Kechimov, who has been appointed by his community as the guardian of holy Lake Imlor, remembers the lakes and rivers being so packed with fish that he could catch them by hand, but he believes that oil drilling has severely damaged the ecosystem.
The compensation the regional oil giant Surgutneftegas gives to the reindeer herders can’t make up for the harm done to their traditional way of life, he said. “They poison us with this filth and trick us.”
On Friday, the United Nations expert mechanism on the rights of indigenous peoples will travel to the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region where Kechimov lives to observe what the government calls “the sustainable development of indigenous minorities”, but the real story is an escalating conflict between extraction companies and vulnerable native peoples – similar to battles in the US over the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, in the Peruvian Amazon and in the Queensland region of Australia.
The expert mechanism chairman, Albert Barume, said the trip was not meant to “provide any endorsement of the practices in the region”.
Imlor is not the only area under threat. In October, the regional government re-zoned the nature reserve around the holy Lake Numto, a habitat of the endangered Siberian crane, to allow oil drilling in these wetlands, despite objections from local indigenous residents.The Sami parliament, representing indigenous people also known as Lapps, has convinced Norway’s second largest pension fund to ditch the oil pipeline project
Much of that is pumped by Surgutneftegas. The company employs a third of the city of Surgut’s 300,000 residents and built a 20-metre (70ft) symbolic monument in the shape of a fountain of oil last year.
But the region is also home to thousands of indigenous people, some of whose ancestors rebelled against Soviet collectivisation in the 1930s and were brutally put down by the Red Army. The Khanty language and religion were suppressed until the 1980s and now there are tensions with the oil companies.
About 4,000 remain in the Surgut district where Kechimov lives, and most of them still pursue their traditional livelihood of reindeer herding, hunting and fishing, explained the activist Agrafena Sopochina.
Satellite imagery around Imlor shows the extent to which access roads and oil wells have penetrated into Khanty lands. As oil prices have sunk – dragging down Russia’s economy – drilling has only increased, with national production reaching a record high last year.
“There are going to be a hell of a lot of drilling rigs here,” said a Surgutneftegas contractor and excavator operator who would give his name only as Alexei, taking a break from a 12-hour shift digging pits several hundred yards from Kechimov’s house.
Surgutneftegas did not responded to requests for comment on this story.
As a herder with two dozen reindeer and the guardian of the pilgrimage site Imlor – by legend this lake and Numto were the footprints left when the great god Num came down to Earth – Kechimov has gone up against the oil workers for years.
A major complaint is that Surgutneftegas access roads have severed rivers and streams, ruining fish stocks, killing off trees, constricting reindeers’ movements and contaminating their food. They have also let overindulgent hunters and fishermen use the land, who overtax the resources the natives depend on, Kechimov said.
Oil spills also poison the fish and plant life. Kechimov claims there have been at least four spills over the past year and a large leak in 2013 just north of the lake that was covered with sand rather than cleaned up.
According to state environmental monitoring service data, the Khanty-Mansi region suffered 2,538 oil pipeline accidents in 2014, and 4,668 hectares of land were contaminated. Russia spills more than two Deepwater Horizons of oil each year.
Surgutneftegas offers money and items such as snowmobiles and mobile generators to try to persuade the Khanty residents to agree to new oil projects.
For the latest oil well being built near his home, Kechimov said, each of the 10 families in the area would receive about £2,200.
But the reindeer herder, who is not able to read the documents, said company representatives and others had pressured him and others in the community to sign the agreements.
In February, a court convicted Kechimov of threatening to kill oil workers in a case that he said was being used to intimidate him. He was spared his sentence of corrective labour under a nationwide amnesty.
Often the company already has the licence to drill when it comes to residents with a project, locals said, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
National legislation passed in December 2013 also removed the protected status from lands where indigenous people hunt, fish and herd, meaning oil companies no longer need to get a state environmental impact assessment, which includes public feedback, before drilling there.
“It’s classic colonialism, like at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century,” said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia. Indigenous people can only negotiate “small compensation that doesn’t compare to the wealth the oil companies make on these territories”.
Kechimov said he increasingly felt the battle for the Imlor area was lost, but that soon the reign of the oil companies would come to an end.
“There was fire before, and a flood, because the Earth was being cleansed,” he said. “Soon there won’t be land anywhere, and the Russians will be overthrown.”