The biggest threat to the village and the forest resources may be a highway that was under construction 20 years ago when I was last here and remains unfinished.
The highway, known locally as the “military road,” will someday connect Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000, with Nahodka, an important port city just north of Vladivostok.
The only other highway between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk straddles the Chinese border and is seen as vulnerable to a Chinese attack. The new highway would be farther away from the border and give Russia a more secure access to its Pacific ports.
In its current state of construction, the new highway begins in Khabarovsk and ends at a bridge at the Bikin River, just a few miles upriver from Krasny Yar. There it disappears into the forest.
The government hasn’t had the money to continue the project. the funding has been found, however, and next year crews will begin the work of extending the highway to Nahotka, said Yuri Darman, director of the Amur branch of WWF Russia.
He said the highway will be open to the public and become the main route connecting two urban centers with a combined population of more than 1.2 million people
“The people here need to be prepared. Their life will change,” he told me during the village’s annual summer festival, a celebration of Udegeh culture.
While the Udegeh have control over the timber rights in the basin, they do not control the fishing rights on the Bikin.
Already, urban fishermen from Khabarovsk drive on the highway to reach the Bikin River and haul their boats into the river.
In an aerial survey on a single day last summer, 100 boats were spotted on the river, which extends for 350 kilometers upstream from Krasny Yar.
The Udegeh used to get work serving as tour guides for Russian fishermen, but now the Russians use the highway to access the river on their own, said my nephew, Sergey Daria Zhuralov, 34, who is among the many unemployed young men in the village.
“They don’t even bother to greet us. It’s their river already,” he said.
His sister, Daria Zhuralova, said the Udegeh do not want the highway completed.
“We are really glad the road is not finished yet,” she said “If it is, there’ll be a lot of trash everywhere. Nature will not be like it is now. I hope the road will never come.” But the road will come, Darmon said. With just 38 kilometers remaining between the river and the portion of the highway extending from Nahotka, its completion is inevitable. So the only option now for the Udegeh is to prepare for it, he said.
His organization is working with Community Tiger, the village community organization, to establish a checkpoint on the highway on each side of the Bikin River, to check for poaching and illegal fishing.
He said the highway would also provide the village with more opportunities for jobs related to tourism.
A big concern, though, is the river. While the Udegeh have gained the right to fish in the river, they have yet to gain control over who can use the river, he said.
Native tribes in Russia do not have any sovereignty rights. The Udegeh land is not a tribal reservation, for there is no such thing in Russia. Udegeh leaders view the rights of American Indians as a model, said Luba Pusar, an Udegeh woman who grew up in the village and is now president of the Association of the Indigenous People of the Khabarovsk Region.
“We hope to have the same rights,” she said.
The highway will not happen unless there is a negotiated agreement with the Udegeh Tribe, which controls the land that the highway would have to cross, said Radion Sulyanziga, who grew up in Krasny Yar and is now vice president of the Russian Association of the Indigenous People of North Siberia and the Far East/
“We have to fight for our political rights,” he said. “That is the basis for everything. Otherwise, we fail.”