August 31, 2020 Maria Stambler
The most vulnerable part of the Russian population that can expect the greatest risk of lifestyle changes under the influence of climate change are the indigenous peoples (map of ethnic groups across Russia, in Russian). The Russian indigenous peoples’ movement represents 40 indigenous peoples. As this map indicates the majority of Russia’s indigenous peoples’ population is located in the Arctic and Siberian regions.
In Russia, issues of climate (climate change, justice, sustainable development, green economy), as a concept, as politics, and as a set of prescribed practices, receive little attention in the country, Dr. Rodion Sulyandziga, Director of the Center for support of indigenous peoples of the North (CSIPN), told Climate Scorecard.
“….. The concept of ‘indigenous peoples’ is not included in the Russian legislation. Instead, the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation introduces the legal category of ‘small-numbered indigenous peoples’: ‘indigenous peoples are peoples residing at the territories of traditional settlement of their ancestors, preserving traditional lifestyle and occupations, consisting of less than 50 thousand people in the Russian Federation and perceiving themselves as self-sustaining ethnic communities’. Article 69 of the Russian Constitution also guarantees the rights of the indigenous peoples according to the norms of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation,” Sulyandziga explains.
Additionally, Sulyandziga says, despite growing concerns, in the last couple of years, the government weakened the protection regime. Many citizen-led environmental movements pressing for even modest environmental controls to protect local environments, which gained momentum in the early post-Soviet period, were undermined in the late 1990s and early 2000s due to the continued lack of legal infrastructure that supports civilian suits and enforces existing environmental regulations. In some cases, citizen environmental movements were clearly co-opted by an elite interest group. On top of all this, many Indigenous and environmental NGOs have been declared foreign agents by the Russian state, creating legal difficulties for these groups.
Like other countries with many different indigenous peoples, Russia’s indigenous groups’ way of life and traditional types of economic activity (fishing, reindeer husbandry, agriculture, etc.) are directly dependent on climatic conditions. Because of more frequent weather thaws, ice layers often form on the ground, which limits reindeer access to lichens under the ice crust. Permafrost thawing, changes in snow cover distribution and earlier melting and later river ice formation observed in recent years lead to disruption of the traditional ways of reindeer migration between winter and summer pastures. Climate warming and a decrease in the ice cover of the northern seas, changes in the migration routes of wild deer and their food supply, and a decrease in the number of marine animals can result in a reduction in the traditional fisheries of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic (the Sami, the Nenets and many other reindeer herding communities). In fact, the Arctic is one of the most vulnerable regions of the world to climate change; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) puts it on a par, for example, with small island states In a number of countries. Of course, it is much less densely populated than territories in lower latitudes. Nevertheless, 2.5 million people live in the Arctic zone – 1.8% of the country’s population; it is home to 41 indigenous groups (map in Russian).
Much like in the Amazon, fires in Siberia are destroying forests that are home to indigenous people. In addition, fires cause even greater carbon emissions into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. On the border of Yakutia and Chukotka (both regions are home to many indigenous ethnic groups) in early autumn, the permafrost suddenly melted. As a result, the village of Andryushkino, where the indigenous people of Yukaghir live, was flooded, and in winter people found themselves in wet, cold houses. This happened in 2007, but since then the water has not completely subsided. Places where food supplies were stored were flooded. Due to the late freezing of rivers and lakes, there was much thinner than usual ice, which led to several cases when local residents drowned. There is no longer an airfield in the village – water stands in its place.
In the Tomsk Region, the winter road that passes through the Vasyugan marshlands (an area bigger than the size of Switzerland) began to freeze 2-3 weeks later, which makes it difficult for people to bring cheap flour, salt, sugar and essentials to those who live there (including members of the Khanty-Mansy group). Winter migration routes of moose, wolves and other animals began to change. Because of the thin ice, the swamp became very dangerous in the winter: representatives of indigenous peoples, who are used to hunting and fishing here, increasingly fall through the ice.
The vegetative period of plants changes greatly in the tundra: fast and late flowering of the tundra has serious consequences for migratory birds and affects the nutrition of people and animals living there. In Yakutia, the ways of animal migration are changing: many wolves come from Siberia, where the taiga is cut down, and indigenous reindeer herders, who often cannot carry weapons, are left unprotected.
In Russia, oil and gas are extracted on the lands of indigenous peoples; logging and fires also occur. Last summer, the indigenous lands suffered from terrible fires in Siberia, floods in the Irkutsk region and heavy floods in the Far East, the Siberian Lena River in Yakutia was shallowed. This summer, the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk reported possibly the hottest- ever temperature recorded above the Arctic Circle of 38 degrees Celsius; other parts of the Arctic are seeing temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius when the average for the time of year is zero. At the time of writing, forest fires in Siberia are raging at a much higher intensity that last summer.
At the same time, indigenous peoples are vital for many ecosystems and help to increase their resilience. In addition, indigenous peoples use their traditional knowledge and find unusual ways to adapt to the climate crisis. In some countries, adaptation measures have already been taken to resettle small peoples in special settlements. However, this forces them to change their lifestyle, which leads to psychological stress, and subsequently very few indigenous people will be able to return to a complex and thoughtful model of nomadic reindeer herding and cultural traditions.
Though unlike in many other countries, indigenous groups do not face discrimination in Russia, have equal rights, are encouraged to keep their culture and language and are generally well integrated in Russian society, Polina Shulbaeva, representative of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), notes that Russia does not have a program for calculating the possible consequences of climate change for different territories:
“There is no program that takes into account the hydrological regime of the territory, the presence of permafrost, its volume and depth, the presence of settlements or any important roads on the permafrost and so on. In addition, there is no program that would calculate the socio-economic and environmental consequences of climate change – what will lead to a few degrees of warming in a particular territory, which methods/resources will be needed to solve problems that may arise in these territories. Programs are needed that would calculate possible options for the consequences that will arise in 20-30 years, and at the same time take into account specific territories. Murmansk and Chukotka are completely different territories, for them there will be completely different consequences. The same goes for the center of Russia. Vasyugan marshlands – how will climate change affect them? How will it affect the boreal taiga? Ussuriysk and the Far East?”
According to Sulyandziga, “indigenous peoples are often perceived as originators of sustainable development and as a major inspiration in the global effort to build resilience to climate change. From that perspective, their well-being is seen as an indicator of a region’s development. As such, the current situation sustains the asymmetrical power relations between the indigenous nations, the state and the extractive industries. Since indigenous communities know the local ecosystems best and have the greatest, and most direct, stakes in preserving them, their place is nowhere else but at the forefront of regional development”.
The expert laments that within the Russian legislation, however, the role that indigenous peoples have in the conservation of biodiversity has not yet been sufficiently reflected on and their role is poorly understood. That said, the Russian government has begun employing environmental impact assessments (EIA) and impact assessments of socio-economic and cultural impacts (or ethnological assessment) on indigenous groups.
Greenpeace Russia believes that the following steps should be taken to protect Russia’s indigenous groups, who are most at-risk when it comes to changing climatic conditions:
“Strengthening and supporting the adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples can be much more successful in combination with other strategies – a national plan for sustainable development, a system for responding to natural disasters, preserving the environment, and land use planning. In many cases, adapting to new conditions requires additional financial and technological resources that most indigenous communities do not have. To avoid negative impacts on vulnerable communities, the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in the development of measures to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis is essential”.
Sulyandziga agrees, adding that “having a national climate doctrine is not enough. There should be the local and regional Adaptation Plans on the impacts of climate change to be developed and implemented in partnership with all stakeholders including governmental agencies, experts, society and indigenous peoples”.
The Russian government published its first climate adaptation strategy in January, 2020 and one of the points mentions plans to prepare a special report regarding the consequences of climate change for Russia, including evaluations of which parts and peoples are most vulnerable and adaptation scenarios.