On 10 February 2012, a report was submitted by the State Party providing some information on the current status of the gas pipeline project, on the implementation of the recommendations of the 2007 monitoring mission as well as on the state of conservation of Altaisky Strict Nature Reserve (ASNR) and Katunsky Strict Nature Reserve (KSNR), two of the five components of the property. From 9 to 15 May 2012, a joint World Heritage Centre / IUCN monitoring mission visited the property and had discussions with the Ministry for Natural Resources (MNR) and the authorities of the Altai Republic, the managers of the different components of the property and various stakeholders, including representatives of local communities and environmental NGOs. Unfortunately the pipeline developer, Gazprom refused to meet with the mission team, in spite of its insistence that the State Party set up such a meeting. At the time of preparation of this report the mission report was not yet finalized. However, it will be made available as soon as possible at http://whc.unesco.org/en/sessions/36COM
Based on the State Party report, on its discussions and the field visit, the mission reviewed the status of the pipeline project, the progress made in the implementation of the recommendations of the 2007 mission and the state of conservation of the property:
a) Gas pipeline project
The mission was informed by the federal and regional authorities that no final decision has been made on the pipeline project. According to the State Party report, the pipeline developer Gazprom has prepared an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) “Substantiation report for investments of the Altai project”. In spite of several requests by the World Heritage Centre and the mission team in advance to the mission and during the mission, no copy of this document was provided. Officials of MNR noted however that this EIA was to be considered as an internal document by Gazprom as part of its review of the potential investment in the pipeline project and therefore it had not been submitted to the Ministry. They further stressed that in line with the federal legislation, a detailed EIA on the pipeline project would have to be submitted by Gazprom for review by the relevant control agency of MNR. A decision on the project would be based on the results of this EIA. As so far no details on the project design, nor an EIA has been submitted, they considered that the project was only at an initial stage. They further noted that no final agreement had been reached with China on the economic conditions of gas delivery. They also mentioned that the Vice Minister for Natural Resources in a reply to a letter of an environmental NGO dated July 2011 had expressed the opinion that the construction of the pipeline across the property would be a violation of Russia’s international obligations to the Convention and that MNR considered it advisable to study alternative routes.
The mission notes that documentation available on the website of Gazprom reports that in September 2010 it signed an agreement defining the “extended major terms and conditions for natural gas supplies from Russia to China with the China National Petroleum Cooperation”, which sets the key commercial parameters of the forthcoming gas delivery to the Chinese market via the western route. The document includes a map which shows that the planned route will cross the Ukok Quiet Zone Nature Park (UQZNP), one of the five components of the property.
The document states that first supplies are planned for 2015 and that specific feasibility studies of supply routes have been completed, including “an environmental impact assessment and the protection of archaeological and historic sites in the pipeline construction area with due consideration for the Altai Golden Mountains natural reservation”. The mission was also provided by environmental NGOs with a copy of a letter of a Gazprom contractor to the director of one of the nature parks situated on the pipeline route of November 2011, which states that the internal decision on the Altai gas pipeline project had been made by Gazprom in March 2009. The mission further received reports that the Gazprom contractors have started preparatory topographical and geographical survey work, including permafrost drilling in UQZNP and also hired specialists to inventory key cultural and historical heritage sites along the pipeline route.
While the authorities of the Altai Republic stated they were not aware of such works, the mission was presented with photographic evidence of such works and this was also confirmed by representatives of local communities. The mission was further informed that these works were undertaken without the necessary authorisations and that the regional prosecutor confirmed the illegality of these works following an appeal by environmental NGOs, but that the Ministry of Forestry of the Altai Republic did not take action to stop them.
The mission visited the area where the works had been undertaken, including the area of a major fire, which according to environmental NGOs was caused by the survey work, but could not confirm that this fire was linked to the works that were undertaken.
The mission was further informed by environmental NGOs that Gazprom had informed them that alternative routes for the pipeline through Mongolia and Kazakhstan in order to avoid crossing the property could not be considered. As mentioned above, on the last day of the mission Gazprom informed MNR that they were not willing to receive the mission team as “for the moment there was no Altai pipeline project”.
The mission concludes that while Gazprom has not yet submitted the relevant documentation of the Altai gas pipeline project to the federal authorities to obtain the authorisation for the pipeline to cross the property, it has advanced on the preparatory work project since the 2007 mission. This preparatory work represents a significant investment and included survey work inside the property. Furthermore, Gazprom does not seem willing to consider alternative routes, as was requested by the World Heritage Committee and suggested by MNR. The mission team in the different meetings reiterated the position of the World Heritage Committee, that any decision to go forward with the gas pipeline project through the property would constitute a threat to its Outstanding Universal Value and represent a clear case for inscription of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger, as documented in Decisions 35 COM 7B.26 and 32 COM 7B.22. The mission also notes the strong concern from representatives of the local and indigenous communities that the project would affect the cultural significance of the Ukok plateau, which includes old burial sites and cultural monuments and is regarded a sacred area.
b) Implementation of the recommendations of the 2007 monitoring mission
The mission discussed and reviewed the progress made in the implementation of part of the recommendations of the 2007 mission. It was informed that Management Plans had been developed for all components of the property, including a zoning plan of the nature parks. In addition a general management strategy 2009 - 2015 for the overall property has been developed, which foresees the implementation of many of the 2007 mission recommendations. The mission noted the high management standard of the ASNR and KSNS, managed by the federal authorities. However, it considered that in spite of efforts by the regional authorities to improve the situation, management capacity of the UQZNP and Belukha Mountain Nature Park (BMNP) remains insufficient. Staffing numbers have increased slightly but remain insufficient, and nature park inspectors continue to lack the necessary legal authority to perform their protection mandate, in spite of the fact that the mission team received information that a new federal legislation enacted in 2011 makes it possible for the Altai Republic to provide them with such powers. The mission was also informed that special regulations were developed for the management of the fifth component of the Property Lake Teletskoye Nature Monument (LTNM), which includes the part of the lake not included in the ASNR. The mission was further informed of the creation of a new nature park around the Chulishman River which provides additional protection to the southern part of the Lake and will be a buffer for the southern part of the ASNR.
In terms of tourism, studies have been undertaken to determine the acceptable tourism pressure in the different components including maximum numbers for alpinists wanting to climb the Belugha mountain. The mission team was also informed that a special monitoring group on the anthropological influence of the recreation zones around Lake Teletskoye has been established. However an overall sustainable tourism strategy for the entire property has not yet been developed. The mission considers that given the increasing tourism development in Altai, such a strategy should be developed urgently and could be the basis for a reflection on an overall policy of tourism development for the Altai Republic, promoting its rich natural and cultural heritage.
Significant progress was also made in increasing transboundary cooperation in protected area management. In 2011 a transboundary biosphere reserve was established between the KSNR and the Katon-Karagaysky National Park (KKNP) in Kazakhstan, with BMNP as one of the buffer zones. KKNP also borders the western part of UQZNP. A joint management committee was established and a transboundary Management Plan developed. The State Party is also negotiating a cooperation agreement with Mongolia. The Altai Tavan Bogd National Park in Mongolia borders the Eastern part of UQZNP and the newly established Saylyugemsky National Park (SNP) in the Altai Republic. Officials of MNR estimated that this agreement could be signed by the end of the year.
The mission was informed that data on monitoring of iconic wildlife species, and also monitoring of climate change, are gathered in a common database with scientific support of academic institutions.
The 2009-2015 management strategy for the site also foresees work on the transboundary extension of the property with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, including also the new SNP mentioned above and the re-nomination of the property under cultural criteria. The authorities of the Altai Republic, including the Minister for Culture voiced their strong support for this.
The mission concluded that significant progress has been made on the implementation of the recommendations of the 2007 mission and welcomed the fact that the management strategy for the property refers to these recommendations and foresees a clear timeline until 2015 for their implementation. The mission considers, however, that additional efforts are needed to strengthen the management capacity of the regional protected areas in terms of staffing, budget and regulatory powers as well as on developing a clear regional vision on tourism, that optimizes the remarkable cultural and natural interests of the protected areas of the Altai region and widely, of the Altai wilderness.
c) State of conservation of the property
The mission concluded that the state of conservation of the property has not significantly changed compared to the 2007 mission and that its Outstanding Universal Value continued to be preserved. It considers that the property still benefits from a very high integrity. Apart from the issue of the pipeline, the main threats are the important pressure on natural resources by some traditional use practices, such as poaching, and also grazing pressure in the traditional use zone of the UQZNP and the increasing pressure from tourism. To address these pressures, it will be important to continue to strengthen the management capacity of the nature parks and to work on a sustainable tourism strategy for the property, which could be bases on a policy on sustainable tourism for the Altai republic. The mission also notes that while the Strict Nature Reserves benefit of a very strict protection regime, the legal status of the regional nature parks is weak. This problem has also been observed in other World Heritage properties in the Russian Federation which comprise regional protected areas and the mission team would like to reiterate previous proposals to address it through a specific legislation on natural World Heritage properties. The mission further notes the new Federal Law No. 365-FZ dated 30 November 2011, which has significantly weakened the protection regime of Strict Nature Reserves, making it possible to accommodate large scale tourism infrastructure such as ski infrastructure. While there seems no such plans currently foreseen for KSNR and ASNR, this issue should be addressed at federal level as it affects the protection status of all natural World Heritage sites in the Russian Federation.
Another significant threat to the property is the impact of climate change. The mission notes that several efforts are on-going to monitor and better understand these impacts.