Dmitry Berezhkov. The problem of civil resistance against unlawful environmental decisions in the context of dispersed settlement of the small-numbered indigenous peoples of the Russian North

More news coming lately from Russia are covering organized civil resistance against decisions taken by the authorities or the business, aimed at economic and infrastructural development and natural resource extraction but deliberately worsening environmental conditions and viewed as unjust by the local communities.

The widely publicized names of Kushtau and Shiyes become proverbial in present Russia. But there are other cases, such as an attempt to develop the Usinskoye manganese ore deposit by the Chek-SU company in the Kemerovskaya Oblast or an emerging public campaign in defense of Cape Nagleinyn in Chukotka.

Nowadays, the information becomes more and more open. The examples of the negative environmental impact in other regions or previous promises made by authorities are accessible to the local communities in a couple of clicks. In these conditions, people do not always rest assured that the strict environmental and the land recultivation promises of the government and business will be complied with in the long-term future. Especially when the local communities see how such obligations are neglected from year to year as it happens, for example, with the coal developments in the Kemerovskaya Oblast.

The villagers of the Cheremza Shor village and residents of the neighbor city Myski also stood up this summer against the new coal loading station’s construction in proximity with their community. Even Sergey Tsivilyov, the Governor of the Kemerovskaya Oblast, had to intervene in the conflict personally and promised publicly that the regional authorities would withdraw the station building permit. Together with the examples of Kushtau and Shiyes, this model demonstrated to us that when it comes to the massive protests against unjust decisions or violations of the environmental rights of large groups of people, authorities and business have to recognize their demands and step back, or start negotiations. 

Unfortunately, the creation of the field camp by the environmental activists near Cheremza is only one of the few positive examples of the organized environmental civil resistance against the coal mining companies’ negative ecological impact in the Kemerovskaya Oblast and Russia in general.

The examples given above also show that such civil resistance against corporations’ interests may be effectively organized in those areas where environmental, public health, cultural heritage, and human rights problems affect large groups of the local population. And where such groups are ready to oppose the brutal force and stand up against the company’s workforce supported by police forces.

Unfortunately, in most of the cases, when the industrial companies violate the rights of the small-numbered indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East, it usually happens in the sparsely populated areas, i.e., in tundra, taiga, mountains – in the areas with few people and witnesses. In the areas where the immediate interests and health of the large groups of people are not affected. In such places, there is often no one to resist and protest as indigenous peoples who live there are not always knowledgeable in legislation, have no necessary skills, have poor communication with regional centers. Their voices usually extremely small-numbered and are not heard of in the public space.

This is what happened in the Kemerovskaya Oblast, in the Shor indigenous people’s area, before the Cheremza campaign started. The Shor villages and their traditional lands in taiga were damaged, and it did not attract the regional public’s full attention. That’s why the Kazas Shor village was destroyed (and the Kuria village previously) without any local communities’ resistance except several Shor people activists. That was followed by the development of the Kiizassky coal mine in proximity of another Shor village Chuvashka. Then the coal loading station was constructed near the Borodino village. And when another company attempted to build the new coal loading station near the Cheremza village, an immediate suburb of the Myski city, the people living in that area began to protest. The Shor people and their local activist Aleksey Chispiyakov started the campaign, but this action soon consolidated a large group of the local population, which supported the protest action. 

Previously, the Shors’ protests against the Yuzhnaya coal mining company and against the burning down of the Kazas village (apparently implemented by those who represented the company) became widely known outside Russia. That happened thanks to the significant efforts of the Tannagashev family, who had even to leave the country. But the Shors failed in stopping the project, restoring the village on the new site, or being compensated for their destroyed houses.

One of the Norilsk residents gave an excellent, one-phrase description of this problem when he spoke about the consequences of the recent accident at the Heat and Power Plant of the Nornickel company and resulted in a spill of more than 20 thousand tons of the diesel oil from a damaged tank. “In general, of course, nothing changed in the city. There are no meaningful manifestations of grievance except from a small group of activists. Had it happened inside the city, then, of course, the damage would be obvious, and it would cause the public outcry. But, generally, people don’t care about something happening far away in tundra”.

Therefore, the methods of public activism and organization of ecological protest actions involving a significant number of the local population cannot always be applied to violations of indigenous peoples’ rights whose lifestyle is often nomadic. The Russian government and businesses in the areas populated by the small-numbered indigenous peoples often do not notice their grievances. Authorities often push their point of view by using multiple mechanisms, such as creating artificial barriers for participation in the decision-making processes or implementing the black PR campaigns against the indigenous activists.

The procedures of participation of the local communities in decision-making specified in the laws, including the public hearings and direct voting, are often formal. The participants are not provided sufficient information to evaluate the future consequences adequately (the most vivid example is the helicopter landing in the reindeer herding camp. The people have a paper in front of the face, are asked to tick the box, and then the helicopter take off).

Often such events are based on deception. Sometimes, the regional authorities and the business purposefully change the legislation and set up entire cover operations to avoid the indigenous peoples’ protests. For example, 15 years ago, the Kemerovskaya Oblast authorities have purposefully changed the municipal lands’ boundaries in the Novokuznetsk municipal district to give the control over the Chuvashka Village municipal lands to another administrative unit in Krasnaya Orlovka. Later, the new land administrators organized the public hearings in Krasnaya Orlovka. Its only four participants, allegedly employees of the local administration, agreed to cede the Shor traditional lands to the new Kiizassky Coal Mining Company without any notice of the Shor community. The Shor people suffering from the new coal mining operation deployed on their traditional lands near the Chuvashka village, did not participate in the public hearings because they had not been made aware of them.

During the public hearings, indigenous activists often become outnumbered by other participants who represent local bureaucracy or business that support the creation of the new enterprises because they are not affected by their operation personally (in contrast with the indigenous population). Sometimes such local lobbyists receive an additional profit from new extractive facilities through commercial contracts.

Both authorities and business actively support the Soviet-time practice of imitating public participation in the decision-making process. Public hearings and other similar events are attended by invited supporters or representatives of the controlled non-governmental “show-off” organizations (the so-called GONGO designed to imitate the communities’ participation and support the governmental decisions). Such simulacra of the indigenous NGOs easily agree with any governmental initiatives. They use a lot of time and resources to organize events that look fancy but do little to protect indigenous peoples’ rights. The Russian authorities use such NGOs to pursue a consecutive policy of the so-called “festivalization” of the indigenous public movement.

Thus the indigenous communities, affected by the industrial operations, are losing their rights on traditional lands, favorable environment, and traditional lifestyle. At the same time, they are left with no effective means at the national level to exercise a meaningful participation in decision making. In this situation, indigenous peoples in Russia are trying to seek new mechanisms of such participation abroad.

One such mechanism is the indigenous communities’ lawsuits toward the resource mining corporations brought to the international or foreign national courts. While these legal actions of the indigenous movement organizations pursuing their rights and traditional lands are coming into practice at the international level, it is still not typical for Russia and awaits its pioneers. 

Another mechanism that could be used is a cooperation between the indigenous communities and the foreign shareholders of the Russian mining companies which have to comply with the international human rights principles. The best practices of such cooperation in Russia during the last 15 years can be studied in the Sakhalin island, where indigenous communities negotiate with oil companies. As mining companies extract raw materials on indigenous peoples’ traditional lands in Russia and then often sell it to the countries with more developed human rights legislation, indigenous communities could also potentially deal with Western buyers of these resources.

Unfortunately, the usage of such instruments is limited for many reasons. First of all, Russia was rapidly losing its Western investors in the last years. The new international partners, for example, Chinese business, are not that sensitive to such phenomena as human rights. 

Another problem arises with identifying buyers/sellers of the specific resources from concrete territories in such a chaotic domain as international trade. Especially if nobody wants to be identified. For example, a European company may claim that the coal purchased from abroad was purchased not in Russia, but Columbia and vice versa. The end-users (for example, the buyers of electricity) are not identifiable at all.

Besides, the Russian mining companies’ foreign trading partners that purchase the raw materials and sell commodities (electricity, for example) are not interested in such cooperation. Sometimes, being forced to comply with international standards in different areas like sustainable development, they create their own reporting mechanisms. For example, this approach is used by several largest European power-supplying companies that founded the Bettercoal Alliance designed to “to promote the continuous improvement in the mining and sourcing of coal for the benefit of all people impacted by the industry, workers and coal mining communities.” Such reports make a good picture of the company’s operations at the “international market of sustainable development.” Still, they may misrepresent/embellish the real situations on the ground. Such reports may also be very far from the practice of “promoting sustainable and effective use of natural resources” in the coal-mining operations.

A significant problem faced by the indigenous organizations in Russia is the lack of experience and capacity that would help them to address the international courts or negotiate with the western trade partners of the Russian raw material giants. 

Keeping in mind the problems explained above, a new initiative of the group of indigenous experts and activists named Aborigen-Forum looks promising. They appealed to Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla company, with a proposal not to purchase metals from the Nornickel company until it meets several requirements to comply with environmental standards and the indigenous peoples’ rights.

From the one side, it is similar to the previous attempts of the Russian indigenous peoples’ organizations to attract international investors’ attention. On the other side, Tesla car owners are not just nameless electricity consumers. These are quite wealthy people who often buy Tesla and other electric cars because this is their green manifesto. Most of them are well educated to understand how different parts of the world are linked by the global environmental, climate, and economic processes. They know that emissions in one country may negatively affect people’s health and well-being in another one.  

It’s worth noting that the electric car market is at the top of Europe’s rapidly growing markets nowadays. For example, the Norwegian government plans stipulate that no cars supplied with internal combustion engines will be on sale in the country since 2025. Pure electric vehicles made up almost half of the car sales in Norway in the first half of 2020, in a world record as battery-powered vehicles suffer less than fossil-fueled rivals in the economic downturn caused by Covid-19. By far, Norway is the world’s biggest market by percentage for electric car sales, ahead of Iceland and Netherlands. The immediate neighbors of Norway – Sweden and Finland – are not very far behind. Similar plans exist in other developed countries of Europe. 

Considering a generally negative attitude toward environmental pollution among Scandinavia’s population and, especially, among the people of northern Scandinavia living in the zone of the negative impact of the Nornickel facilities in the Murmansk region and the fact that Saami people who live in northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia are most affected by the mining projects, we may suggest that to promote its appeal to Elon Musk, Aborigen-Forum may negotiate with the environmental and Sami organizations in Scandinavian countries to exchange experience and prepare joint recommendations for the electric car producers to promote indigenous peoples’ rights, their sustainable development, and healthy environment.

Perhaps this strategy could help indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic to protect their environmental rights more effectively than countless unanswered complaints to Russian President Putin.

Russian version

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