Shifting to electric vehicles (EV) is seen as an important step towards a greener future. However, the process of extracting nickel, a crucial component of EV batteries, very often is not environmental-friendly. The world’s largest producer of nickel, Nornickel, has been destroying the environment and violating Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the Arctic for decades. Indigenous Peoples are now trying to bring the international community’s attention to the problem with the hope of protecting their ancestorial lands.
Nornickel’s poor environmental record
The largest-ever ecological disaster in the Arctic occurred on 29 May 2020, near Norilsk city, Russia. More than 20,000 tons of diesel oil, a weight equivalent to 200 Airbus passenger planes, spilled from an outdated fuel storage tank into the Arctic water and soil causing catastrophic damage to the environment and threatening Indigenous Peoples’ survival.
Unfortunately, this environmental tragedy was not the only one caused by Nornickel’s poor environmental and safety measures.
The world’s largest producer of refined nickel is responsible for numerous environmental disasters and human rights violations, many of which the company manages to successfully hide. The most outrageous ones, though, such as polluting air with heavy metals, dumping chemical wastewater into rivers and the above-mentioned diesel oil spill do gain publicity and cause public outcry. For its poor environmental and human rights record Nornickel has been dubbed the Arctic’s largest polluter.
Photo: Power and Heating Plant in Norilsk, Russia. Credit: Greenpeace / Dmitry Sharomov
Nornickel passionately tries to create an image of itself as a sustainable company, but most of its environmental initiatives, under thorough analysis, appear to be deceptive. The company’s website promotes its progressive environmental strategy and features environmentally-friendly projects, but it seems most of Nornickel’s environmental initiatives remain unfulfilled.
Regarding its human rights record, Nornickel’s extractive operations mostly take place on Indigenous Peoples’ lands, however, the company fails to recognise Indigenous Peoples’ fundamental right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent when it comes to projects affecting them or their territories. Instead, the company has adopted the role of a charity organisation by implementing various cultural and socio-economic programs, e.g., establishing partnerships with Indigenous Peoples’ associations, allocating funding and releasing grants to support Indigenous Peoples’ traditions and culture.
Dmitri Berezhkov, an Indigenous rights activist from Russia, currently in exile in Norway, criticizes Nornickle’s latest support towards Indigenous youth: “Nornickel has organised a seminar for young Indigenous people on how to fill out papers correctly in order to be included in the List of Persons Belonging to Indigenous Minority Peoples and what privileges one receives when included in the list. Basically, fundamental rights of Indigenous Peoples are presented as privileges.”
Nornickel’s attempts to gain a reputation as an environmental-friendly company are not successful as fundamentally the company’s operations violate both natural and Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
Nornickel is enormously powerful in Russia, and its power is mostly based on its close ties to Russian authorities. For example, Vladimir Potanin, Nornickel’s managing chairman and co-owner (who owns 34.59% of the company), is listed in the informal “Putin’s list” – a list of names of 210 prominent Russians with close ties to the Kremlin released by the US Treasury Department in 2018. Such a situation doesn’t give much opportunity for Indigenous Peoples to seek justice in their home country. Therefore, Russia’s activists and environmentalists try to get the attention of powerful international actors who can influence the company and make it accountable for its damaging operations.
Photo: Indigenous rights activists across Russia and beyond join an online flashmob against pollution in the Arctic. Collage by Vera Shcherbina.
One of the most popular and effective campaigns the activists launched focused on urging Tesla, one of the world-leading producers of EV, to respect Indigenous rights by not sourcing nickel from Nornickel. The idea of addressing Tesla specifically came right after Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, publicly promised a “giant contract” with any company extracting nickel in an efficient and environmentally sustainable manner.
Thinking ahead, Indigenous Peoples started a hashtag campaign #AnswerUsElonMusk to prevent the possible future cooperation between Tesla and Nornickel. Activists, environmentalists and international organisations from all over the world supported and joined the campaign and advised Tesla not to consider Nornickel as a future partner until it compensates for all the environmental damages it caused in the Arctic.
Rodion Sulyandzhiga, Director of the Centre for the Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North in Russia (CSIPN), recalls: “We did not expect such a big support. Many people, organisations supported us, joined us. Our campaign was covered by many international news agencies”.
On 30 September 2020, an official appeal, signed by 71 human rights organisations from 27 countries, was sent to Tesla to inform it about Nornickel’s poor environmental and human rights record.
Though Tesla never responded officially, the issue of Nornickel’s poor environmental performance was addressed by Tesla’s Board of Directors in response to a motion by a minor shareholder.
Campaign in Switzerland
Russia’s persistent Indigenous activism inspired and attracted support from all over the world. Many activists and non-governmental organisations based in countries, where Nornickel’s investors are based, offered their assistance to positively influence the situation.
For example, the Swiss NGO The Society for Threatened Peoples organised a trip to Switzerland for Russia’s Indigenous activists to meet and influence Nornickel’s Swiss investors and sensitize politicians. According to Profundo, a Dutch research group, Switzerland’s largest banks Credit Suisse and Union Bank of Switzerland are together among the 10 largest investors to Nornickel. During their trip to Bern in June 2021, the activists had an opportunity to meet and share their concerns and expectations with representatives of the two Swiss banks, politicians, members of parliament and local civil society organisations.
There are some western companies that have already stopped cooperating with Nornickel due to its poor environmental and human rights record, which include the Norwegian pension funds SPU and KLP, NBIM (Norwegian investment management company), Germany’s FDC (asset management company), Dutch asset management companies Actiam and Robeco, and Swedish financial institution Scandia.
Photo: Power and Heating Plant in Norilsk, Russia. Credit: Greenpeace / Dmitry Sharomov
Reaching out to German investors
Indigenous Peoples have also tried to approach German company BASF (Badische Anilin- und SodaFabrik), the largest chemical producer in the world which has also been cooperating with Nornickel since 2018 to supply battery materials for EV.
In November 2020 the Arctic activists, with the support of the Association of Ethical Shareholders in Germany and 20 other international organisations, sent an open letter to BASF urging it not to buy nickel from Nornickel until it complies with environmental and human rights standards. BASF responded by listing some of Nornickel’s actions towards sustainability and expressing belief in the company’s willingness to put more effort to become a sustainable company.
While BASF does not seem to put much pressure on Nornickel, another German actor, asset management company DWS (Die Wertpapier Spezialisten), is more willing to prove its commitment to sustainability partnerships. DWS has informed the Association of Ethical Shareholders at the annual general meeting in June 2021 that it reduced its investments to Nornickel for not meeting sustainable requirements and is considering even ending the partnership if no progress towards sustainability is observed in the future.
More advocacy ahead
There are many western financial institutions benefiting from Nornickel’s business who are thus sharing responsibility and are complicit in the company’s activities that are polluting the Arctic. Russia’s activists would like to reach all of them, but it takes time and resources to figure out the complicated financial schemes of cooperation.
For example, according to the Dutch not-for-profit research centre for sustainability Profundo, German banks such as Deutche Bank and CommerzBank provided loans totalling $413 million in 2020 to the company and Dutch bank ING and pension fund ABP together invested around 1 billion dollars in the company. Among other European investors are Swedish banks Swedbandk, SEB, Handelsbanken and pension fund Sjunde AP-fonden, Britain’s HSBC and French BNP Paribas.
Indigenous Peoples haven’t reached the above-mentioned institutions so far but are planning to do so in the future.
Russia’s leading mining company Nornickel has become one of the most lucrative partners to western companies. It gives record pay-outs to its shareholders by doing profitable business in the sphere of metals. But that production of metals comes at the cost of damaging the environment and threatening the survival of Indigenous Peoples in North Russia.
Indigenous Peoples suffering from Nornickel’s damaging operations are directly addressing western investors, urging them to stop cooperating with Nornickel until it becomes a truly sustainable company. Indigenous Peoples’ activism has already attracted support from abroad thus proving the effectiveness of campaigns and social activism. The hope is others will quickly listen.
Chynara Temirova holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Moscow State Linguistic University and a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Oxford. She has worked at various global organisations, including the United Nations, specialising in peacebuilding, human rights and good governance.
 The diesel oil leaked from a storage tank at a power plant operated by Nornickel. The power plant uses natural gas to generate electricity and diesel is kept as reserve fuel.
Top/main photo: Pipelines in Norilsk, Russia. Credit: Greenpeace / Elena Sakirko