Svetlana Katynova Saves the Sacred Lands of Altai

Carol Hiltner
Posted October 23, 2009 from United States

The ancient Altai culture of Svetlana Katynova still honors the Earth as our mother! Her people are stewards of a place so sacred that pilgrims have, for millennia, come to her homeland for healing.

But Svetlana discovered that, in the newly democratic, capitalistic Russia, her people must “own” their motherlands, or risk losing all access to them. Her people could not even grasp such a concept. Furthermore, the governmental bureaucracy was organized to stifle this indigenous “ownership.” Meanwhile, millions of present-day pilgrims (now known as tourists) await the moment, January 1, 2010, when they can officially devour this virgin land, summer-home by summer-home.

To protect her sacred homeland, Svetlana committed all of her life-force and resources to awakening her people and creatively finding solutions. She funded her 10-year effort by first registering and then selling her own inherited lands. In the process, she learned the legal “ropes.” Gradually, she educated and mobilized the people of Tyungur village, gateway to sacred Mt. Belukha, chasing off a “black realtor” who was preying on the villagers’ naivete, searching out legal recourses, and successfully encouraging communal self-organization.

Finally, in 2007-9, Svetlana allied with Altai Mir University ( to make an international appeal through, raising funds required for surveying, registration, and legal fees, thus enabling the poorest of the poor – the widows and invalids – to participate. Now, as the registration deadline rolls around, the necessary papers have been filed, and Svetlana Katynova is looking ahead again, developing sustainable, culturally-appropriate employment for her people.

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Comments 4

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  • Emily Garcia
    Oct 23, 2009
    Oct 23, 2009

    This is an awesome success story and Svetlana is a remarkable leader! Congratulations to Svetlana Katynova, the Altai and to all that have helped them preserve their community and their land.

    What sort of sustainable developments do they have planned, and is there still the threat of a summer-home invasion?

    All the best,


  • Nusrat Ara
    Oct 23, 2009
    Oct 23, 2009

    This is what a simple effort can lead to.

  • Carol Hiltner
    Oct 24, 2009
    Oct 24, 2009

    I am currently a guest in Svetlana’s home in Altai Republic’s capital city of Gorno-Altaisk.

    Although I have heard about her strategies for adult cooperative enterprises, with each village developing a specialty product, such as wool/felt, making talkhan, their national breakfast cereal based on ground barley, production of smoked meats and cheeses, etc., today she told me a new one.

    Already I knew that she plans several cultural centers for different purposes, and even has the land for them, today she talked about her ideas for Altai orphans.

    Currently, most Russian orphans and displaced children live in very institutional orphanages. To say the least, it is not a healthy system, and the Russian government is working to shift children into a foster care system, but it is just at the beginning stages. To my knowledge, there is currently no mechanism to specifically care for Russian’s many indigenous children, who may not yet speak Russian, whose culture is quite different from mainstream Russia, and whose population is quite vulnerable, due to poverty and alcoholism. In such a system, indigenous children are simply lost as future productive members of their communities.

    Svetlana proposed that orphans/displaced children live during summer in a traditional “a’il,” in a camp environment associated with one of the predominately indigenous villages, with the objective of healthy, culturally-appropriate normalization of their lives and re-assimilation into their communities. They would live in a traditional Altai manner (and thus absorbing their culture); interact with the local children, be invited into their homes; speak their native language; learn and do children’s chores related to animal husbandry and subsistence food production, such as gathering nuts, herbs and berries, care of the food gardens, milking and tending the goats and cows, making cheese/butter/sourcream; caring for and riding the horses; and for older children, opportunities to make real contributions to the community while learning culturally-appropriate trades.

    Although there is a mandate at the federal level to shift away from orphanages, the majority of the funding still goes to stop-gap measures. I suspect that this is true for social innovation across all sectors. Therefore, because our organization’s interest is specifically Altai, we continue to seek grants from various international agencies as such opportunities arise. Our main source of information regarding this is the fantastic Yahoo “Peace and Collaborative Development Network.”

    The summer-home invasion of Altai is just set to really begin, with the law change as of January, 2010, enabling the sale of agricultural lands. The sacred and previously pristine Katun River flows north from Mt. Belukha, making an S-shape through Altai Republic, before joining with the Biya River just north of Altai Republic to become the mighty Ob that empties into the Arctic Ocean. Already, the whole northern stretch of the Katun is built up on both sides, and land values are WAY out of reach of even most ethnic Russians. In fact, a rumored 1%/year land tax would bankrupt most of the new indigenous land-owners, who need vast tracts of land for sustainable grazing. Anyway, the march of the summer-homes toward the remoter southern reaches of the river continues. Despite being in the very center of Eurasia, Altai has many unique species that are now endangered by the population influx and related pollution, as well as desecration of land and “archeological” features that ancient people of the region amplified or set in place for the health of the whole planet.

    So, look for more success stories from this direction as we continue our work!!!

  • Fatima Waziri - Azi
    Nov 21, 2009
    Nov 21, 2009

    Thank you for sharing the story of this amazing woman. One person can make a change, and Svetlana made a change.

    However, i would have loved to read about how you personally connect with land, your story, your voice!