Greenpeace is demanding the Russian government blocks a major Gazprom link to Shanghai across one of Siberia's most sacred wildernesses.
Gazprom on Ukok plateau? Picture: Greenpeace
The pipeline is due to be constructed over the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains, site of countless the burial chambers of the remarkable 'tattooed' Pazyryk people.
The Siberian Times recently highlighted the unique body art on the mummy of a young 'princess' found here - dating back 2,500 years, but closely resembling modern tattoos.
Reconstruction of 'Princess' tattoos. All drawings of tattoos, here and below, were made by Elena Shumakova, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science
Her remains including beautiful clothing and headgear were preserved in the permafrost inside an elaborate burial chamber on the plateau, and many more such treasure troves are believed to exist which, it is feared, could be at risk from the pipeline development.
'Compared to all tattoos found by archeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated, and the most beautiful,' said Siberian scientist Professor Natalia Polosmak.
Dr. Polosmak found the remains of the 'Princess', who died aged 25 some 500 years before the birth of Christ.
'More ancient tattoos have been found, like the Ice Man found in the Alps - but he only had lines, not the perfect and highly artistic images one can see on the bodies of the Pazyryks.
'It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible.'
Princess Ukok's shoulder, tattoo of fantastic animal, and a drawing of it made by Siberian scientists
She stressed: 'Nothing changes with years, the body stays the same, and the person making a tattoo now is getting closer to his ancestors than he or she may realise.
'I think we have not moved far from Pazyryks in how the tattoos are made. It is still about a craving to make yourself as beautiful as possible.'
Many more Pazyryk - royalty and warriors - are thought to lie buried here, but archeologists are forbidden from digging the sites due to the area's UNESCO World Heritage status - and objections of local Altai people who say the site is sacred.
Despite this, Greenpeace say preliminary work on a controversial gas pipeline is going ahead contrary to international agreements over the status of the pristine territory known variously as the Golden Mountains of Altai and the Ukok Quiet Zone Natural Park.
Some ecologists claim that the delicate balance of the permafrost could be disrupted by the pipeline in an area where there are already fears that the bodies of ancient mummies will be destroyed due to global warming, which will melt the frozen soil.
A new law approved in the Altai Republic in Siberia allegedly permitting the pipeline 'severely violates the UNESCO international convention on world heritage', claims the Greenpeace campaigning group.
One of the most mysterious sites in the world: Ukok plateau, Alta, Siberia. Picture: Elena Nikultseva
Greenpeace also says that operators linked to Gazprom began research work on the pipeline before the controversial regional legislation came into effect on 17 August.
'The new law was adopted without the compulsory governmental ecological expertise and... without approval from the Ministry of Natural resources,' it asserted.
The move flouted specific assurances, given to world environmental organisations in St Petersburg in May.
As a result, the site had not been placed on the world heritage 'danger list'.
'Three months later the local government changed their minds,' said a Greenpeace statement.
'The government of the Altai Republic did a bad job for Russia allowing to build the Altai pipeline - it means that Russia deliberately lied to the international community,' alleged Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace.
Campaigners have 'already applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and to the General Prosecutor's Office of Russia, demanding 'measures are taken to cancel this new law and also to stop the illegal activities of Gazprom on the territory of this World Heritage site'.
Drawing of what 'Princess Ukok' outfit looked like 2,500 years ago. The recondtruction is based on clothes, wig, shoes and jewellery found inside young woman's burial. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science
The pipeline has been the subject of stop-go development over a number of years.
Other routes have been examined, including via Mongolia or Kazakhstan, and also directly into China across a border in the Russian Far East, rather than on a 40km stretch of frontier in Altai.
It is seen as a key supply route from Urengoy in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug to China, and a valuable export earner for Russia, but also as providing gas to a number of Siberian regions, notably Tomsk and Novosibirsk, as well as the Altai Republic.
Earlier work on the project was found to be illegal, but it was also held that Gazprom had not damaged the environment.
Andrei Ivanov, the head of nature protection fund Altai 21 Vek, has warned about the unpredictable consequences of digging in Altai permafrost.
'There is data that breaking up frozen earth leads to hydrological changes in the jet stream and to climate change,' he claimed.
'And since the world is concerned about stabilising the climate, such unique and pristine territories should be protected from any industrial influence.'
Indigenous Altai peoples have long campaigned against it.
'After the construction, its sacredness will be out of the question,' warned Urmat Knyazev, a deputy in the Altai republic's legislative assembly, in March.
'It is moral violence against people.'
When US campaigners offered their support, local activists were accused of having links to the CIA and plotting to undermine the Russian economy.
'We don't criticise, but support the export of Russian gas to China,' insisted Aleksei Knizhnikov, the head of WWF Russia's oil and gas programme.
'What we do criticise is this route.
'We have shown that there are alternative routes that are better not only from an ecological, but also a profit perspective.
'There is a very good route via Mongolia or Kazakhstan'.
In April this year, respected energy industry sources suggested the 2,200 km link - capable of carrying 30 billion cubic metres of gas and costing at least $14 billion - was on hold because China and Russia could not agree on the structure and pricing for its development.
'The failure of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to acquire upstream gas assets in Russia has further diminished the likelihood of the company building two major natural gas pipelines - major infrastructure that will facilitate energy supply from Russia's east and west Siberia to China.
'Sources said CNPC has been insisting on access to Russia's gas production by taking upstream stakes in producing fields to ensure gas supply security,' reported journal Upstream.
'This is a policy favoured by Chinese energy officials and considered one of the government approval parameters for major overseas gas purchase deals by Chinese national oil companies.
'In addition to the acquisition of upstream assets, CNPC also finds the gas price formula worked out by Gazprom unacceptable, as the price asked by Gazprom is far beyond China's purchasing capacity.
'Chinese national oil companies have been successful in gaining access to upstream assets in many parts of the world other than Russia.
'A Russian law, passed in 2006, requires foreign companies interested in seeking upstream access in Russia to prove that they are owned by Russians.
'The law stipulates that foreign citizens, persons with citizenship or foreign legal entities and international organisations are not legitimately entitled to use Russia's resources.'
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