Sámi livelihoods under threat as mining in the Arctic gathers pace

Oula Antti-Labba

Andrei Danilov was one of a number of indigenous activists who in 2020 photographed themselves with a sign #AnswerUsElonMusk and posted it on social media. As part of the same campaign, Russia’s indigenous organization Aborigen Forum wrote to Elon Musk, CEO of the electric vehicle company Tesla, urging him not to buy nickel, copper and other products from the industrial giant Nornickel in Monchegorsk, Russia. Aborigen Forum is an informal association of experts, activists, leaders and organizations of indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation. 

The Nornickel smelters have over the decades caused massive air pollution in the Kola peninsula. Determined to prevent further environmental destruction, the activists, backed by over 120 international organizations, appealed to Musk to cease doing business with Nornickel until the company conducts a full and independent assessment of the environmental damage caused by its production.  

This is just one of several large industrial projects that threaten the culture and traditional livelihoods, such as reindeer herding, of the indigenous population in Russia. Danilov, a Sámi activist and chair of the Sámi Heritage and Development Fund, is determined to raise awareness about these issues and to find ways for indigenous peoples to influence industrial developments on their land. ‘Nornickel knows that their products will be sold abroad,’ he says. ‘The only way for them to move forward is to negotiate with indigenous peoples. This case shows that we indigenous peoples need to work together to oppose these actions and to work on the issues that concern us.’ 

The Kola peninsula has been inhabited by the indigenous Sámi people since time immemorial. However, in Russia there are no central organs that officially represent indigenous peoples such as Sámi, who remain marginalized from decision-making processes. While Finland, Norway and Sweden all have a nationally recognized Sámi Parliament, the Russian Sámi have the undesirable distinction of being the only Sámi community without an official one. In these other countries, too, Sámi have long been able to participate in crossborder activities through international networks that involve both civil society and state-based actors. Until the late 1980s, the Russian Sámi were isolated from these processes of increased international integration that took place on the Nordic side of the border. 

Danilov is concerned about the human rights situation in Russia and the prospects of the already modest indigenous rights protections there being further undermined. He and other activists now face increasingly difficult, almost impossible circumstances. The authorities are clamping down on activism in Russia and many indigenous organizations that operate in the country, even those working solely on cultural issues, have been defined as ‘foreign agents’. Danilov himself is currently facing accusations of criminal activity on account of his activism, meaning many of his allies and supporters have to keep a low profile. ‘People are working silently,’ he says. ‘People are whispering to me that you are doing good work. I understand because activism can be dangerous in Russia.’Indeed, in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and further clampdowns on dissent, Danilov himself has been forced to seek asylum in Norway.

With so little manoeuvring space, Sámi on the Russian side need to be innovative to campaign and mobilize against harmful development. One of the most recent examples in this regard is the Fedorova Tundra, a platinum and palladium mining project in the Murmansk region. Danilov is clear that the mine will be disastrous for the entire area. ‘It would cause enormous harm to nature. Not only will the immediate area be polluted, but also the nearby territories and the river which flows to Lake Lovozero. There would be a long chain of polluted areas because of the mine.’ 

The Fedorova Tundra project is at a pre-planning stage. However, the mining project itself is not new: the previous mining licence holder, the Canadian company Barrick Gold, was unable to proceed and now the licence has been transferred to Fedorovo Resources. The company is partly owned by Rostec State Corporation. Rostec’s supervisory board, the management board and the general director are all appointed by the Russian president. A co-owner of Fedorovo Resources is a Russian tycoon called Andrei Komarov.

Fedorovo Resources is planning to start mining and production in the area in 2027. The Rostec State Corporation is currently accelerating an array of industrial projects in the Arctic. Russia holds the largest Arctic territory by far, comprising around 40 per cent of the total area, and is heavily dependent on its resources. Yet the Arctic is also the traditional home of several indigenous peoples in Russia who are at risk of being uprooted from their current lives by these developments. The planned mining area is located less than 60 kilometres south-east of the settlement of Lovozero, where a significant portion of the Sámi population in Russia reside: it is the centre of Kildin Sámi, a critically endangered language with only about 100 active speakers, and is also Danilov’s home village. 

According to Danilov, in the beginning there was little engagement from Fedorovo Resources in relation to the project. But then indigenous community members mobilized and the company, faced with growing dissent, finally organized meetings with Sámi, local groups and activists. This culminated in February 2021, in a meeting with the Council of Representatives of Indigenous Peoples of the North under the government of the Murmansk Region. However, activists and representatives of other organizations were not invited – meaning that, in Danilov’s words, it was more of ‘a kind of closed presentation of the project, but not a discussion’. 

However, the company has recently promised to solicit feedback from Sámi communities on the environmental impacts of their work and other concerns. ‘It was a big result’, says Danilov, ‘but the company is not stopping the project. The only way to stop them is to work together, indigenous peoples and organizations, in unison.’ 

While nation states and companies are obliged to follow international law and respect indigenous peoples’ rights — Russia, for example, has ratified the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and accepted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — the implementation of these instruments has been poor. Nor is there much in the way of domestic legislation to force companies like Fedorovo Resources to seek the approval of indigenous peoples for their actions. ‘The principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is not recognized by Russian law,’ says Danilov. Fedorovo Resources is planning to conduct an environmental impact assessment in 2022 that, according to the company website, will encompass an evaluation of the project’s local and regional impacts and identification of potential social and economic risks, in line with Russian law. However, there has not been a proper assessment to map the effects on Sámi communities in the area. 

There are some institutions in Russia, such as the Obščinys, that are specifically designed to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. The Obščinys are non-commercial kinor community-based membership organizations aimed at the defence of ancient habitats, traditional ways of life, rights and legal interests of indigenous communities. Following the passage of a federal law to regulate the establishment of such organizations in 2000, a number of Sámi Obščinys were established. Many now face an uncertain future: creating and running an Obščiny is hard work, due both to the nature of the traditional activities and the bureaucracy. 

Furthermore, even with these platforms in place, the impact on traditional livelihoods is still profound. To practise reindeer herding, for instance, Obščinys need land, which in practice they often have to lease from the authorities. At least one local reindeer-herding Obščiny would also be directly affected because of the Fedorovo Tundra mine. 

Though Fedorovo Resources have stated that there are no traditional livelihood activities in the area, this overlooks its importance as grazing land for reindeer herding. With small communities, many of them on the verge of bankruptcy, facing growing pressure from companies to provide their consent, Sámi activists on the Russian side face an uphill struggle.