In Siberia such celebrations are more formal and not so sincere.”

HM: “Can you tell us about what you are working on in the future?”

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

Whale bones on the shore of the Chukchi peninsula - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

AS: “My current projects are the continuation of the themes which were begun several years ago. The project “Land at the edge of the world” is not limited in time and geography. The work demonstrates the need for more careful research of subjects, of indigenous peoples traditions and their lifestyles. The “Far East” project about the South Kuril islands also requires special two-three-month trip to complete.”

HM: “The South Kuril Islands are part of Russia, but Japan claims a right to some of them. Have you talked to locals about this? How do most Russians feel about this issue?”

AS: “Mostly Russians are for retaining the South Kuril islands within the Russian Federation. On the Islands there is a quite large migration flow, people often go there in search of well-paid work. Usually they are seasonal workers whose families live on the mainland. They are barely interested in political and social issues around this area.”

It’s the haves who start most arguments about politics. The have-nots are just trying to put dinner on the table.

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

“I really feel we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans.

— Louie Psihoyos

The photos depicting peaceful inlets of coastal water are of Taiji, a little known whaling town on the Pacific coast of Japan’s Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. The region is known as Kumano, and is a world heritage site, renown for its pilgrim trail and striking temples set in both ancient Cedar forests and along pristine coastline, such as this. The jagged asymmetry of the windswept trees perched on jutting outcroppings of rocks, themselves constantly battered by the sea, feels like something out of the Ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige’s well-known repertoire of wood cuts.

Because it is spread over an entire peninsula (the Unesco people couldn’t name just one spot a World Heritage Site) the area is a well-kept secret, even amongst the Japanese. With the overpowering Mt. Fuji, the Nagano Alps and other monumental landscapes to compete with, it’s easy to see why. After making the out-of-the-way journey, most Japanese will readily admit that Kumano, and Taiji in particular, with its mixture of mist-shrouded mountains and craggy cliffs, is one of the most startlingly beautiful views of the sea in Japan.

Yet every September when a group of fishermen emerge from Taiji’s sheltering coves to catch the yearly dolphin migration in order to supply the world’s aquariums with fresh dolphins (at around 200,000USD a head), these picturesque waters turn from cobalt blue to blood red in a matter of hours. How? Why? It depends on who you ask.

The Cove - Interview with Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos © Manny Santiago

Last October, HESO asked Louie Psihoyos founder of OPS (Oceanic Preservation Society) and director of The Cove. Referring to the annual slaughter of approximately 2000 dolphins in the waters of Taiji, he said Japan is “a microcosm of the oceans.

“I really feel,” he continued, “we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans. This generation coming up and maybe the next one are going to be the only generations to be able to fix this before it’s too late, before well, just break out all the champagne and drink it because…there’s not going to be anything left for anybody else…”

HESO: So this is larger than just some proud fisherman slaughtering dolphins for some cultural reasons?

Louie Psihoyos: When the cultural tradition argument gets in the way of human rights, your argument falls apart. If we acidify the oceans just a bit more we lose the coral reefs and anything with a carbonate structure just dissolves. Plankton creates two out of every three breaths you take. It creates more oxygen than all of the rain forests combined. So little things like acidity going up have huge impacts on future generations. If we can’t win this small fight in Taiji, how can we win the bigger fight?”

How can we indeed.

The truth is that we are already—right now—in the midst of a massive extinction. The funny, but not funny at all, part is that most are of species we had no idea existed in the first place. Click To Tweet

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

“Ocean acidification is a growing global problem that will intensify with continued CO2 emissions and has the potential to change marine ecosystems and affect benefits to society.” said a June report on Ocean Acidification for the National Research Council and Congress.

Jon Ellis, an avid diver and underwater photographer might phrase the panel’s comments differently. This from his recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef:

While it’s hard not to buy into the popular notion of having repeatedly soiled our own diapers, to the point of ruination, it’s also hard not to applaud what a dedicated few are still doing to in trying to race the clock to help stem the tide (pun intended) of the current big biological catastrophe.

“Things like the BP oil spill in the gulf, while completely terrible—and avoidable mind you—are really just the fetid frosting on the rotten cake, so to speak.” says a San Francisco environmental activist wishing to remain anonymous. “The truth is that we are already—right now—in the midst of a massive extinction. The funny, but not funny at all, part is that most are of species we had no idea existed in the first place.”

In The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey and Robert Lewin say that the current one—differing from the previous five—is a patently human-caused event. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge believes that there can be little doubt amongst logical people that humans are the direct cause of ecosystem stress and species destruction. “Transformation of the landscape, overexploitation of species, pollution, and introduction of alien species explosion of human population, especially in the post-Industrial Revolution years of the past two centuries, coupled with the unequal distribution and consumption of wealth on the planet, is the underlying cause of the Sixth Extinction.”

Louie Psihoyos and OPS’s next documentary film, Racing Extinction, will focus on this mass extinction event, but—if it’s possible—in a positive way. Can pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, global climate change and ocean acidification be overcome?

The truth is that the reef really isn’t in that good condition. Even in areas where people rarely dive there is a lot of dead coral around. It’s true that it appears to be recovering – new growth dots the outcrops of dead coral, but… Click To Tweet

Save coral reefs, which constitute less than one percent of the ocean’s space, but are home to more than 25 percent of its fish, and you can save humanity. Kill them and you kill us. How are we planning on saving them from bleaching—a whitening of corals that occurs when symbiotic algae living within coral tissues are expelled? Bleached coral may recover over time or simply die out altogether. The truth is, as Bill Bryson puts it in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.”

Some recent bleaching events are the result of a rise in sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea—an area that includes the coasts of Myanmar, Thailand, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and northwestern Indonesia. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Hotspots website, temperatures in the region peaked in late May at more than 93° F (34° C), while long-term averages for the area are around 86°. The hottest summer on record is producing record temperatures in the oceans as well, a place that oceanographers admittedly know very little about.

Something we do know is that the seas around Australia’s 20,000 miles of coastline are notoriously stingy. Enough so as to exclude them from the top fifty fishing nations, according to Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters. Magnesium Photo’s Matt Greenfield, an avid diver, recently photographed sharks around the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast—one of the only places in their coastal waters where sea-life is truly abundant.

Finning sharks, dredging the ocean floor, selling tainted dolphin meat as whale: the animal rights argument rightfully doesn’t stop nearby Japan from scouring the world for what the Aussies—despite 9 million miles of territorial waters—have to import. Japan’s very long and extremely well protected fisheries arm—accounting for more than 15 percent of the worldwide catch—is often openly hostile, misleading and willfully ignorant toward their own customers and any such international pressure citing anything, even the human rights argument. Tsukiji Fish Market in central Tokyo, the country’s seafood nerve center, is the largest in the world and the only one of many fish markets which have misrepresented dolphin and other cetacean meat for whale meat. Their spokespeople seem to have a preternatural gift for keeping the masses ignorant of the unsustainable truth, flouting international law and deflecting criticism from abroad.

Agree to Neither Agree Nor Disagree

“Most Japanese people are completely unaware of this (Dall’s Porpoise) hunt – it’s the largest direct hunt of any whale, dolphin and porpoise in the world and is putting these animals at risk while producing hundreds of tonnes of toxic meat for human consumption.”

Clare Perry EIA Senior Campaigner

Meanwhile, many Japanese Fisheries apologists will counter with statements like, “…in a world where we eat millions of chickens, cows and pigs, where we seem intent on plucking every salmon, cod, oyster and shrimp out of the ocean, is there something morally wrong about hunting a marine mammal like a dolphin?”

Not morally, but concerning consumer’s health, yes. Based on 1972 World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, Japan’s fisheries and Health Ministry (JMHLW) have been ignoring the self-imposed maximum contamination levels in seafood products of 0.3µg/g (parts per million – ppm) Methylmercury (MeHg) and 0.4ppm Mercury (Hg). Recently tested Dall’s porpoise samples (from a separate hunt in northern Japan) being 1.02µg/g, almost three-and-a-half times the recommended limit, often more (Source: EIA-International). The giant Blue-fin Tuna, known in sushi bars around the world as maguro, are regularly toxic as well. In fact any fish, or ocean going mammal over a certain size and age is likely a repository for dangerous levels of Mercury and any other heavy metals dumped in the ocean over the past 60 years.

Lucky then that not many are actually eating it. Certainly not the Japanese. According to the Guardian, of the 1,873 tons of whale meat processed in 2001, 70 tons went unsold. As a recent poll suggests, some 95 percent of the 1,047 respondents reportedly ate whale meat “very rarely”, had not eaten whale meat in a “long time”, or ate it “not at all”. 34.5 percent of the poll’s participants thought commercial whaling should resume, and 39.2 percent “neither agreed nor disagreed” with the idea.

One Japanese scholar with an opinion, Jun Morikawa of Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, argues that whaling’s popularity—and therefore the fishing of all cetaceans—is largely a myth promulgated by certain governmental bodies and major players within the whaling industry. Though it seems that as long as 39.2 percent of the world “neither agree nor disagree” with any of this, our oceans will be in trouble.

HESO would like to thank Louie Psihoyos from OPS and Clare Perry from EIA-International for their cooperation in creating a dialogue of openness.

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