Farm delegation and Buryat interpreters at train station in Irkutsk, Russia.

Susan Witt and several Schumacher Center staff members went to Olkhon Raion in the summer of 1995 as part of a larger USAID funded project to develop local institutions that would encourage greater regional economic self-determination among the Buryat peoples. The Olkhon Raion is a vast territory on the western shore of Lake Baikal and includes the island in the lake. Lake Baikal holds 20% of the Earth’s fresh water and was named a United Nations Heritage site because of this.

In 1992 David Brower invited Schumacher executive director, Susan Witt, to travel with him and a delegation of organic farmers to explore the creation of cottage industries among the Buryat people as an alternative to industrial development along the shores of the lake. His concern, and that of others, was that industry could compromise the purity of the water.

Among the institutions suggested by the Schumacher Center was the forming of the Olkhon Raion Community Land Trust. It was to be an initiative of the Olkhon Center for Sustainable Agriculture, funded in a modest way by USAID, but relying primarily on the good energy of the Buryat farmers who led it.

Following is an account of the 1995 return trip to Baikal by Schumacher Center staff to work with the Buryat farmers.

Yelantsy, administrative center of the Olkhonsky District.

“Dimitry drove us to La Guardia early in the morning of August 8th. I returned August 27th with armloads of good memories. The travel through China to Irkutsk in Siberia was long and hard, but the ten days spent in the Olkhon Raion were productive and fun. We went swimming in Lake Baikal nearly every day, visited Buryat farmers in their homes, picked wild berries in the taiga, watched hawks on the steppes, raked hay at Volodya’s farm, steamed in the banya, saw cows grazing on water lilies, ate freshly dug potatoes and freshly caught omul, joined the audience at the school in Khuzir for a 50th anniversary pageant, milked Masha the cow, and made countless offerings to the gods of the lake and earth and elements. Thanks to everyone who helped with this project.”

– Susan Witt, September 27, 1995

Report on August 1995 Trip to the Olkhon Raion of Lake Baikal
By Susan Witt

The village of Tolovkah was founded during Russia’s civil war and later in the 30’s became a state farm. The state farm was abandoned, but the 160 villagers continued an active subsistent lifestyle, raising sheep and cows, fishing, and producing what food they could locally. The village totaled some 700 hectares with extensive hay and grain fields. It is located where the taiga and steppe meet, so has timber, berries and mushrooms as resources in addition to the rich grazing land of the steppes. It has an elementary school, a store, a hall, and a memorial site along with the private houses.

Tolovkah, Russia.

Adjoining Tolovkah are two farms settled by Buryat families who were given exclusive use rights of the land because they could prove that their ancestors farmed that land. One of these farms was headed by an energetic and enterprising farmer named Mels.

When I visited Mels in 1992, he had a shack with rain leaking through the roof that housed his wife, mother, father, and two sons. He took us to the door and said, “Look out there, you will see a Buryat village.” When we visited Mels in 1995, he had moved to a large newly built home with several barns, extensive corrals, a root storage cellar, other processing and storage facilities, and many hectares under new cultivation.

Several families from the village of Tolovkah were ready to join Mels at the new location. Mels worked long and hard for this moment, but he did not know how to organize the common participation. When he heard about the concept of a community land trust from Schumacher Center staff, he realized that the land trust model could provide a means for private investment and private ownership of buildings without dividing the land of the new village. He talked with people in Tolovkah and with Volodya Markasaev, director of the Olkhon Center for Sustainable Agriculture. As a result, the village of Tolovkah requested help to establish itself as a model community land trust. The trust would include the village land, land settled by Mels, and an adjoining farm that flowed down a valley and to the shore of Lake Baikal. This third site was farmed by a traditional Buryat family who speak only Buryat, a family with strong ties to Tolovkah.

I was thrilled with this development. I had anticipated spending my time in the Olkhon Raion knocking at the doors of village mayors to describe the advantages to the village of serving as a model community land trust. Instead Tolovkah came to us out of practical need.

Thanks to a grant from a Schumacher Center member, the Olkhon Center for Sustainable Agriculture established a fund for small productive loans. It made its first three hundred dollar loan while we were in Yelantsi to a woman with six years experience as a seamstress in a factory in the city of Ulan Ude. The loan was for a sewing machine so that she could start a sewing business from her home. This meant that the women of the village could choose the style and color of their clothes rather than rely on the very limited choice sold by street vendors.

Volodya said that the biggest problem for private farmers in the Raion was to find a way to process their wool locally. When the large state sheep farms were operational, the small farmers could take their fleeces to the state farm to add to the shipment destined for the central wool processing plant in Ulan Ude, a two day truck ride from the Olkhon Raion.

Based on a suggestion that I made in a letter to Olkhon Center for Sustainable Agriculture staff, Anatoli Duksuyev, the Center’s assistant director, produced a 30 page hand written paper recording the Buryat techniques for slaughtering animals, preparing meat and skin, and storing the product. Sheep are central to Buryat culture and taking the life of a sheep was traditionally practiced only with great gentleness and respect for the animal. Anatoli captured this spirit in his paper. He was also concerned that none of the sheep would be wasted. Using his engineering skills, he prepared detailed construction drawings for underground meat storage facilities based on operating examples from farms in the Raion.

Anatoli and his family lived on Olkhon Island where there was electricity only 2 days per week. His wife worked as a secretary in Irkutsk before her marriage. We allocated USAID funds to buy the Center a manual typewriter so that she could type Anatoli’s paper. It would then be copied in Yelantsi with the new copier purchased for the Center’s office. The board of directors of the Center would circulate copies in their villages. We also submitted it for publication in Novii Sadavod and Fermer, the widely read Russian language magazine published by Rodale Press.

The Buryats are historically nomadic people and vegetable cultivation is relatively new to them. Limited communication services in the Olkhon Raion and distances between farming communities hindered the transfer of information. The predominance of large state farms interrupted the generational sharing of skills that occurs on small farms. Even with these obstacles we found that there were excellent farmers in the Raion, many practicing age-old Buryat methods and some developing innovative techniques suitable for new crops and the climate conditions of Olkhon. One of the important roles of the Olkhon Center for Sustainable Agriculture would be to collect and distribute information about these proven agricultural practices to encourage greater self-sufficiency in food production for the Raion.

Volodya and I asked Anatoli and his wife, Lyuba Duksuyev to act as directors of publications for the Center and to systematically record the experiences of the best farmers in the Raion with special emphasis on traditional Buryat methods. They were enthusiastic to do this. They were an enterprising and capable family. The most memorable meal we had was at the Duksuyevs—pan fried omul fresh from Lake Baikal and roasted new potatoes—simple and elegant.

Even with limited resources and limited technology, the Buryats, as Kropotkin witnessed and recorded in his Mutual Aid, remain an innovative people, cooperating to share best practices that further all.

Follow up:

The impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union reached Siberia slower than in the western cities. It meant the Buryats had to find jobs outside their villages. Road systems and communication was in disrepair. Just commuting to jobs took much of their time, and the volunteer time spent on the Olkhon Center for Sustainable Agriculture could not be maintained.

Still, we leave this account as it provides a way of imaging the application of the community land trust in a setting in which all land and buildings are state owned—showing how a transition could occur that would keep the land in a community commons while providing private ownership for the buildings and other improvements on the land.