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Pristine Russian Far East Sees Its Fate in Gold

ESSO, Russia–The basic view from this mountain village hasn't changed for 7, 000 years, since a giant reservoir of molten lava crested over to form the mighty peak of Asia's largest and most active volcano. Eagles and falcons dance through the crisp air. Not far away, the world's biggest population of grizzly bears– shaking off their winter slumber–forage for salmon as big as dogs.

There is nothing else in Russia, and little left on earth, like Kamchatka. A peninsula the size of California, with just one long, partly paved road, it has more earthquakes and live volcanoes–including Asia's biggest and most active, Klyuchevskaya Sopka–than anywhere else. Thanks to its fertile rivers, lakes and seas, the region accounts for nearly half the fish produced in Russia.

But while Kamchatka, in Russia's Far East, is one of the last pristine places on the planet, it has been left that way by accident. More than 5,000 miles from Moscow, the region was protected by the Soviet Union because it was home to a nuclear submarine base in the port city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. For decades it was off limits to all but natives, sailors and fishermen. The staggering wealth that lies beneath the soil–gold, silver, platinum and more– has never been touched.

But the temptations have never been greater, because every year Kamchatka draws closer to death.

''There is a way to save Kamchatka,'' said Aleksandr A. Orlov, the chief of the regional administration's department of Energy, Mineral Resources and Communication. ''And everybody knows what it is: we have to dig for gold. I myself want as much wild nature as possible. We all do. But first of all, people should have a good life. To live here we need development. Without it we should just turn this place into a wild park or game reserve and move away. Because if they stay people are going to starve.''

The collapse of Communism, hard as it has been on many Russian provinces, has put special pressures on Kamchatka. Unique in so many ways–it is, after all, so far east of Moscow that it is almost west of Moscow–Kamchatka nonetheless presents the most striking example of the impossible struggle remote regions face in adapting themselves to the realities of the new Russia.

The subsidies, incentives and discounts that Soviet leaders doled out for living in Siberia and the distant north are gone now and nothing that people did here in the old economy makes sense anymore. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where 300,000 of the region's 400,000 people live and where almost no produce grows and everything must be imported, is among the nation's most expensive urban areas. Bread here costs three times as much as in Moscow. Unemployment is nearly 30 percent. In winter an apple costs a dollar.

The fishing industry in the world's largest salmon spawning ground, which accounts for more than 80 percent of Kamchatka's workers, is buckling under the costs of transporting its catch back to the population centers in the west. There is no longer any money in hunting because it costs too much to ship meat. Reindeer breeding, a way of life in the north for at least a thousand years, is also on the verge of disappearing. The regional government has become so impoverished it can no longer pay hunters a bounty to kill wolves, which have multiplied rapidly and decimated the herds. The reindeer herders are often so desperate that they are forced to kill their animals just to feed their families.

An Uncertain Fate, A Difficult Choice

But the pressure to find a way to make Kamchatka prosper competes with the knowledge that once digging here begins, one more natural paradise will almost certainly be lost.

''I am sure there are places on this planet as wild, beautiful and diverse as this,'' said Yelena Dulchenko, a geologist with the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology. ''But I just don't know where they could be. If they dig for gold here they will ruin Kamchatka forever. It will become just another place that used to be special.''

Gold fever sometimes makes debates seem simple, and it would be easy to portray the battle for Kamchatka as a struggle between those who wish to preserve the earth and those who would plunder it. But the people here have a reverence for their surroundings and a strong desire to protect them. They also have bleak prospects for the future.

Moscow can no longer afford to support places like Kamchatka; that much is clear. If it survives, it will have to find a way to do it alone.

''We are forgotten by the federal Government,'' said Gennadi Devyatkin, head of the local administration in the gold-producing region in central Kamchatka that includes Esso. ''Forgotten except when they want our fish. We are a colony and Moscow can only take from us. At least in the old days they would give us back enough to survive. Not anymore, though.''

That is why it is no longer possible to ignore the most obvious source of wealth in Kamchatka. There are from 500 to 1,000 tons of gold here, a figure that, while not enormous by world standards, could bring in as much as $10 billion.

''It's not going to change the world gold market,'' said Samuel Romberger, professor of Economic Geology at the Colorado School of Mines. ''But it might excite a bunch of Western adventurists.''

That's for sure. Canadian, American and Russian companies have all been eager to get digging and the fight has already become messy. Many of those who want the region to grow, or at least to continue supporting humans, say tourism is the only way to do it.

Since the peninsula has 30 active volcanoes and more than 100 that are dormant, one of the world's great geyser fields (along with Yellowstone), tens of thousands of rivers and lakes, and every type of animal from sea otter and sable to the world's biggest eagles, tourism seems to make a lot of sense.

But with no roads, the only way to move about the peninsula is by helicopter. And most helicopters are controlled by one company. Visiting the Valley of the Geysers–where more than 200 geysers spout, bubble and boil into the sky–can cost $2,000 for a few hours. A round-trip plane ticket from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky to Palana, the northern administrative center, is $400. Many families don't earn that in a year.

''You would need to spend millions of dollars to turn this into a tourist attraction that would bring more than just the most adventurous travelers,'' said Gennadi M. Karpov, deputy director of the Institute of Vulcanology, the premier scholarly institution in Kamchatka. ''The two volcano ranges are wonders of the world. But if you don't have several thousand dollars you can only see them from far away. You are not going to get thousands of tourists if all we have to offer them are helicopter rides.''

There are few hotels outside the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, partly because the peninsula is in the center of a major earthquake zone and the cost of building hotels that can withstand earthquakes is huge.

Fishing is the only industry here to prosper. But many people feel its singular success may doom it. More than a million tons were hauled from the seas near Kamchatka in 1996–a record catch and one that specialists here feel is too large even for such rich waters. This year the Russian Government permitted quotas that are even higher, though, because with little else in the way of income fishing is all most people have. That is why so many residents have reluctantly turned their hope to mining.

Near Future or Far, Jobs Are Crucial

The effects of mining are difficult to predict. New techniques reduce pollution immensely–but perhaps not enough to protect Kamchatka. Colorado still has many streams that are considered toxic-waste sites more than 100 years after gold mining ended in them. It is not possible to extract gold from the earth without flushing large amounts of heavy metals–which are always found near gold deposits–into the surrounding water. Fish eat them, bears eat the fish–and both would suffer badly, as would people.

''The ground is wet here, and where it is not wet it is cold,'' said Igor Revenko, a leading bear biologist with the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology. Mr. Revenko has been taking a bear census here for several years, attempting with many other experts from around the world to understand why this appears to be the best place on earth for them to live.

''The conditions here are fragile and unique,'' he said. ''This is not Colorado where the ground was dry. We are not nearly as big as Alaska. Also, we have to look at what we are going to get if we ruin Kamchatka for a few tons of gold.''

Mr. Revenko said the mines here would be exhausted within 30 years–a figure that regional mining supporters do not contest. Then, if the natural splendors of the peninsula are affected– and slight environmental challenges often have major adverse consequences–the possibility of using the place as an tourist spot may no longer exist.

''Personally, over the long run,'' Mr. Revenko said, ''I think there would be more money in tourism.''

This year, in attempt to protect those areas of Kamchatka that are truly wild and most in danger, Unesco put nearly 10 million acres on its list of protected World Heritage Sites. The legal implications of that decision are not clear, but it has not made everyone here happy.

''Everyone has a plan to save Kamchatka,'' said Aleksandr Rechednikov, a 50-year-old hunter in this town of 300 families. ''But they are not saving it for me. I can't make a living hunting anymore. I can't fish. There are no jobs to offer, none. So why don't the good rich people from everywhere else in the world leave us alone and let us decide what to do in our own land?''

Facing Extinction, Tribes Hang On

Viktoriya Petrasheva also wishes people would leave the place alone. But her perspective couldn't differ more sharply from that of Mr. Rechednikov. Mrs. Petrasheva lives in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky but she is one of the peninsula's dwindling number of indigenous people–a member of the Itelmen tribe, which began its first wave of eastward migration more than 10,000 years ago. There were 25,000 Itelmen in Kamchatka when the Russians came in 1697. Today there are 1,000 to 2,000.

''My grandfather was executed in 1934,'' she said. ''He was accused of being a spy for Japan. My mother was 6. Her mother was labeled an ''enemy of the people''–Stalin's infamous term for millions who then endured suffering, and usually death. ''But ever since the Russians came here we have been enemies of the people. So it was nothing new.''

Mrs. Petrasheva is an ethnographer who has studied the fate of natives in Kamchatka–most of whom still live in the north, coastal or central parts of the peninsula. Her results are not encouraging. For centuries the Even, Koryak and Itelmen lived easily in harsh conditions. They herded reindeer, which provided meat and skins, caught and preserved an endless supply of salmon and hunted the bears, foxes and sable, whose furs helped them to survive the cold.

Taking a notebook from the shelf, she provided an account of deaths in the native Even village of Anavgai, just 25 miles from Esso. In 1994, 8 people died there–out of 300–and nobody was born. She reels off the ages of the dead: 25, 27, 38, 41. In all, 26 villagers have died there in the last three years– with two births. There have been one murder and seven suicides. The reindeer population–which sustained the village–has slid from 19,000 to less than 2,500 in the last decade.

''You can't even hope that we will survive as a nation,'' said Katya Atelkut, a veterinarian, sitting in the cultural center of Anavgai. Although it is May, all around her snow covers the hills and mountains.

''Maybe we won't even survive at all,'' she said. ''People leave if they can. They drink if they can't leave. And now there is going to be gold. I don't know why, but somehow it is hard for me to believe we will see very much of it. I don't want to see them dig up the earth. Its all we have here now, and when that is gone there will be nothing left.''

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