Aborigen Forum response to the “Development strategy for the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation and ensuring national security through 2035”

Aborigen Forum is an informal alliance of independent experts, activists, leaders, and community organizations representing indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East.

Aborigen Forum expresses extreme concern about the approval of the Arctic zone development strategy through 2035, which, in essence, is an updated state program for national economic development based on ongoing and extensive exploitation of natural resources and does not consider the land rights of indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East and environmental security.

Although the text does mention the phrase “small-numbered indigenous peoples” over 15 times, the Strategy itself does not contain a separate chapter dedicated to their special land rights and their priority right to access biological resources and traditional natural resource use as well as development of traditional life ways. The word “development” is mentioned only in of Section 16 of “Achieving the primary objectives for international cooperation development”, item K: facilitation of inclusive development of the young generation of indigenous peoples through the implementation of educational, humanitarian, and cultural exchanges with the youth of other Arctic states.

The absence of efforts to create conditions for the independent development of indigenous peoples is evident in the concluding section “Phases and anticipated results for realization of the current Strategy”. Small-numbered indigenous peoples appear here in the third concluding phase (2031-2035) in item V) “Ensuring access to quality social services for individual members of small-numbered indigenous peoples and intensive development of their traditional economic activities”. However, the Strategy’s text does not indicate how this “intensive development of their traditional economic activities” will be ensured.

In order to achieve this anticipated result, existing law should be used to create Territories of Traditional Natural Resource Use (“TTPs”) for small-numbered indigenous peoples in the areas where they reside and engage in activity related to reindeer-herding, hunting and fishing, gathering, and other traditional activities. The boundaries and management systems of these TTPs must be determined prior to confirming the location of specific industrial development sites as well as the development of infrastructure supporting the national security system and “a network of rehabilitation and adaptation centers for individuals released from imprisonment”.

Only the creation of specially-protected TTPs can serve as the foundation for the intensive development of indigenous peoples’ traditional economic activity. At present, requests to establish TTPs in the Arctic zone are being submitted by indigenous peoples in Murmansk Oblast, Yamalo-Nenetsky Autonomous Okrug, Taimyr, and Chukotka. Regional TTPs have already been created in Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), and all that remains is for their boundaries and management regime to be confirmed at the federal level.

In Chapter IV “Primary avenues for realization of this Strategy in individual administrative regions and municipalities of the Russian Federation” a point regarding the development of “ethno-environmental tourism clusters” is important for the economic and cultural development of indigenous peoples, but for some reason the cities and large towns designated for these clusters are not home to dense populations of indigenous peoples. Does this mean that management of the development of ethno-environmental tourism is no longer under the control of indigenous peoples?

Given that historically, the entire Arctic zone has been traditionally occupied by indigenous peoples managing the natural resources, projects including such activities can only be realized through consideration of an impact assessment on their traditional way of life and the native environment. They should also be subject to a discussion phase directly with affected indigenous peoples, their associations, and community organizations.

In accordance with the international principles and norms of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (including Articles 10, 19, 26, 28, 29, 30, 32), the principle of “free prior and informed consent” (FPIC) must be observed when planning and siting industrial development sites, as well as in the event of using sacred sites and cultural and natural heritage sites for ethno-environmental tourism.

The Strategy aims to support and promote resource-oriented economics and links the dependence of the federal government and many regional government agencies on income deriving from oil, gas, and other subsoil resources. As a result, the legal and regulatory system regulating resource use will be focused first and foremost on supporting the extractive industry. Questions of corporate compensation for the real environmental and social costs remain outside the scope of the Arctic Strategy’s main priorities.

The indigenous peoples that have historically occupied vast spaces in the Arctic and Siberia are now statistical minorities in their own traditional lands; they are the last barrier facing the companies that ruthlessly exploit natural resources and the fragile environment of the North. This means that the conflict of interests for both sides will only grow – new approaches and methods are needed to manage these relationships.

Over the next 15 years, many aboriginal peoples living in the Arctic region will face serious challenges to their ethnic survival as a result of climate change, its influence on their traditional natural resource use on the one hand and the ever-expanding access to hydrocarbons and other deposits and the new economic boom in the Arctic initiated by this Strategy on the other.

The North must no longer be marginalized and treated as a resource colony. A new approach is needed, one that is based on a new vision and way of thinking: an ecosystem approach in which humans must integrate themselves in the severe but fragile nature of the Arctic.

The Arctic’s main source of wealth is not oil and gas but people. In order to preserve the North, we must invest in human potential, in science, research, new knowledge, technology, green economics, risk management, and developing environmental and aboriginal rights. Beyond Russia’s borders, the Arctic exists not only and not so much for oil and gas, but primarily thanks to cutting edge science, education and law, new technologies and ecological standards, sustainable fisheries and ecotourism, and the development of comforts and infrastructure. This is a true state, legal, and social approach.