Land is Breath: respecting nature in Altai

In the video “Land is Breath: respecting nature in Altai” by UN University, we are introduced to Slava Cheltuev, a Telengit community leader and shaman from the Russian Altai Mountain’s Kosh Agach district. As he explores the sacred lands of Altai, Slava reflects on the state of our modern world and emphasizes the importance of reviving traditional knowledge that promotes a respectful and harmonious relationship between humans and the environment. The video aims to shed light on the wisdom of the past and inspire viewers to reconnect with and protect the natural world.

Through the captivating visuals and Slava’s insightful narration, viewers are encouraged to appreciate the intricate connection between our actions and the environment. In an era where ecological preservation is crucial, “Land is Breath” provides a thought-provoking exploration of how traditional wisdom can guide our approach to nature.

Land is Breath: respecting nature in Altai

The Importance of Respecting Nature in Altai

Altai, a region nestled within the heart of Central Asia, is a place of remarkable natural beauty and spiritual significance. Its majestic mountains, sprawling steppe, pristine lakes, and diverse wildlife make it a paradise for adventurers and nature lovers alike. The land of Altai is not just a physical entity; it holds a deep spiritual connection for the local Telengit community, who practice shamanism as a way of life. Respecting nature in Altai goes beyond environmental conservation; it recognizes the sacredness of the land and the importance of preserving the traditional knowledge and practices that have sustained the local communities for centuries.

The Sacred Lands of Altai

Altai is often referred to as the “Golden Mountains,” and for good reason. The region is home to stunning mountain ranges, including the Altai Mountains, which stretch across Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, and China. These mountains are not only visually breathtaking, but they also hold immense cultural and spiritual significance for the Telengit community. According to their beliefs, the Altai Mountains are seen as the dwelling place of the gods, and each peak and valley is regarded as sacred. The belief in Sacred Earth and the inherent spirituality of the land is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Telengit culture, shaping their relationship with the environment.

The Telengit Community and Shamanism

At the heart of Altai’s cultural heritage is the Telengit community, an indigenous group who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. Shamanism, a spiritual practice that emphasizes a connection with nature and the spirit world, is an integral aspect of Telengit culture. Shamans, considered to be the intermediaries between the physical and spiritual realms, play a crucial role in maintaining the harmony between humans and nature. They communicate with the spirits of the land, seek guidance in decision-making processes, and perform rituals to ensure the well-being of the community and the environment. Shamanism acts as a guiding light for the Telengit people, reminding them of the sacredness of nature and instilling a deep respect for the natural world.

Reviving Traditional Knowledge

Over the years, the rapid modernization and globalization have posed threats to the preservation of traditional knowledge and practices in Altai. The encroachment of Western ideologies and practices has led to a gradual erosion of the Telengit way of life. However, in recent times, there has been a renewed interest in reviving traditional knowledge and reclaiming cultural identity. Local elders and leaders are working tirelessly to pass down ancient wisdom to the younger generation and encourage them to embrace their cultural heritage. Efforts are being made to integrate traditional practices into modern contexts, striking a balance between preservation and adaptation. By preserving traditional knowledge, Altai can continue to honor its cultural roots while navigating the challenges of the present.

The Relationship Between Humans and the Environment

In Altai, the relationship between humans and the environment is not viewed as separate entities but rather as interconnected beings. The Telengit community understands that humans are an integral part of nature and that the well-being of one depends on the health of the other. This interconnectedness is rooted in the belief that every living being has a spirit and that all elements of nature possess a life force. This holistic perspective shapes how the Telengit people interact with their surroundings and underscores the importance of respecting and protecting the environment.

Understanding the Interconnectedness of Nature

The interconnectedness of nature is not just a philosophical notion in Altai; it is deeply ingrained in everyday life. The Telengit people rely on the land for their sustenance, livelihoods, and cultural practices. Whether it be through hunting, gathering, or herding, they understand the delicate balance of ecosystems and the necessity of sustainable practices. They recognize that the well-being of the animals, plants, and landscapes directly impacts their own well-being. Each action taken in the environment is approached with mindfulness and consideration of the broader ecological context, fostering a harmonious relationship with nature.

The Impact of Human Behavior on the Environment

While the Telengit community has historically lived in harmony with nature, external influences and modernization have introduced new challenges. Over the years, unsustainable practices such as overhunting, overgrazing, and deforestation have posed threats to Altai’s delicate ecosystems. Rapid urbanization and the spread of industrialization have disrupted age-old traditions and put pressure on natural resources. The growing demand for tourism has also placed strains on the environment, leading to increased pollution and habitat degradation. The effects of climate change, such as melting glaciers and shifting weather patterns, further exacerbate the challenges faced by Altai’s ecosystems. It is essential to address these human-induced pressures and their impact on the environment to ensure the long-term sustainability of the region.

Preserving Biodiversity in Altai

Altai is a hotspot for biodiversity, boasting a remarkable array of flora and fauna. The region’s diverse ecosystems, ranging from alpine meadows to taiga forests, provide habitats for a wide variety of species. This ecological richness is a testament to the importance of protecting Altai’s biodiversity.

The Richness of Altai’s Ecosystems

Altai’s ecosystems are a treasure trove of ecological diversity. From the lush valleys to the snow-capped peaks, the region is home to numerous plant species adapted to different altitudes and climates. The Altai Mountains serve as a refuge for several endangered and endemic species, such as the Altai argali, a wild mountain sheep, and the snow leopard, a majestic and elusive predator. Rivers and lakes in Altai support vibrant fish populations, including the highly prized taimen, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. The interplay of these diverse ecosystems creates a delicate web of life, where every species plays a vital role.

Threats to Biodiversity

Despite its ecological significance, Altai’s biodiversity is under threat from various sources. Human activities, such as habitat destruction, poaching, and the introduction of non-native species, pose significant risks to the region’s flora and fauna. The loss of natural habitats due to deforestation, mining, and infrastructure development fragment ecosystems and disrupt critical wildlife corridors. Overhunting and illegal wildlife trade endanger delicate species, pushing them closer to extinction. Invasive species introduced by human activities can outcompete native species and upset the natural balance. Climate change further compounds the threats, affecting species’ ranges, altering ecosystems, and increasing the risk of habitat loss.

Conservation Efforts

Recognizing the urgency of protecting Altai’s biodiversity, various conservation efforts have been initiated across the region. Local communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies have joined hands to conserve and restore habitats, promote sustainable land-use practices, and raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity conservation. Protected areas, such as the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, have been established to safeguard critical habitats and create safe havens for wildlife. Integrating traditional ecological knowledge with modern conservation practices has proven to be an effective approach in preserving biodiversity. By involving local communities as stewards of the land and empowering them to actively participate in conservation initiatives, a sense of ownership and responsibility is fostered, ensuring the long-term success of these efforts.

Traditional Practices for Sustainable Living

Traditional practices in Altai offer valuable insights into sustainable living. For centuries, the Telengit people have adapted their way of life to the region’s unique ecological conditions, ensuring the longevity of their communities and minimizing their impact on nature.

Harvesting and Hunting Techniques

The Telengit people have developed intricate harvesting and hunting techniques that demonstrate their deep understanding of the land and its resources. They practice sustainable gathering and harvesting of wild plants, ensuring the plants’ regeneration and abundance for future generations. Traditional knowledge guides their seasonal movements, helping them find the best locations for foraging and hunting while avoiding overexploitation. By carefully selecting specific individuals or species for consumption, they maintain ecological balance, allowing populations to rebound and thrive.

Nomadic Lifestyles and Land Management

Nomadic lifestyles have long been a part of Altai’s cultural landscape, providing sustainable land management practices. The movement of livestock herds across seasonal grazing areas ensures that vegetation has time to recover, preventing overgrazing and soil degradation. This cyclical movement also reduces the risk of disease transmission and maintains the health of livestock, driving sustainable agriculture and safeguarding the livelihoods of local communities. Nomadic traditions foster a deep connection to the land, allowing the Telengit people to witness and respond to changes in their surroundings and adapt accordingly.

Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies

Sacred rituals and ceremonies play a central role in the Telengit community, establishing a profound connection between humans and the spiritual essence of the land. These rituals serve as a means of expressing gratitude, seeking guidance, and honoring the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature.

Connecting with the Spiritual Essence of the Land

Through sacred rituals and ceremonies, the Telengit people seek to establish a deep spiritual connection with the land they inhabit. These rituals involve offerings and prayers to the spirits of the mountains, rivers, and forests, acknowledging their presence and seeking their blessings. By engaging in these rituals, the Telengit community reaffirms their role as custodians of the environment and strengthens their bond with the natural world. This connection to the spiritual essence of the land fosters a profound sense of respect and reverence, influencing the way they interact with their surroundings and reinforcing sustainable practices.

Honoring Nature through Rituals

Rituals and ceremonies are also an opportunity for the Telengit community to express gratitude and give thanks for the abundance and resources provided by nature. Harvest festivals, for example, celebrate the bountiful yields of the land, acknowledging the interconnectedness between humans and their environment. These celebrations are not just joyous occasions; they are reminders of the need for reciprocity and balance in human-nature relationships. By honoring nature through rituals, the Telengit people demonstrate their recognition of the vital role it plays in their lives and the importance of care and stewardship.

The Role of Education and Awareness

Education and awareness form the cornerstone of sustainable development in Altai. It is crucial to equip individuals and communities with the necessary knowledge and skills to understand and address environmental challenges effectively.

Promoting Environmental Education

Environmental education plays a pivotal role in fostering a sense of responsibility and stewardship towards nature. By integrating environmental topics into school curricula, workshops, and community programs, individuals and communities can deepen their understanding of ecological processes, climate change, and biodiversity conservation. Environmental education also sheds light on the value of traditional knowledge, highlighting the wisdom embedded within indigenous cultures. Through hands-on experiences, field trips, and practical learning, environmental education empowers individuals to make informed decisions and take personal action in conserving their surroundings.

Understanding the Value of Traditional Knowledge

Traditional knowledge is a valuable asset in addressing modern environmental challenges. By recognizing and respecting the wisdom passed down through generations, a bridge is built between traditional practices and contemporary approaches to sustainability. Traditional knowledge often holds valuable insights into resilient land management practices, sustainable resource use, and conservation strategies. By incorporating traditional knowledge into environmental education, a holistic understanding of sustainability is cultivated, honoring the past while navigating the complexities of the present.

Local and Global Collaborations

Conserving Altai’s natural and cultural heritage requires collaboration and partnership between local communities, non-governmental organizations, governments, and international stakeholders. By working together, collective efforts can lead to meaningful and lasting change.

Community-led Conservation Initiatives

Local communities are at the forefront of conservation efforts in Altai, wielding their traditional knowledge and expertise to protect the environment. Community-led initiatives have been established, bringing together individuals from diverse backgrounds to work towards common goals. These initiatives focus on habitat restoration, sustainable livelihoods, and raising awareness among community members. By involving local communities in decision-making processes and recognizing their agency, these initiatives create a sense of ownership and pride in environmental stewardship and ensure the long-term success of conservation efforts.

International Efforts to Protect Altai

The conservation of Altai is not limited to local action; it requires a global commitment to preserving its natural and cultural heritage. International organizations, such as UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have recognized the significance of Altai and have collaborated with local stakeholders to protect the region. Through the designation of World Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves, and Transboundary Protected Areas, Altai’s unique ecosystems and cultural traditions are safeguarded. International collaborations also promote knowledge sharing, capacity building, and the exchange of best practices, strengthening local efforts and fostering a global network of like-minded individuals and organizations.

Challenges and Solutions

Preserving Altai’s natural and cultural heritage is not without its challenges. Rapid development, climate change, and socio-economic factors present obstacles that need to be addressed effectively to ensure a sustainable future for the region.

Balancing Traditional Practices with Modern Development

Finding a balance between traditional practices and modern development is a delicate task. As Altai experiences increasing pressures from industrialization, tourism, and urbanization, it becomes crucial to reconcile the needs of economic growth with the preservation of cultural and environmental integrity. This can be achieved through thoughtful planning and sustainable development strategies that account for ecological considerations, cultural sensitivities, and the well-being of local communities. Integrating traditional knowledge into decision-making processes and involving local communities in development initiatives ensures that the unique heritage of Altai is respected and retained.

Addressing Socioeconomic Factors

Socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, limited access to education, and lack of alternative livelihood options, pose challenges to environmental conservation in Altai. Averting destructive practices requires addressing these underlying issues and providing opportunities for sustainable economic growth. By investing in education and skills training, promoting eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture, and supporting locally-led initiatives, socio-economic factors can be addressed in a way that empowers local communities and reduces pressure on natural resources. Ensuring equitable access to resources and encouraging equitable distribution of benefits derived from conservation efforts fosters a sense of ownership and motivates communities to actively participate in sustainable practices.

Empowering Local Communities

The preservation of Altai’s natural and cultural heritage ultimately rests in the hands of its local communities. Empowering these communities, recognizing their knowledge and rights, and supporting their sustainable livelihoods are crucial steps in fostering resilience and ensuring the long-term conservation of the region.

The Role of Indigenous Leaders and Organizations

Indigenous leaders and organizations play an indispensable role in advocating for the rights and interests of local communities in Altai. By representing the voices and concerns of their communities, they raise awareness about environmental issues, promote cultural preservation, and engage in dialogue with policy-makers and external stakeholders. Indigenous leaders act as the bridge between their communities and the wider world, facilitating meaningful collaborations and partnerships that prioritize the well-being of both people and nature.

Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods

Providing sustainable livelihood options is essential for local communities to thrive while preserving their cultural heritage and the environment. Supporting alternative income generation activities, such as eco-tourism, traditional crafts, and sustainable agriculture, creates economic opportunities that align with the principles of sustainability. By diversifying income sources and reducing reliance on extractive industries, local communities can develop self-sustaining economies that are in harmony with nature. Such initiatives not only provide economic stability but also reinforce the value and significance of traditional knowledge and cultural practices, promoting their preservation.


Respecting nature in Altai goes beyond mere environmental conservation; it encompasses a profound understanding of the interconnectedness between humans and the environment. Altai’s rich biodiversity, sacred lands, and traditional knowledge are treasures that need to be cherished, protected, and preserved for generations to come. By recognizing the wisdom embedded within indigenous cultures, integrating traditional practices with modern approaches, and empowering local communities, Altai can navigate the challenges of the present while maintaining its cultural and environmental integrity. The preservation of Altai is not just a responsibility of the local community but a shared duty of individuals, organizations, and governments alike. Together, we can make a lasting difference and ensure that Altai remains a beacon of natural and cultural heritage for future generations to cherish.

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