A plea to Swiss banks from the Russian Arctic

A delegation from the Russian Arctic travelled more than 4,800 kilometres to Switzerland this month. Top of their agenda was calling attention to the lasting consequences of one of the largest oil spills in their country’s history. They want Swiss banks to use their influence to push the company responsible to protect the environment and properly consult indigenous communities.

On May 29, 2020, a fuel storage tank failed, flooding two local rivers with some 21,000 tons of diesel near the Siberian city of Norilsk. The company behind that environmental disaster is Russian company, Norilsk Nickel, or Nornickel, the world’s leading producer of refined nickel and palladium.

floating dam to prevent the spread of oil fuel
 A floating dam is installed to limit the spread of oil pollution following a massive fuel spill in the Ambarnaya River outside Norilsk on June 10, 2020 AFP

“This spill is the tip of the iceberg,” says Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the independent Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North. “Pollution and disempowerment of indigenous communities didn’t start one year ago. It is a long story.”   

The 2020 diesel spill was a “social disaster” as much as it was an environmental disaster, the rights activist told SWI swissinfo.ch. It had crippling consequences for indigenous communities trying to make a living in a tough habitat through fishing, reindeer herding and hunting. It also hurt their ability to trade.

“They have to go far in the tundra to find new places for fishing, for hunting,” Sulyandziga said. “They don’t have much fish or meat because of the oil spill.  An even if they have [some], they cannot sell, because it has a special smell…profit is going down.”

Credit Suisse and UBS investment 

Nornickel has  a turnover of $14 billion (CHF12.5 billion) and a profit of $6 billion in 2019. The metals it produces are essential to the booming electric car industry. Switzerland’s largest banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, are together among the ten largest investors in Nornickel, according to the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples. They are also key lenders.

As of April 2021, UBS held shares and bonds in Nornickel worth $45 million, according to data compiled by Profundo, a Dutch research group. Credit Suisse has equity corresponding to $27 million in stocks and bonds. It has also issued $268 million in loans.   

Both banks said they do not comment on existing or potential client relationships. “We will not do business if associated with severe environmental or social damage to or through the use among others breaches of indigenous peoples,” said UBS spokesman Samuel Brandner, pointing to the bank’s sustainability report.

Credit Suisse spokesman Yannick Orto noted that business transactions with companies from sensitive sectors and industries are subject to a reputational risk review process, which considers the rights of local communities and environmental implications. “Credit Suisse regularly engages in dialogue with NGOs and other stakeholders in this regard,” he said.

Nornickel factory
 Kola Mining and Metallurgical Company, isa unit of Russia’s metals and mining company Nornickel. It operates in the town of Monchegorsk on the Kola Peninsula, above the Polar Circle. AFP

Swiss meetings about pollution 

While in Switzerland, three Russian indigenous rights activists met representatives of both Credit Suisse and UBS with help from the Bern branch of STP. But they encountered closed doors at Nornickel’s subsidiary company Metal Trade Overseas AG in Zug, a low-tax Swiss canton popular with commodity traders. They hoped these companies would take responsibility and push Nornickel to change course.

“If you invest in a company doing dodgy business that violates human rights and land rights, you should be prepared to bear shared responsibility for what is going on at the local level,” said Sulyandziga.

Around 10,000 indigenous people live on the Taymyr Peninsula, where Norilsk is located. Nornickel also has a production site in Russia’s eastern Kola Peninsula where the Saami people live. In both regions, pollution by the company is seen as a direct threat to the indigenous way of life.

“They do not want to cooperate with us,” says Andrey Danilov, director of the Saami Heritage and Development Fund who took part in a panel discussion organised by STP in the Swiss capital Bern. “This company is presenting untruthful information to its investors and the global community. So we came to inform its partners in Switzerland ourselves.”

Russia’s Norilsk smelter complex in the Arctic Circle has the highest sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the world, according to satellite data from US space agency NASA commissioned by Greenpeace. The smelters are responsible for more than 50% all SO2 emissions across Russia.

Other environmental incidents in the region include the leaking of iron oxides from Norilsk’s Nadeja plant which “turned the Daldykan river red”, according to STP. 

An industrial accident at a Nornickel processing plant in Norilsk also killed three people and wounded three others in February this year.

“The nature is poisoned, a part of the Sami soul is poisoned,” said Danilov, who describes a lunar landscape with water and land contaminated within a 30-kilometre radius of the city of Monchegorsk, home to a Nornickel refining hub. “We are already at the edge of the Earth. There is nowhere else that we go. We want to save our people and pass on what our ancestors passed on.”

Map Russian Arctic and Nornickel area

Empty gestures?

In a March 21 letter to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Nornickel acknowledged there are “legacy issues” and took “full responsibility” for the diesel spill. It claims to have collected over 90% of the leaked fuel. 

“Changes do take time, but we are fully resolved to see them through and make sure that both our employees and local communities feel safe and fully supported,” the company stated in the letter. Nornickel has also paid a record fine of around CHF1.8 billion (146.2 billion rubles) in damages to the Russian government.

In the same letter, the multinational mentions paying direct compensation worth 174 million rubles to 699 individuals whose livelihoods depend on fishing in the Lake Pyasino and Pyasina river (an average salary in Russia stands at about 50,000 rubles). It also points to cooperation agreements signed with three indigenous associations. 

“Nornickel respects the rights, traditions, long-standing values and interests of Indigenous northern minorities inhabiting the Company’s regions of operation,” the company told swissinfo.ch. “We have a long history of support for these Indigenous communities, and we enjoy close cooperation with organisations representing their interests, ensuring transparency in decision-making and that joint projects are implemented in the most efficient manner possible. 

Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the independent Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North.
 Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the independent Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North. swissinfo.ch

International Oversight

Sulyandziga says the company engages in dialogue with representatives that are under the control of the company or state, rather than the directly affected communities. He also points to the challenges of independent monitoring in such a remote region where Nornickel is the dominant player.  “The airport and all kinds of infrastructure are controlled by Nornickel,” he says. “It is not so easy to fight with a big company like Nornickel [which] is very close to Moscow.”

The activists also met with Swiss government officials during their visit. They found a sympathetic ear in Ambassador Stefan Estermann, who represents Switzerland as an observer nation on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body gathering the eight governments and indigenous representatives of the Arctic. 

“It is important that the Peoples of the Arctic are fully consulted regarding any extractive or mining activity,” he said, the ambassador said, pointing to a 2007 United Nations declaration.

He also noted the need for Swiss companies operating in the region to carry out human rights due diligence, examining “impacts that they may cause or contribute to through their own activities, or which may be directly linked to their operations, products or services or by their business relationships.”

When Russia assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May, it set sustainable development as a top priority — one that will need to be balanced against ambitious resource extraction goals. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled $300 billion in incentives for new oil and gas projects north of the Arctic Circle.

“The Nornickel industrial and environmental disaster has highlighted several challenges affecting the Arctic region,” said Estermann. 

“Economic activity is growing in the region, particularly because rapid changes are underway in the Arctic. As a result, the risk of disaster is increasing and, if a disaster does occur, the impacts and costs are quickly high, for the industry responsible, the affected populations and the fragile ecosystems.”


Maya Peoples of Belize Win Lawsuit against Belize Government for Violating Land Rights

On June 16, 2021, the Supreme Court of Belize ruled in favor of Maya land rights, upholding the community of Jalacte’s right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) on their customary lands. The court issued a decision in the case, Jalacte Village vs. the Attorney General, ruling that the government breached the Maya Peoples’ constitutional rights, obligating the government of Belize to return the lands that had been taken without the community’s consent and ordering compensation of the equivalent of $3.12 million USD.  

The court also found that the government was in breach of a consent order of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), the highest international appellate court to which Belize is party. In 2015, the Maya people won an unprecedented victory at that court, in a decision which held that the Maya Peoples of Belize hold customary land rights over the land that they occupy, which is equal to any other form of land ownership in Belize and is constitutionally protected. 

“This is very important for all Maya communities. We have a duty to ensure that we protect the rights that we fought for in the court of Belize,” shared the President of the Toledo Alcaldes Association, Domingo Ba, in a press conference following the court decision. Cristina Coc, spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance and the Toledo Alcaldes Association, continued, “One more time, the court of Belize have agreed that the Maya people, have agreed with us, that we own our lands, through our customary use and that we can manage our lands through our customary decision making processes.” 

Photo courtesy of Maya Leaders Alliance.

The land in question included 31.36 acres near the Guatemalan border of Southern Belize, where the government had usurped land to expand a road leading to the Guatemalan border and build a border checkpoint. This land is under customary use, and therefore ownership, of the Maya village of Jalacte. The case was originally filed in 2016 by the traditionally elected representative of the village, “First Alcalde” Jose Ical on behalf of the village and by a second claimant, Estevan Caal, on whose land an agricultural border checkpoint was constructed.

The evidence presented to the court is that Caal held “individual customary proprietary right” to parcels of village land used by him based on Jalacte’s collective property rights. At no time were the villagers consulted nor compensated for the taking of the customary land.

In the court’s decision, Chief Justice Arana wrote: “This case should never have arisen. The defendants, that is the government of Belize, were aware of Maya customary land tenure along the route of the road in Jalacte. They were aware that agricultural lands would be damaged and compensation would be needed. They were aware of the Maya fears that the new road would increase pressure on their land tenure by outsiders. And they were aware that it was a constitutional violation to ignore Maya customary rights of Jalacte.”

Photo courtesy of Maya Leaders Alliance.

Since the Caribbean Court of Justice’s 2015 decision, the traditional governance structure of the Maya people, the Toledo Alcaldes Association, with technical support by the Maya Leaders Alliance and Julian Cho Society, have been working with the government, with varying degrees of success, to negotiate an implementation plan for the decision and put it into practice.

“The Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) and the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) congratulate the village of Jalacte on their resilience and unity as they awaited a decision in their case in the Belize Supreme Court concerning the compulsory acquisition and use of their lands by the Government. One more time, the courts of Belize sided with the Maya People that they are owners of the land they live on. The TAA and the MLA remain committed to a swift and meaningful implementation of the CCJ Consent Order,” the Maya Leaders Alliance shared on social media.

Part of that implementation order is the development of a Free, Prior and Informed Consent protocol. This has been in progress since 2018, when the government of Belize and the Maya people entered into the December 2018 Agreement, considered a roadmap for implementing Maya land rights in accordance with the Caribbean Court of Justice decision was finally reached. This FPIC protocol is based on a previously established consultation framework established by Maya traditional leadership, which has set an example for many Indigenous communities around the world. Although now in a final draft, the FPIC protocol has been unable to advance due to objections by the Belizean government denying the authority of the traditional governance structure of the Toledo Alcaldes Association, although this violates Indigenous Peoples’ established right to self-determine their own forms of governance. The Toledo Alcaldes Association is the traditional form of governance of the Maya people that has evolved over time, uniting the elected and customary leaders of the Maya communities to represent the interest of Maya Peoples. 

Spokesperson Cristina Coc notes that cases like Jalacte vs. Attorney General will continue to arise in the absence of an established and agreed upon policy around the protocols for obtaining the community’s Free, Prior and Informed Consent, according to their traditional decision making protocols and governance structures, before development or infrastructure projects are undertaken on their lands. 

“Many of the complaints from our villages fundamentally rest on the absence of an FPIC protocol. Many of these incursions by third parties… of the government itself, is because there is an absence of an FPIC protocol that could guide how they should engage with the Maya communities, consult them, seek their Free, Prior and Informed Consent, how that will result in benefit sharing agreements that would be important to preserve the livelihood, health, and enjoyment of the Maya Peoples’ lands,” Coc declared.

Coc emphasized that Maya Peoples continue to seek dialogue and cooperation with the government: “We, the Maya people, the customary leaders, continue to be open to dialogue and good faith relations with the government of Belize. We call on the government to come to the table with us and to meaningfully implement the affirmed rights of the Maya people of southern Belize.”


Siberia, Protest and Politics: Shaman Alexander in Danger

In 2021 a modest long-haired Sakha man named Alexander Gabyshev was arrested at his family compound on the outskirts of Yakutsk in an unprecedented for Sakha Republic (Yakutia) show-of-force featuring nine police cars and over 50 police. For the third time in two years, he was subjected to involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Some analysts see this medicalized punishment, increasingly common in President Putin’s 4th term, as a return to the politicized use of clinics that had been prevalent against dissidents in the Soviet period. Alexander’s hair was cut, and his dignity demeaned. By April, his health had seriously deteriorated, allegedly through use of debilitating drugs, and his sister feared for his life. A private video of his arrest (possibly filmed by a sympathetic Sakha policeman) shows police overwhelming him in bed as if they were expecting a wild animal; he was forced to the floor bleeding, and handcuffed. Official media claimed he had resisted arrest using a traditional Sakha knife, but this is not evident on the video. By May, a trial in Yakutsk affirmed the legality of his arrest, and a further criminal case was brought against him using the Russian criminal code article 280 against extremism. Appeals are pending, including one accepted by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

What had elicited such official vehemence against an opposition figure who had dared to critique President Putin but whose powers and influence were relatively minor, compared to prominent Russians like Aleksei Naval’ny? How did a localized movement in far-from-Moscow Siberia become well-known across Russia and beyond? 

In his 2018–2019 meteoric rise to national and international attention, Alexander Prokopievich Gabyshev, also called “Shaman Alexander,” “Sasha shaman,” and “Sania,” came to mean many things to many people. For some, he is a potent symbol of protest against a corrupt regime led by a president he calls “a demon.” For others, he has become a coopted tool in some part of the government’s diabolical security system, set to attract followers so that they can be exposed and repressed. Some feel he is a “brave fellow” (molodets), “speaking truth to power” in a refreshingly articulate voice devoid of egotism. Others see him as misguided and psychologically unstable, made “crazy” by a tragic life that includes the death of his beloved wife before they could have children. Some accept him into the Sakha shamanic tradition, arguing his suffering and two–three years spent in the taiga after his wife’s death qualify him as a leader and healer who endured “spirit torture” in order to serve others. Others, including some Sakha and Buryat shamans, reject him as a charlatan whose education as an historian was wasted when he became a welder, street cleaner, and plumber.

These and many other interpretations are debated by my Russian and non-Russian friends with a passion that at minimum reveals he has touched a nerve in Russia’s body politic. It is worth describing how Alexander, born in 1968, describes himself and his mission as a “warrior shaman” before analyzing his significance and his peril.

Alexander’s Movement

Picture Alexander on foot pushing a gurney and surrounded by well-wishers, walking a mountainous highway before being arrested by masked armed police for “extremism” in September 2019. Among over a hundred internet video clips of Alexander’s epic journey from Yakutsk to Ulan-Ude via Chita, is an interview from Shaman on the Move! (June 12, 2019):

I asked, beseeched God, to give me witness and insight….I went into the taiga [after my wife had died of a dreadful disease ten years ago]….It is hard for a Yakut [Sakha person] to live off the land, not regularly eating meat and fish….I came out of the forest a warrior shaman….To the people of Russia, I say “choose for yourself a normal leader,… young, competent”….To the leaders of the regions, I say “take care of your local people and the issues they care about and give them freedom.”…To the people, I say “don’t be afraid of that freedom.” We are endlessly paying, paying out….Will our resources last for our grandchildren? Not at the rate we are going… Give simple people bank credit.. . Let everyone have free education and the chance to choose their careers freely.. . There should not be prisons….But we in Russia [rossiiane] have not achieved this yet, far from it…Our prisons are terrifying….At least make the prisons humane…. For our small businesses, let them flourish before taking taxes from them. Just take taxes from the big, rich businesses….For our agriculture, do not take taxes from people with only a few cows….Take from only the big agro-business enterprises.[1]

In this interview and others, Alexander made clear he is patriotic, a citizen of Russia, who wants to purify its leadership. “Let the world want to be like us in Russia,” he proclaimed, “We need young, free, open leadership.” While he explains that “for a shaman, authority is anathema,” he has praised the relatively young and dynamic head of Sakha Republic: “Aisen [Nikolaev] is a simple person at heart who wants to defend his people, but he is constrained, under the fear of the demon in power [in the Kremlin].” Alexander acknowledges the route he has chosen is difficult, and that many will try to stop him. Indeed he began his “march to Moscow” three separate times, once in 2018 and twice in 2019, including after his arrest when he temporarily slipped away from house arrest in December 2019, was rearrested and fined.

Alexander’s 2021 arrest, described in the opening paragraph, was hastened by his refusal to cooperate with medical personnel as a psychiatric outpatient, and further provoked when he announced he would once again try to reach Moscow, this time on a white horse with a caravan of followers. His video announcement of the new plans, with a photo of him galloping on his white horse carrying an old Sakha warrior’s standard, mentioned that he would begin his Spring renewal journey by visiting the sacred lands of his ancestors in the Viliui (Suntar) territories, “source of my strength.” He encouraged followers to join him, since “truth is with us.”[2] A multiethnic group of followers launched plans to gather sympathizers in a marathon car, van and bus motorcade. Their route was designated to pass through the sacred Altai Mountains region of Southern Siberia. What had begun as a quirky political action on foot acquired the character of a media-savvy pilgrimage.

At moments of peak rhetoric, Alexander often explained that “for freedom you need to struggle.” Into 2021, he hoped to achieve his goal of reaching Red Square to perform his “exorcism ritual.” But his arrests and re-confinement in a psychiatric clinic under punishing “close observation” conditions make that increasingly unlikely, especially given massive crackdowns on all of President Putin’s opponents, including Aleksei Naval’ny and his many supporters. One of Alexander’s most telling early barbs critiqued the “political intelligentsia,” who hold “too many meetings” and do not accomplish enough. He told them: “It is time to stop deceiving us.” Yet he repeated in many interviews that numerous politicians in Russia, across the political spectrum, would be better alternatives than the current occupant of the Kremlin.

Among Alexander’s most controversial actions before he was arrested was a rally and ritual held in Chita in July 2019, on a microphone-equipped stage under the banner “Return the Town and Country to the People.” After watching the soft-spoken and articulate Alexander on the internet for months, I was amazed to see him adopt a more crowd-rousing style, asking hundreds of diverse multiethnic demonstrators to chant, “That is the law” (Eto zakon!) even before he told them what they would be answering in a “call and response” exchange. He bellowed, “give us self-determination,” and the crowd answered, “That is the law.” He cried, “give us freedom to choose our local administrations,” and the crowd answered, “That is the law.” His finale included “Putin has no control over you! Live free!” Only after this rally did I begin to wonder who, if anyone, was coaching him and why. Had he changed in the process of walking, gaining loyal followers, and talking to myriad media? The rally, with crowd estimates from seven hundred to one thousand, had been organized by the local Communist Party opposition. Local Russian Orthodox authorities denounced it and suggested that Alexander was psychologically unwell. Alexander himself simply said, after his arrest, “It is impossible to sit home when a demon is in the Kremlin.”

How and why was Alexander using discourses of demonology? He seemed to be articulating Russian and Sakha beliefs in a society that can be undermined by evil out of control. When he first emerged from the forest, he built a small chapel-memorial in honor of his beloved wife and talked in rhetoric that made connections as much to Russian Orthodoxy as to shamanic tradition. He wore eclectic t-shirts, including one that referenced Cuba and another the petroglyph horse-and-rider seal of the Sakha Republic. Once he began his trek, he wore a particularly striking t-shirt eventually mass-produced for his followers. Called “Arrive and Exorcise,” it was made for him by the Novosibirsk artist Konstantin Eremenko and rendered his face onto an icon-like halo.

Another popular image depicts Alexander as an angel with wings. He has called himself a “Holy Fool,” correlating his brazen actions and protest ideology directly to a Russian iurodivy tradition that enabled poor, dirty, beggar-like tricksters to speak disrespectful truths to tsars. His appeals to God were ambiguous—purposely referencing the God of Orthodoxy and the Sky Gods of the Turkic Heavens (Tengri) in his speeches. During his trek, and in some of his interviews, he has had paint on his face, a thunderbolt zigzag under his eyes and across the bridge of his nose that he calls a “sign of lightning,” derived from his spiritual awakening after meditation in the forest. He has claimed, as a “warrior shaman,” that he is fated to harness spirit power to heal social ills. While his emphasis has been on social ills that begin with the top leadership, he also has been willing to pray and place healing hands on the head of a Buryat woman complaining of chronic headaches, who afterwards joyously pronounced herself cured.

During his trek, on camera and off at evening campsites, Alexander fed the fire spirit pure white milk products, especially kumys (fermented mare’s milk), while offering prayers in the Sakha “white shaman” tradition that he hoped to bring to Red Square for a benevolent ritual not only of exorcism but of forgiveness and blessing. He chanted: “Go, Go, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. Go of your own free will . . . Only God can judge you. Urui Aikhal!” He expressed pride that some of the Sakha female shamans and elders have blessed his endeavor.

Resonance and Danger

Russian observers, including well-known politicians and eclectic citizens commenting online or on camera, have had wildly divergent reactions to Alexander, sometimes laughing and mocking his naïve, provincial, or perceived weirdo (chudak) persona. But some take him seriously, including the opposition politician Leonid Gozman, President of the All-Russia movement Union of Just Forces. Leonid, admiring Alexander’s bravery, sees significance in how many supporters fed and sheltered him along his nearly two-thousand-kilometer trek before he was arrested. Rather than resenting him for insulting Russia’s wealthy and powerful president, whose survey ratings have plummeted, Alexander’s followers rallied and protected him with a base broader than many opposition politicians have been able to pull together.

As elsewhere in Russia, civic society mobilizers, whether for ecology protests, anti-corruption campaigns or other causes, are becoming savvy at hiding and sharing leadership.  By 2021, Alexander had become one of many imprisoned oppositionists, whose numbers throughout Russia have swelled beyond the prisoners of conscience documented when the great physicist Andrei Sakharov was exiled to Gorky in 1985.[3]

Alexander, despite being subdued beyond recognition after multiple arrests, has affirmed that he was hoping for “neither chaos nor revolution, [since] this is the twenty-first century.” He advocates for his followers an “open world, [of ] peace, freedom and solidarity,” one where all people believing in benevolent “higher forces” can find them. His significance is that he is one of the credible politicized spiritual leaders to emerge from Russia in the post-Soviet period, when in the past twenty years the costs of independent leadership have become increasingly dire, self-sacrifice is increasingly necessary, and multi-leveled community building with horizontal interconnections is increasingly risky.

Whether or not defined as religious or shamanic, the bravery and force of individuals willing to risk everything to change social conditions is awesome, transcending and human wherever we find it. Far from insane, these maverick societal shape-changers, tricksters and healers may represent our best power-diversifying hopes against systems that pull in directions of authoritarian repression. Perhaps once-populist power consolidating leaders like Vladimir Putin, who warily watch their public opinion ratings, are insecure enough to understand the deep systemic weaknesses that oppositionists like Alexander Gabyshev and Alexei Naval’ny expose, using very different styles along a sacred-secular continuum. President Putin’s insecurities magnify the importance of all political opposition, creating vortexes of violence and dangers of martyrdom in the name of stability.


[1] Many Alexander videos have disappeared from the internet, and others are private access. The series “Shaman idet!” [Shaman on the Move], and “Put’ shamana,” [Shaman’s Path] are especially relevant, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1jE71TAqZw, July 22, 2019 (accessed 6/18/2021). Shaman idet! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPrb_1nWXtE, June 12, 2019 was accessed when released and 3/19/2020. See also “Shaman protiv Putin” [Shaman vs. Putin], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfTEtiqDf6U, June 24, 2019 (accessed 7/3/2019); “Pochemu Kremlin ob”iavil voinu Shamanu—Grazhdanskaia oborona” [Why Did the Kremlin Fight the Shaman- Civil Defense] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7OVy2ROASQ  (accessed 3/15/2020); and Oleg Boldyrev’s BBC interview September 24, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0LaLhkKj2g  (accessed 3/15/2020).

[2] Alexander described plans for the aborted 2021 journey: youtube.com/watch?v=YK0LlFAjx3E (accessed 1/15/2021).  See also https://meduza.io/en/news/2021/01/12/yakut-shaman-alexander-gabyshev-announces-new-cross-country-campaign-on-horseback (accessed 6/4/2021).

[3] This Soviet and post-Soviet imprisonment comparison comes from brave opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, himself poisoned twice, in a human rights review for the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/heightened-political-repression-russia-conversation-vladimir-kara-murza (accessed 6/18/2021).  


Inuit-a unique experience of development


June 30, 2021, at 10 am New York time, will be held an international webinar “Inuit-a unique experience of development”, organized by the International Indigenous Fund for development and solidarity “BATANI”.

The Inuit are the indigenous people of the Arctic who live in four countries – Denmark / Greenland, USA, Canada and Russia.

This webinar will aim to introduce Indigenous peoples from different regions of the world to the experiences of the Inuit people in various aspects of their livsfe and work.

At the same time, the uniqueness of such an experience will lie in the fact that the representatives of this people (politicians, businessmen, public and state leaders) will talk about self-government, the social and economic development of their people, and will share their personal experience of participation in the life of their people. The uniqueness of the Inuit experience also lies in the fact that, living in different countries, they were able to build and develop their own self-government bodies, build their own economy, build their own relationships with the governments of these countries.

And at the same time, Inuit are active internationally, promoting the rights of indigenous peoples in international instruments, showing solidarity with indigenous peoples from other regions of the world. Inuit are an important part of the international negotiation process related to climate change and biodiversity conservation.

To participate, please fill out the registration form: https://forms.gle/BTXivEBQCn9NPbqv5

A link to participate will be sent two days before the meeting to all registered participants. Simultaneous interpretation in Russian and English will be provided at the meeting.


Dalee Sambo Dorough, PhD Chair / INUIT CIRCUMPOLAR COUNCIL

Dr. Dorough has a long history of direct involvement in the discussion, debate, and negotiation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). She was an active participant in this work from 1984 up to the adoption of the UNDRIP on September 13, 2007.  Dr. Dorough was also a direct participant in the two-year revision process of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 107, which resultedin the adoption of C169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries on June 27, 1989, by the ILO. She also specializes in Alaska Native self-determination and has extensive experience in the administration, management and coordination of statewide, national and international organizations as well as estimating and oversight of federal, state, and private construction contracting as the former President of Yellowknife Construction, Inc.

Tove Søvndahl Gant, Expert Member and rapporteur of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Greenland.

Ms. Tove Søvndahl Gant is an official of the Government of Greenland, where she is a senior advisor at its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As an official of the Greenland Government and in close cooperation with the Danish government, she has followed all key UN processes pertaining Indigenous peoples for three decades. From 2014-2020, Tove was seconded to the Human rights division of the European External Action Service in Brussels. Besides holding the portfolio on indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide, she was also responsible for a range of other human rights files such as, inter alia, the combatting of racism and xenophobia, non-discrimination, the rights of persons with disabilities and human rights and environment. In August 2021, Tove will move to Iceland to take up the post as the Chief of the Greenland Representation in Reykjavik.

Pita Aatami, President Makivik Corporation, Canada.

“A tireless symbol of Inuit progress and sovereignty in the North, Pita Aatami has shaped policies that have uplifted and strengthened social, economic and political progress for the Inuit that will serve for generations. The broad range of his policy leadership in the North, in business, education, politics, social progress and community development, and the broad impact of the causes he has championed and of his approach to championing those causes makes him a great leader.” Recipient of the Order of Canada 2020; Honorary member of the CIERA Arctic Research of Laval University, In 2007 – Hero of the year of Reader’s Digest, Recipient of the Gold Award of the Canadian Environment Awards in Environment.

Dialogues about Rights

Director of the Batani Foundation Pavel Sulyandziga discusses the 30-ty years process of negotiations between the Udege indigenous community and authorities on the creation of the «Bikin» natural park in Primorsky Krai. The guest of the YouTube broadcast «Dialogues about Rights» is a prominent Russian environmentalist Alexandr Lebedev, the director of the environmental NGO «Brok» and a member of the Sosnovka coalition.

Russian activists demand action on Nornickel spill

One year ago a fuel storage tank at Norilsk-Taimyr Energy’s Thermal Power Plant No. 3  failed, flooding rivers in northern Russia with up to 17,500 tonnes of diesel oil. Indigenous representatives from Russia’s Far North recently visited Switzerland’s capital to demand action from the Swiss-based subsidiary of the company responsible as well as banks who invest in it.

Gennady Schtschukin, a representative of the Dolgan people, and Andrey Danilov, a delegate from the Sami people on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, appeared at an event in Bern hosted by the Society for Threatened Peoples to discuss the fallout from the second-largest oil spill in modern Russian history. They called on Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), the owner of the power plant whose subsidiary has its headquarters in the Swiss canton of Zug, to work more closely with their communities to improve the situation. 

Nornickel and Swiss banks

Nornickel is the world’s leading producer of refined nickel and palladium with a turnover of $14 billion (CHF12.5 billion). The metals it produces are essential to the booming electric car industry. Switzerland’s largest banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, are together among the ten largest investors in Nornickel, according to the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples. 

In a March 21 letter to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Nornickel acknowledged there are “legacy issues” and took “full responsibility” for the diesel spill. It claims to have collected over 90% of the leaked fuel. 

In the same letter, the multinational mentions paying direct compensation worth 174 million roubles (CHF2.2 million) to 699 individuals whose livelihoods depend on fishing Lake Pyasino and the River Pyasina. It also points to cooperation agreements signed with three indigenous associations. 

As of April 2021, Switzerland’s largest bank UBS held shares and bonds in Nornickel worth $45 million, according to data compiled by Profundo, a Dutch research group. Credit Suisse has equity corresponding to $27 million in stocks and bonds. It has also issued $268 million in loans. 

While in Switzerland, Danilov and met representatives of both Credit Suisse and UBS with help from the Bern branch of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP). But they encountered closed doors at Nornickel’s subsidiary company Metal Trade Overseas AG in Zug, a low-tax Swiss canton popular with commodity traders. 

SWI swissinfo.ch spoke to them about the responsibility of governments and transnational corporations towards small indigenous communities, Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and how last year’s disaster unfolded.

SWI swissinfo.ch: Why did you come to Switzerland?

Andrei Danilov: The reason for our visit was the company Norilsk Nickel. More precisely, the company’s failure to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and its violation of environmental norms in Russia. Our aim was to make the international community aware of the fact that the company does not respect the rights of indigenous people. 

So we came to inform the partners (of Norilsk Nickel) in Switzerland ourselves, but they refused to meet us. 

SWI swissinfo.ch: How serious was the Norilsk Nickel accident?

Gennady Schtschukin: Even President Vladimir Putin spoke personally and brought the issue to the federal level. But they concealed [the catastrophe] for two days. After that, they had to organise the decontamination of the affected areas and take measures to prevent the fuel from going further. Of course, they managed to remove most of it [from the environment], but a lot of it landed at the bottom of the river. And it’s very difficult to remove from there.

The ecological disaster was visible even from space. SRF-SWI

SWI swissinfo.ch: What led to the disaster? Outdated infrastructure and equipment? 

Gennady Schtschukin: It’s all about the old technologies left over from the Soviet Union. They are still in use. Everything is taken out of the ground in terms of minerals, and this happens until the old machinery just begins to crumble. On May 29, 2020, that boiler burst. I’m not an environmental engineer, but I can say that after the affected areas were cleaned and reclaimed, there were no fish. That means the clean-up work was not well done.  

It’s quite possible that Norilsk Nickel simply does not have the appropriate technology. In this case, part of the responsibility lies with governments. And we’re not just talking about penalties, we’re talking about special programmes to protect indigenous communities and the consequences must be financed by the state. Because otherwise we simply will not have means of livelihood. We will not have fish; we will not have meat. We will not be able to survive in Arctic conditions. 

SWI swissinfo.ch: What is life like in Russia’s Far North, and what’s the potential for dialogue with the government and companies operating there?

Andrey Danilov: Russia’s two-year presidency of the Arctic Council starts right now. There are a lot of documents and regulations including the Arctic Development Strategy until 2035, but they do not even mention indigenous people and their interests! These documents mention corporations, but nothing at all about people. 

Companies and other entities which get money and tax breaks for “development” in the region just end up siphoning off resources from the Arctic and do not even think about entering a dialogue with indigenous peoples. The documents say that they “can” have a dialogue but do not oblige anybody to do anything. 

In the Soviet era, attention was paid to indigenous peoples because it was politically important for the whole country. It was necessary to say: “Look how our state protects the small communities of the North, no one can go there and do whatever they want without an agreement with the local population and authorities”. And now everything is given to corporations.

SWI swissinfo.ch: Do you think your coming here to Switzerland will have any effect? 

Gennady Schtschukin: I’m sure of it. Our partners [at the Society for Threatened Peoples] have taken us under their wing and are watching our security. They will turn to certain local companies that invest in projects implemented [in our regions]. In general, they will address the issues related to the situation of indigenous peoples [of the Russian Far North]. So, I think there will be a result!


Manganese matters

A metal of consequence for women and communities in South Africa affected by mining and the global energy transition

Manganese has been identified as one of the key minerals for the realisation of the energy transition needed to address the climate crisis. It is, however, important that the transition and thus the increasing need for certain minerals and metals such as manganese does not exacerbate or create new negative impacts for local communities, particularly women and youth in South Africa, the country with the world biggest manganese reserves.

For this research we conducted field research in the Kalahari Manganese Field (which hosts 18 of the 22 manganese mining companies in South Africa) to detect and analyse the impacts of mining activities on the local communities and their environment. Simultaneously, the supply chain was mapped to understand how manganese mining in South Africa reaches the Netherlands and Europe, with a specific
focus on steel and low carbon technologies: wind, electric vehicles, and energy storage.

Through general surveys, individual interviews and focus groups it was concluded that the communities in the Kalahari Manganese Field are deprived of their rights to water, safe and accessible healthcare, FPIC and participatory governance. Community members, many of whom have experienced waves of mining booms throughout their entire lives, expect only the worst from the current boom in manganese mining. They contend with less and less water even as large-scale, innovative pipelines are built around them to serve the needs of mines. They live with illness and chronic stress about their own and their families’ health, nervously anticipating the almost-daily blasts and the
repercussions thereof (including damage to dwellings and release of hazardous asbestos from housing materials).

The Netherlands imports manganese in many forms, including as manganese ore, manganese alloys (used for steelmaking) and as manganese metal (key input for producing batteries). In 2019 alone, the Netherlands imported 63 kilo tonnes of manganese ore of which 70% came directly from South Africa. The Netherlands is the world’s fourth largest importer of ferromanganese, which is a key alloy to produce steel. The Netherlands also imports manganese as part of finished products such as lithium batteries. A big part of all manganese that is imported to and consumed in the Netherlands and Europe originates in South Africa, which dominates global production and has the largest reserves and resources. In fact, around a third of all European imports of manganese comes from South Africa. Indirectly, the share is much bigger as manganese from South Africa also reaches the Netherlands after being refined in China and Norway.

Dutch and European importing of manganese originating in the Kalahari Manganese Field is likely to continue, as 75% of the manganese global resources are located there. European countries, the automotive industry, battery manufacturers and wind energy companies therefore all have a responsibility to ensure that the manganese they source does not cause, contribute or is linked to human rights violations and environmental degradation.


The COVID 19 impact on indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East

An extended report by Aborigen-Forum, Centre for the Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Arctic Consult, and Batani foundation.

This is extended report prepared by Gennady Schukin (Aborigen-Forum, Russia), Rodion Sulyandziga, PhD (Centre for the Support of indigenous Peoples of the North, Russia), Dmitry Berezhkov (Arctic Consult, Norway) and Pavel Sulyandziga, PhD (Batani Foundation, US) based on the Aborigen-Forum position paper “COVID-19 in Russia. The impact on indigenous peoples’ communities”, prepared for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Arctic Consult report “Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North and COVID 19: Challenges in Achieving the SDGs” prepared for the Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education “Tebtebba Foundation.”

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia at the end of March 2020. That was later than for most European countries and gave the Government time to prepare adequately for the health and economic crisis. Russian authorities implemented some measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including closing the border with China, but have failed to stop the infection, which started from big cities that linked closely with European capitals and resorts.

The Russian Federation is a vast country that has weak and expensive transport linkages between regions. That prevented the quick spread of the virus in remote territories of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East where indigenous peoples live. However, later it was brought to the Northern regions in abundance by the workers of industrial companies who are regularly coming to traditional lands of indigenous peoples being riched by natural resources for extracting oil, gas, and other raw materials.

Over some time, the virus had come to remote indigenous territories. However, there were not many disease outbreaks in indigenous communities, fortunately, because of the quarantine measures for the workers of extractive industries who are not able to visit nearby villages. At the same time, extractive companies did not stop the work and failed to implement adequate preventive measures against the epidemic, so industrial projects continue to be the primary source of the COVID-19 in Russia’s Northern territories where indigenous peoples live.

The health care system in Russia was not prepared well for the virus spread. It was also reformed recently by the Russian Government, which resulted in a catastrophic reduction of the medical facilities, especially in rural and remote regions, which are home for indigenous peoples.

The response measures implemented by the Russian government put some indigenous communities in a stressful situation because of the cut connections between different parts of society. According to the numerous independent researches, the state economic support of Russian citizens during the forced quarantine downtime was not adequate. Its receiving was hampered by numerous bureaucratic obstacles that were especially difficult for vulnerable groups, including indigenous people.

Even during the COVID-19 crisis, some state officials tried to use the response measures to promote their own political agenda, while violating free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and their right on self-determination, which is the long-time trend in today’s Russia.

In general, the outbreak of COVID-19 became a severe threat to the sustainable development of indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East. The remoteness and transport isolation of indigenous communities became an advantage during the first phase of the COVID-19 spread but could be aggravating factors in the future.


“Our proposals for improvements are ignored by Nornickel”

A delegation of indigenous representatives from Russia visited Switzerland At the occasion of the first-year anniversary of the disastrous diesel oil spill in the Russian Arctic, three representatives of indigenous communities from Russia visited Switzerland for one week.

The goal was on the one hand to draw attention specifically to the dire consequences of the diesel oil spill on their traditional way of life and on the other hand to point out to Swiss politics, authorities, and investors how their political and financial actions affect the lives of indigenous peoples in Russia. The reason for the visit is the refusal of the company Nornickel to engage in a dialogue with indigenous communities affected by its business activities.

On May 29th 2020, 21’000 Tonnes of diesel oil spilled into the tundra close to the city of Norilsk, at one of two production sites of Nornickel in the Russian Arctic. The diesel oil polluted major bodies of water, which serve several indigenous communities as a source of drinking water and as fishing grounds to support their traditional way of life.

One year later, those communities now still face a shortage of food and are not able to pursue their economic activities like trading fish and meat as they could before the catastrophe.

Nornickel discredits indigenous activists A Russian court pronounced Nornickel the highest fine ever imposed in Russia for environmental crimes and the company made compensation payments to some communities earlier this year.

However, the compensation was not paid to all those affected and not in the amount promised. Instead of negotiating with all affected indigenous communities, Nornickel discredits various indigenous activists because of their commitment to their communities.

“Our proposals for improvements are ignored by Nornickel,” says the indigenous leader Gennady Shchukin.

Meetings with Swiss investors and confronting the Swiss subsidiary As the company Nornickel is not willing to include the demands of indigenous communities into their plans of mitigating the impacts of the pollution as well as negotiating about the payments for compensation and development of the communities, three indigenous representatives, Gennady Shchukin, Andrei Danilov and Rodion Sulyandziga visited Switzerland in the first week of June 2021. Together with the Swiss NGO Society for Threatened Peoples, they met with two major Swiss Banks, the UBS and the Credit Suisse. Both of them together are among the ten largest lenders to Nornickel.

The visiting delegation calls on the banks to make use of their leverage and to demand the respect of indigenous peoples rights from their business partners.

“We hope that we will be better heard in Switzerland and that the situation of the indigenous people in the Russian Arctic will finally improve as a result”, says Rodion Sulyandziga.

In addition, the delegation wanted to visit the Swiss subsidiary of Nornickel, Metal Trade Overseas SA, but they came up in front of closed doors. The indigenous representatives demand that the company exert its influence on the parent group so that it respects the rights of indigenous peoples in its business activities. They also want the company to adequately compensate the communities for the massive environmental damage caused by the diesel oil spill and take measures to prevent further environmental pollution.

Arctic resource boom worsens situation of indigenous peoples The oil spill in May 2020 shows that indigenous communities’ claims to their ancestral lands, to self-determination and to a place at the negotiation table are being neglected in the context of the increasing resource boom in the Arctic. With its wealth of resources, which are becoming more accessible due to global warming, the region is attracting the attention of states and corporations.

They are looking for a lucrative deal on previously untapped natural resources, which are also needed for the production and use of renewable energies and the manufacturing of batteries.

Putin’s Climate Envoy Should Be Persona Non Grata

He’s no climate expert, but he’s a champion when it comes to repression.

John Kerry’s Russian counterpart has blood on his hands. Kerry, President Obama’s secretary of state and his chief negotiator for the Paris climate accord, now serves as President Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. His Russian counterpart is Ruslan Edelgeriyev, Vladimir Putin’s Special Presidential Envoy on Climate Change. Edelgeriyev has held his position since July of 2018. He has virtually no history with the climate change issue but does have a long and illustrious association with human rights violations.

Kerry first met with Edelgeriyev virtually, on March 3. From now on, Kerry and Secretary of State Antony Blinken should avoid him at all costs. When President Biden meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June, Biden should make clear to Putin that, as far as the United States is concerned, Edelgeriyev is persona non grata.

Edelgeriyev’s official background lists a vaguely defined ten-year stint in Russia’s “law enforcement system,” lasting until 2004. Intriguing as that may be, it is his activity afterwards that raises eyebrows. From 2008 to 2018 Edelgeriyev was deputy prime minister and then prime minister of the Chechen Republic. The head of state of this North Caucasus republic is strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. Edelgeriyev was Kadyrov’s right-hand man for many years and, as such, is more than complicit in the Chechen leader’s grotesque violations of human rights and common decency.

In an extraordinary step in 2018, the United States joined with fifteen other nations to invoke the “Moscow Mechanism,” a measure used by Europe’s Organization for Security and Cooperation to create a fact-finding mission into what then-American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described as “horrific reports of abuses against LGBTI persons, human rights defenders, members of the independent media, and other citizens who ran afoul of Mr. Kadyrov.”

Kadyrov’s singular record came to include extrajudicial killings, unlawful detentions, torture, and enforced disappearances. For these and more, the United States sanctioned him in 2020. Pompeo noted on that occasion that the Department of State had “extensive credible information” of Kadyrov’s responsibility for “numerous gross violations of human rights dating back more than a decade.”

That the Trump Administration—which generally took, to put it mildly, a soft approach to Russian human rights abuses—invoked the Moscow Mechanism underscores the depth of the abuses in Chechnya. That Kadyrov’s record stretched back “more than a decade” by 2020 dates the evidence to much of the time during which Edelgeriyev was Kadyrov’s prime minister.

Even against this record, the brutal campaign against Chechens suspected of being gay stands out. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, discrimination against the LGBTQ community remains rampant. For instance, legislation signed by Putin in 2013 banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors,” a measure clearly aimed at gays.

Edelgeriyev has virtually no history with climate change but does have a long and illustrious associations with human rights violations.

Life has been unbearable for LGBTQ Chechens. In April of 2017, Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Milashina broke the story of Kadyrov’s anti-gay purge. As she told The New Yorker in June of 2017, “It became clear very quickly that this was a purposeful campaign against gays.” The campaign included rounding up those suspected of being gay and subjecting them to torture, beatings, forced disappearances, and execution.

More than one hundred people received such treatment. According to one activist who fled, at least ten of the targeted individuals were murdered by state authorities. Milashina, too, had to flee Russia after numerous threats to her life.

A number of other respected media outlets and human rights organizations confirmed Milashina’s reporting. One of them was Human Rights Watch. According to a 2017 report,

In February 2017, Chechnya’s law enforcement and security officials launched an anti-gay purge. They rounded up dozens of men on suspicion of being gay, held them in unofficial detention facilities for days, humiliated, starved, and tortured them. They forcibly disappeared some of the men. Others were returned to their families barely alive from beatings. Their captors exposed them to their families as gay and encouraged their relatives to carry out honor killings. Although Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has denied the roundups, the information presented in this report shows that top-level local authorities in Chechnya sanctioned them.

Edelgeriyev was one of those officials.

“This is nonsense,” Kadyrov said in response to the allegations in a July 2017 interview—while Edelgeriyevwas prime minister. “We don’t have such people here. We don’t have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada.… To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.” A concerted international campaign was launched to help gay Chechens flee the republic for their own safety. HBO produced a documentary about these efforts, Welcome to Chechnya (2020).

Edelgeriyev was in the Chechen capital of Grozny during the anti-gay purge. More, he was the head of the government of the republic. There is not the slightest doubt that he has the blood of innocent Chechens on his hands.

No U.S. official, let alone one with the stature of John Kerry, should meet with Edelgeriyev ever again. Instead, Edelgeriyev should be declared persona non grata and join Kadyrov on the U.S. and European Union sanctions lists for gross human rights abuses. There, Edelgeriyev will be in good, or at least appropriate, company.