‘Russia’s Forests Are Defenseless’: Charges Against Ranger Highlight Dangers Of Battling Poaching

ULAN-UDE, Russia — In 2017, Sergei Krasikov won a national competition for best young forest ranger in Russia.

“It was a contest among all rangers under the age of 30,” said one of Sergei’s colleagues at the Altacheisky State Nature Preserve in the Siberian region of Buryatia who asked that his name be withheld. “They looked at everyone’s work in its entirety — how many cases had been filed, how many weapons had been confiscated, how many criminal and administrative cases were sent to the courts. And Sergei took first place in the whole country.”

Now Krasikov is the target of a criminal case on charges that he exceeded his authority during the October 2020 arrest of five alleged poachers in the protected area, which is part of the ecosystem of Russia’s world-famous Lake Baikal.

“I came home from work one evening when I saw something in my mailbox,” Krasikov, 32, told RFE/RL. “It was a letter and that’s how I found out that a criminal case had been opened against me.”

“No one spoke to me,” he continued. “No one even called…. Later, reading the Internet, I learned that I was accused of striking someone with a rifle butt and shooting at someone’s leg. And it was a case from last year when we detained five poachers in the field who tried to run me over with their vehicle while trying to escape.”

Although the case remains under investigation, Krasikov could face up to 10 years in prison if tried and convicted.

Sergei Krasikov is also a keen photographer of the nature reserve and its wildlife.
Sergei Krasikov is also a keen photographer of the nature reserve and its wildlife.

Krasikov’s case, observers say, reflects the enormous challenges facing those who have dedicated their lives to protecting Russia’s natural heritage. Rangers across the country face sometimes lethal danger from poachers and others who often turn out to have connections with local police, prosecutors, or politicians.

“Russia’s forests are defenseless,” said Igor Shpilenok, a forest ranger at the Bryansk Forest reserve in western Russia. “We have a poacher mafia that has merged with law enforcement agencies, while those who are genuinely engaged in providing security have no resources or power.”

“We have some wonderful people who really want to protect nature,” Igor added. “The biggest problem with the management of Russia’s nature reserves is not even the lack of funding. The trouble is the lack of state will and state policy. It is the lack of competent overall management of protected areas.”

Kleptocracy By Nature?

The political system created by longtime President Vladimir Putin has been described by some analysts as an authoritarian kleptocracy in which the impunity of law enforcement and security personnel fosters corrupt and criminal connections.

The late political scientist Karen Dawisha, in her 2014 book Putin’s Kleptocracy, wrote that “in the 10 years from 2002 to 2012, hundreds of thousands of businessmen were actually imprisoned, not just questioned or arrested, primarily as a result of rivals paying corrupt police, prosecutors, and judges to put away the competition.”

Despite Putin’s personal efforts to portray himself as a friend of nature and a champion of the law, rampant poaching has been one problematic manifestation of such corruption.

In May 2009, Irkutsk region Governor Igor Yesipovsky and three others were killed when their helicopter crashed while they were allegedly using high-powered rifles to illegally hunt bear from the air. In January of the same year, the Kremlin’s envoy to the State Duma, Aleksandr Kosopkin, and six others were killed when their helicopter crashed in the Altai region. Leaked photographs from the scene showed the carcasses of two endangered argali sheep on the ground near the wreckage.

Two poached argali sheep were found at the site of the helicopter crash in the Altai region in January 2009.
Two poached argali sheep were found at the site of the helicopter crash in the Altai region in January 2009.

Forest ranger Krasikov has worked in the 78,000-hectare Altacheisky State Nature Preserve for 10 years. His father and brother are also rangers in the reserve, which is home to more than 40 mammal species, including seven that are listed as protected in Russia. The reserve is part of a network of protected areas that form the Baikal State Natural Biosphere Reserve , at the heart of which lies the UNESCO-recognized Lake Baikal.

A Forest Chase At Night

“Rangers like Krasikov in our reserve system can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” said Artur Murzakhanov, deputy director of the Protected Baikal Region state environmental enterprise. “He is one of those people who really loves nature and is ready to lay down his life for it.”

Krasikov’s current ordeal began last autumn when he discovered vehicle tracks inside the protected area near a place where rangers leave forage for wildlife.

“A few days later, a photo trap that we set up sent us an alarm that the car had returned,” he told RFE/RL. “On the night of October 4, my father, my brother, and I set out to try to catch them. The first guy presented no problem. He was alone and at first took us for his friends.”

Sergei Krasikov works with his father and brother at the reserve.
Sergei Krasikov works with his father and brother at the reserve.

Soon, Krasikov said, the rangers came upon a car parked in the forest with its lights and engine off. They identified themselves as rangers and called on the people inside the vehicle to exit.

“Immediately, the lights and engine came on,” Krasikov recalled. “The car took off and headed straight for me. I knew that they intended to run me down and escape.”

Krasikov said he fired one shot into the front of the vehicle before diving out of the way.

“Later it turned out that I had broken my wrist and suffered a concussion,” he said. “But there was no time to think about that then. They helped me up and we went after the car.”

The suspects soon realized their car could not move quickly through the dark forest, and they began jumping from the moving vehicle. The rangers were able to quickly round them up. In all, five men were detained and the rangers confiscated weapons and two animal carcasses.

When police arrived on the scene, none of the detainees complained that they had been beaten or shot at. An officer asked one detainee how his forehead had been injured and he said it happened when he jumped from the car.

“No one complained about anything,” Krasikov said.

The detainees gave various explanations for their appearance deep in the protected reserve in the middle of the night. They said they were on the way to the village of Podlopatki to slaughter a bull and that they had stopped in the forest to relieve themselves.

“It was 3 a.m.,” Krasikov said. “And 7 kilometers into the reserve!”

Now, however, investigators say the detainees claim Krasikov jumped in front of their car and fired into the passenger cabin. He then allegedly struck one of the men in the abdomen with the butt of his rifle and fired another shot at the legs of another suspect. The detainee who was struck purportedly suffered a broken rib.

The management of the Baikal reserve told the state news agency TASS that the suspects’ claims were absurd.

“The detained poachers are not peasants who were trying to put food on their tables,” reserve Director Vasily Sutula said. “We believe that powerful protectors from Ulan-Ude stand behind these poachers. We note that they have already changed their story three times in order to create their complaint that they were supposedly shot and beaten.”

‘Tip Of The Iceberg’

“The injustice in Buryatia…is just the tip of an enormous iceberg of injustice,” Bryansk ranger Shpilenok said. “If Sergei had been a National Guard officer or even just a dressed-up Cossack, those poachers would have been sitting in jail that morning. But he was protecting nature instead of protecting the regime.

“But they weren’t throwing snowballs or paper cups at him,” he added, referring to examples of anti-Kremlin protesters who were prosecuted for assaulting police officers for such offenses. “They tried to run him down with a car. His wrist was broken; he had a concussion; he spent a long time in rehabilitation. Now, four months later, the government rewards him with a criminal case.”

Igor Shpilenok
Igor Shpilenok

Shpilenok added that there was a monument to forest rangers who lost their lives in the line of duty in Siberia’s Sayano-Shushensky Preserve. He noted that the monument was not erected by the government, but by the nongovernmental environmental group Protected Country and the staff of the preserve itself.

Baikal Reserve Director Sutula on March 15 published on Facebook the results of his open-source research on the accused poachers.

According to social-media pages, one of the suspects, Sergei Randin, works for a company called Titan, which is owned by Ulan-Ude municipal lawmaker Vadim Vredny of the ruling United Russia party. Vredny and his wife are Randin’s “friends” on the VK social-media site. Viktor Solntsev, retired police colonel and former deputy head of the Buryatia branch of the Interior Ministry, is also among Randin’s social-media “friends.”

One of the other suspects, Sergei Rusin, who claimed that Krasikov struck him with the butt of his rifle, is married to Randin’s sister, and both Rusin and his wife work for the state savings bank Sberbank.

A third suspect, Vyacheslav Afanasyev, has a private VK page, but it asserts that he graduated from the Eastern Siberian Institute of the Interior Ministry of the Russian Federation in 2011.

Artur Murzakhanov: "Rangers like Krasikov in our reserve system can be counted on the fingers of one hand."
Artur Murzakhanov: “Rangers like Krasikov in our reserve system can be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

“We hope for an objective investigation into this matter, which is why we researched these people, whose testimony has been taken more seriously than that of a ranger of a state nature preserve,” Sutula wrote. “This case has quickly become well-known and has attracted the attention of officials at the federal level, which has increased the odds that it will be resolved objectively. The influential protectors of these poachers had best stand aside.”

None of the alleged poachers responded to requests to comment for this article.

No charges have been filed yet in connection with the incident.


Indigenous Defenders Movement in Russia: A Briefing for Funders

1. Russia’s Indigenous Peoples

This briefing will describe the status of Russia’s Indigenous peoples and explore challenges facing the Indigenous defenders movement, its leaders, as well as other structural and institutional challenges. We will also discuss meaningful opportunities and principles for investment and international support for the movement.

Russia is a multiethnic state of 145 million. While ethnic Russians account for four-fifths of its population, 160 ethnic groups make up the remaining 29 million. Among those, the most vulnerable are 40 “Indigenous Minority Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East” [see box]. They sparsely occupy two thirds of Russia’s landmass, from Saami reindeer herders on the Kola Peninsula near Finland to Yupiq whale hunters in Chukotka, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. These peoples number about 260,000, just 0.2 percent of Russia’s population. While three-quarters of the mainstream population is urban, two-thirds of Indigenous peoples are rural, relying on subsistence activities such as fishing, reindeer husbandry, gathering, and hunting for food and income. Their languages, many of them close to extinction, are unrelated to Russian. At the same time, the industrial resource extraction that accounts for most of Russia’s revenues occurs on their ancestral lands, usually without their consent, and very often without their prior knowledge.

Nivkhs performing a ceremony on Sakhalin Island, one of Russia’s main oil
regions. Photo by Wolfgang Blümel.
Photo by Wolfgang Blomel

“Small-numbered” peoples – by law, those under 50,000 in total population – are often distinctly more “Indigenous” than larger peoples: their traditional ways of life and subsistence strategies are more widely practiced and more central to their economy and culture. They also tend to be politically marginalised. Larger peoples such as Yakuts (Sakha), Buryats, Komi, and Altaians would qualify as Indigenous by international standards, but Russian legislation defines them as “peoples” and provides them with autonomous regions within the federation. Currently, however, their autonomy is largely symbolic.

While the population threshold can be a reasonable proxy for “indigeneity” in the Russian context, life is harder for Indigenous peoples like the Izvatas, a Komi subgroup practicing reindeer husbandry like their “small-numbered” Nenets neighbours, but without the same rights to land and resources.


Indigenous peoples in Siberia and the Far East first came under Russian rule with the conquest of Siberia in the 16th century. In the 20th century, seventy years of Soviet rule forced children into boarding schools, killed elders and spiritual leaders, and deprived communities of their languages, cultures, institutions, and spirituality, in part due to forced sedentarization and collectivization. The 1960s saw the start of Siberian oil and gas development, driving significant migration. Many Indigenous peoples have since become minorities in their ancestral lands.

Today, Article 69 in the Russian Constitution affirms a duty to protect Indigenous minority peoples, and three federal laws form a framework for protecting their rights, territories, and communities, although all are largely declarative and fall well short of international standards. The government sponsors events devoted to Indigenous cultures and languages, yet talk of self-determination and land rights is usually avoided.

Open cast mining directly adjacent to Kazas village in Kemerovo region. Photo by Nelly Tokmagasheva.

Indigenous Rights Movement

Russia’s minority Indigenous peoples are fighting for rights to their traditional lands and resources, support for lifeways and spiritual beliefs, rights to self-determination, and basic human rights including clean water, education, and health care. Occupying challenging environmental and climatic conditions, each ethnos faces a unique set of challenges.

Yana Tannagasheva, a recently exiled Shor activist, says “If we are silent about violations today, we are stealing the future from future generations.” Yana advocates for the Shor people at a global level and has persuaded two United Nations committees to call for a complete restoration of Shor rights in Russia.

In 1990, Indigenous peoples formed a national umbrella organization, RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North). This organization and its many branches connected communities with state institutions and represented them internationally, including at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and on the Arctic Council. In 2013, the government overthrew RAIPON’s delicate balance by imposing new government-controlled leadership. As a result of this clampdown, a number of national and regional Indigenous leaders have fled Russia into exile.

In 2013 legislation was enacted on non-profit organizations, stipulating that non-profits receiving foreign funding and engaging in vaguely defined “political” activity must register as “foreign agents”. Since then over 150 NGOs, including Indigenous rights and environmental justice groups, have been registered and many have liquidated their organizations.  Many organizations and individual defenders continue informally or in creative new forms (including “Friends of…” clubs, unregistered networks, and even as businesses or publishing houses), but operate with less financial support or vital public awareness of their work.

Indigenous organizations are generally subject to even closer scrutiny and distrust than civil rights groups. For the Russian government, the Indigenous rights movement is “worrisome” for several reasons: fear of demands for true self-governance or even full independence in some cases, and Russia’s almost total economic dependence on resources extracted from traditionally Indigenous lands.

View from the site of the now destroyed Shor Indigenous village of Kazas by an open cast mine. The village is surrounded by mines from all sides. Photo by Nelli Tokmagasheva.

In response, 40+ experienced Indigenous defenders have established a new network known as “Aborigen Forum,” an intentionally informal and agile network which unites Siberian and Far Eastern leaders, giving them an advocacy platform and restoring the flow of information. The Forum’s mission is to protect and realize the rights of Indigenous peoples through legislation, monitoring, partnerships, and dialogue with government.

Pavel Sulyandziga, an exiled Udege activist and and former RAIPON vice president comments, “Internationally, Russia is a dangerous and influential player when it comes to trade agreements and strategic resources, and nations seeking to avoid conflict often ‘overlook’ the rights of Russia’s Indigenous peoples.”

Kazas villagers used to subsist on hunting and fishing. Now all the rivers are poisoned by the mine. Photo by Nelly Tokmagasheva.

2. Challenges for Indigenous Defenders

Today, Russia has several generations of experienced Indigenous defenders and community leaders, skilled in advocacy and engagement both at home and abroad. Their activism has halted some of the most harmful projects including large hydroelectric dams in Evenkia, Amur, Yakutia, and near Lake Baikal, aided the creation of Bikin National Park which enshrines Indigenous co-management for the Udege people, and kept a Khanty shaman and defender of a sacred lake out of jail in his case against an oil company. Indigenous defenders have brought global attention to many more local conflicts and received broad recognition as equal partners in UN climate negotiations and many other fora. Every year, young Indigenous activists participate in human rights trainings at the UN and join the global Indigenous movement.

They achieve these successes despite a multitude of structural and individual challenges as well as administrative isolation and government limits on freedom of movement for remote Indigenous communities, both of which limit interaction with the larger world.

Let’s examine a few of them here.

Data access: No official disaggregated data is available on the socio-economic state of Indigenous peoples: for example, there is no way to determine the life expectancy of Evenks or the median income of Nenets. As a result, efficacy of policy measures cannot be evaluated or provide accurately for Indigenous peoples. Lack of data also has local impacts: administrations are ignorant of the identities of actual land users when signing over land to extractive companies, and communities struggle to access mandated corporate documentation and environmental monitoring data. On the plus side, many Indigenous communities have become quite skilled in land-use and resource mapping as well as community-led monitoring.

Information access: Corporate and government claims that Indigenous communities have given free, prior, and informed consent to a project are difficult to verify, and international investors usually accept such claims without verification. Outside of urban centers, information about communities rarely reaches the outside world, leaving them vulnerable to pressure and threats. Newspapers, TV, and radio stations are typically in lockstep with government. Where available, internet access is expensive and strong research skills are needed to access information. In Russia, while many environmental and social justice activists speak English, Indigenous defenders often have weak or non-existent English skills, an added barrier.

Threats to individuals: The safety, freedom, and reputations of Indigenous defenders in Siberia and the Russian North are under threat from many sides, and activists have been jailed on fabricated or flimsy charges, fled the country, or intimidated into silence. Other frequent forms of harassment include threats against family members, especially children, and removal of passports by a variety of means, including judicial. Activists can lose their economic security: laid off their jobs in the dominant public sector and then unable to find new employment. Foreign allies can be deported or denied entry for minor regulatory offenses, and security services excel in exploiting immigration regulations.

Basic freedoms persist: While new laws have been enacted that curtail rights. Russian citizens still have significant freedom of expression. In fact, determined citizens can reach a wide audience, argue persuasively for their rights, achieve legal victories, and change the situation on the ground. Indigenous rights activists maintain strong relationships and engagement with global activists and in international processes and human rights mechanisms.

Sledge train of Izvatas reindeer herders in Komi republic. Photo by Joachim Otto Habeck.

3. Regional Advocacy

Yamal and LNG: The Yamal Peninsula is the home of the world’s largest nomadic reindeer herding community, with several thousand Nenets roaming the tundra with their herds. Yamal LNG is a 27 billion dollar gas extraction project taking place there. With backing from the Russian government and foreign extractive corporations, Yamal LNG claims to have obtained to the Nenets’ free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), extremely difficult to verify, since non-residents cannot visit without government security (FSB) permission. Evidence from a fact-finding mission suggests, however, that no genuine FPIC process could have taken place and that the disruption of migration routes, impacts on fish reserves, and pasture lands will force a substantial share of reindeer herders in the region to give up their way of life. Such conflicts between hunting and herding peoples and extractive industries are common: Komi Republic, Yakutia, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, Taimyr, and Sakhalin Island, just to name a few.

Destroyed Communities: The Shor people of Siberia’s Kuzbass region have survived a string of forced resettlements since the early 1970s, always for the same reason: open cast coal mining. They never received compensation or any redress for the loss of their hunting grounds, sacred sites, pastures, and rivers. In 2015, the Shors submitted a complaint to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which in 2017 called for fair redress for the evicted community – a tremendous victory! Russia is considering its response to CERD, and a wave of anti-coal protests is now sweeping the region, capturing global attention.

Right to subsistence: For most Indigenous peoples in Russia, the staple traditional food source is fish. According to federal legislation, Indigenous peoples have the right to traditional fishing without permit or imposed limits. In reality, much Indigenous peoples’ fishing is caught up in a bureaucratic jungle. Often Indigenous people are unfairly targeted and fined for violations, and their gear confiscated or destroyed, leaving them a choice between starvation or “poaching” on their own river, while commercial fishing companies harvest fish on a massive scale, secure in their government-approved monopoly. Indigenous defenders battle for their rights and existence, river by river, hunting territory by hunting territory, holding their ground wherever possible.

Gennady Shchukin, a Dolgan leader from the Taimyr Peninsula, where Indigenous communities who engage in traditional hunting have been criminalized as poachers, says: “Our Indigenous communities here struggle for hunting rights as part of our traditional way of living. We are determined to bring this struggle to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, if necessary.”

There are many parallels for Indigenous communities reliant on hunting and gathering (for example, Siberian pine nuts). In these cases, Indigenous communities lose out to commercial logging, commercial pine nut harvesting, land developers, and even private citizens  after recent creation of a program awarding a “free hectare” of land to almost any applicant in the Far East, including within regional Indigenous “Territories of Traditional Natural Resource Use”. The Aborigen Forum, mentioned above, has protested many of these problems through appeals and community-to-community outreach and, together with their allies, managed to prevent the worst.

An elder Shor lady living in Kazas village with her grandchild. Photo by Nelly Tokmagasheva.

4. How Funders Can Engage

Although the situation in Russia is quite challenging, there are still significant opportunities to support Indigenous defenders. It is critical that international civil and Indigenous rights activists and donors continue to engage in Russia with direct support, technical expertise, capacity building, and access to international information channels and treaty bodies. Last but by no means least, Russian defenders depend on the international community to witness and testify to their struggles. Activists can and will work in isolation, but their efforts have greater potential for success in strategic partnership with and support from the international community.

As Russia is not a “developing nation”, its Indigenous peoples have no access to international development funds, although their conditions are often similar to those in developing countries. In recent years, international support has faded, as many funders have either naturally cycled out or discontinued their support due to security concerns. Domestic Russian funding for Indigenous rights work, such as the “presidential grants” program, is mostly awarded to ”obedient” groups working on uncontroversial topics.

It is quite possible to build strong and effective partnerships with Indigenous defenders in Russia, while minimizing risk. For example, IWGIA has decades of stable relationships with Indigenous networks and organizations. Their support was pivotal in developing the capacity of several generations of Indigenous activists, providing resources, and facilitating use of international human rights mechanisms. A few other organizations, including Global Greengrants Fund, The Altai Project, and Pacific Environment, have strong networks and regranting expertise in Russia’s environmental and Indigenous movements.

  1.   Thoughtful relationships
  • Ask potential partners about how they assess and manage risk. Avoid paternalistic decision-making and seek out Indigenous-led initiatives.
  • Consult with stakeholders including relevant foreign Russian-speaking experts.
  • Follow your partner’s lead on publicity to protect their reputation and safety; consider increasing digital security.
  1.   Flexible and opportunistic
  • Seek creative funding paths, consider using an experienced intermediary organization with Russian language capacity and grants administration experience in Russia, make specially-structured grants to individual activists, etc.
  • Expect the unexpected; laws and power structures change, but there’s always a way!
  • Help partners be opportunistic and allow for midstream changes.
  • Sometimes NOT losing ground is success; limit expectations and metrics. Keep the home fires burning in Russia’s Indigenous defenders movement.
  1.   Promote connection at home and abroad
  • Strengthen international connections, including access to international justice mechanisms.
  • Support informal networks, meetings, and exchanges – vital tools for propagating information and strategy.
  • Knowledge is power – knowledge of UNDRIP rights, FPIC, international standards, and success stories in other countries is extremely valuable.


Indigenous peoples call on Nornickel’s global partners to demand environmental action

Nornickel does not invite us to meetings, so now we urge international shareholders and buyers of their metals to take action, says Pavel Sulyandziga, President of the Batani Foundation, an exile group working for the rights of indigenous peoples in the Russian north.

Nornickel’s multibillion-dollar worth mining- and metallurgical plants on the Siberian tundra are key to deliver metals for the electromobility industry. The company produces one third of the global supply of nickel and has some of the largest factories in the world for copper and cobalt.

All three metals are in growing demand as Europe, Asia and North America try to catch up in global battery race.

In Russia, however, the scramble for metals come with a cost. Pollution from the factories in Norilsk has for decades ranked top in global air pollution and a recent oil spill caused anger all the way to President Putin’s office.

Nornickel claims it has environment as a top priority, with comprehensive plans to further reduce air pollution.

That priority is questioned by indigenous peoples who feel they are taking to a wall.

“No, Nornickel does not invite to meetings and conferences,” said Pavel Sulyandziga when asked by the Barents Observer about his indigenous group’s dialog with the metallurgical giant.

“They are used to dictate conditions to everyone in Russia. In Taimyr, Nornickel is the Tsar and the God at the same time,” he said.

Sulyandziga is President of Batani Foundation, an international fund created to support indigenous peoples in the Russian north. The group’s help to communities protesting mineral extraction and industrial pollution on indigenous land has always been a thorn in the eye of authorities. The Russian government declared Batani Foundation as a foreign agent in 2015 and two years later, the organization was liquidated by the Moscow city court after a demand from the Ministry of Justice.

Since then, the group has worked in exile, with staff members asking asylum in the United States, Norway and Sweden.

Critical questions excluded 

Hundreds of thousands of tons with sulfur dioxide pollution are annually emitted from the Nadezhda plant in Norilsk. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Sulyandziga claims Nornickel brings in only those indigenous peoples who can paint a “beautiful picture” of the company’s activities.

“Those who ask inconvenient questions, about various violations and problems, are simply excluded.”

Together with 35 other organizations and entities working with indigenous peoples rights and environment, the Batani Foundation has sent an urgent call to both international banking and credit institutions and buyers of metals from Nornickel.

One of the receivers of the letter is BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer and a leading producer of material to electric vehicle’s battery production.

“Given the increasing level of ethical and environmental scrutiny that is being brought to bear on supply chains for battery nickel, it is imperative that BASF does not fall foul of investor sentiment. For BASF’s Group Position and Supplier Code of Conduct to have credibility, BASF must take action to address Nornickel’s violations,” the letter reads and lists numerous examples of environmental misconduct by Nornickel in the Russian Arctic region.

Pavel Sulyandziga hopes external pressure from global customers will help.

“Nornickel only understands money. If BASF makes it clear to Nornickel that it is necessary to change its policies and attitudes, this will encourage Nornickel to actually pursue a policy of respect for the rights of indigenous peoples in accordance with international standards,” Sulyandziga said.

He adds: “We want to see this change in reality, not in presentations.”

“Sustainability matters” 

Christine Haupt, spokesperson for BASF, assures to the Barents Observer that the company expect all suppliers “to fully comply with applicable laws and to follow internationally recognized environmental, social and corporate governance standards.”

She said BASF is in regular contact with Nornickel on sustainability matters and other aspects relevant to cooperation.

It was in 2018, BASF and Nornickel established a strategic cooperation to meet the growing needs for battery materials in electric vehicles. The cooperation includes construction of a new plant for battery material production serving the European automotive market in adjacent to the nickel and cobalt refinery owned by Nornickel in Harjavalta in Finland.

“What counts in our view, based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, are the willingness and actins of a company to work towards sustainability,” said Christine Haupt.

She said BASF is co-founder of the Global Battery Alliance, which brings together business, government and civil society to develop standards and tolls to create a social responsible, ecological and economically sustainable, and innovative value chain for batteries.

BASF, though, is only one of many scrambling for battery metals.

Tesla’s Elon Must last year called on miners to produce more nickel. “Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmental sensitive way.”

Other carmakers, like Hyundai, GM, Ford and Nissan, are all rushing to secure raw materials for battery cars believed to count for tens of millions of new vehicles annually within the next few years.

Support program 

A proud Nenets boy with his reindeer on the tundra. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Well aware of the critical voices, Nornickel this week announced a grant support program to the indigenous peoples of Taimyr where the company’s largest metallurgical factories are located in Norilsk.

“Most of the applications are aimed at preserving long-term traditions and practices, historical memory and cultural code of the peoples of Taimyr. We hope that the World of Taimyr competition will become a real support for local communities, help not only preserve, but also develop the rich cultural heritage of the region, ”said Larisa Zelkova, senior vice president of Nornickel.

Pavel Sulyandziga said this is just an example of Nornickel buying influence.

“Why would they negotiate with those they cannot influence when they can simply buy the loyalty of others,” he said.

“This is the Russian reality,” Sulyandziga added.

Financial institutions 

The Batani Foundation, the Aborigine Forum and the Society for Threatened Peoples questions in a joint letter to UBS Switzerland this week why the multinational investment bank continuously finances Nornickel, “despite its widely known failure in environmental and human rights issues.

The Union Bank of Switzerland is, according to the organizations, holding shares and bonds in the value of $34 million and for underwriting activities in the value of $63 millions.

Another Swiss banking company, Credit Suisse, is in a similar letter asked about what they are doing to ensure their investments with Nornickel does not violate the rights of the indigenous peoples in the Russian north and what is done to prevent further environmental damage.

Credit Suisse acquired shares in the amount of $184 million in 2019 and provided loans to Nornickel, according to the indigenous peoples’ NGOs.

The letter to Credit Suisse details how the indigenous peoples of the Arctic who have occupied the land for generations, like the Sámi, Nenets, Nganasan, Enets, Dolgan and Evenk communities, suffer as a result of Nornickel’s negative impacts on their herding, hunting, fishing, and overall economic and subsistence activities, as well as their physical health and well-being.

In 2009, the Norwegian Pension Fund, one of the world’s largest investors, blacklisted Nornickel due to “severe environmental damage”. Later, other financial institutions like Actiam and Skandia followed.


Senate Committee Votes To Confirm Haaland. Here’s Who Voted For and Against Her and What Happens Next.

With two key Republican women in the Senate now pledging to support Deb Haaland for Interior Secretary, her nomination is almost certain when it reaches the full Senate.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski will cross party lines and buck powerful energy industry interests to support Haaland.

Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine, will also vote for Haaland in the full Senate.

The last hurdle before that Senate vote was approval by the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The committee held two days of hearings last week but adjourned without action.

This morning, Senators reconvened to debate and vote.

All eyes were on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from a coal industry state, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who had been heavily lobbied by energy interests to oppose Haaland.

As chairman, Manchin went first.

Then came Republicans. Predictably, Sen. Barrasso sided with energy interests against her. But Murkowski, representing a state with a high Native American population, seemed swayed by the historic nature of the nomination of the country’s first Native American cabinet official.

New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich got the last word:

By a vote of 11-9, Senators voted “favorably” on the confirmation of Haaland, sending her nomination to the full Senate for a vote sometime soon.

Who Voted for Haaland?

All 10 Senate Energy Committee Democrats, plus Republican Lisa Murkowski. Yes votes include Senator Martin Heinrich and Senators Manchin, Wyden, Cantwell, Sanders, Hirono, King, Cortez Masto, Kelly and Hickenlooper.

Who Voted Against Haaland?

9 Republicans. Senators Barrasso, Risch, Lee, Daines, Hoeven, Lankford, Cassidy, Hyde-Smith and Marshall.

What Happens Next?

Haaland’s confirmation heads to the full Senate where it will be scheduled for a vote. But don’t look for this to happen quickly.

Haaland, still a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is an important Democratic vote for Biden’s agenda and Speaker Pelosi is working to pass a long list of Democratic priorities for in Biden’s first 100 days. In other words, look for Haaland’s final vote to be scheduled sometime next month.


“BASF must take action to address NorNickel’s violations”: Open response letter to BASF

Representatives of Indigenous Peoples, environmental and human rights organizations criticize BASF for not taking action to address NorNickel’s impacts to Indigenous Peoples of Russia’s Far North

Dear Dr. Dohrn:

Thank you for your response of December 4, 2020. We appreciate that you recognize NorNickel’s history and legacy of severe environmental incidents. Unfortunately, based on the evidence that we have seen, we do not yet share your optimism that NorNickel is willing to work towards sustainability. We believe BASF’s failure to take action to address NorNickel’s impacts to Indigenous Peoples of Russia’s Far North represents violations of BASF’s Group Position on Human Rights and its Supplier Code of Conduct.

Although NorNickel has publicly promised to improve its environmental legacy and sustainability efforts, we are skeptical because the company has made such claims for nearly 20 years, only to extend its timeline repeatedly. Publicly available information demonstrates significant reliability and reputational problems with NorNickel, which raises concerns regarding the legitimacy of NorNickel’s stated commitments to reduce environmental and social impacts in the future. The company’s pledge to do better, after years of empty promises, should not count as sufficient evidence to convince partnering companies of its virtue and commitment to environmental and human rights principles.

In 2007, a company spokesperson said the company would improve the environmental situation by 2020 and that efforts were being made to reduce the pollution.[1] In the mid-2010s, the company promised to reduce emissions by 75 percent by 2020.[2] Now, this timeline has been pushed to 2035. Despite these promises, an emissions monitoring graph from NASA shows that NorNickel’s rate of pollution has stayed more or less the same for close to two decades, and the rate of emissions actually increased in 2018.[3] NASA also called Norilsk the world’s “largest stationary sulfur dioxide emitter,”[4] and numerous international organizations and outlets, including Russia’s Novaya Gazeta and The Moscow Times, Norway’s Bellona Foundation, and Greenpeace India cite the company as the dirtiest industry in the Arctic and the world.[5] In 2018, a Greenpeace report estimated that NorNickel produced two times more sulfur dioxide emissions than the entirety of the United States.[6]

NorNickel only made efforts to clean up its industry (particularly in the Kola Peninsula region) after years of complaints and pressure from the Norwegian government and Norwegian residents living near the border with Russia.[7] Articles about NorNickel’s practices written for Novaya Gazeta, a highly respected and internationally recognized Russian outlet, also allege decades of corruption, negligence, and mismanagement[8], which Nornickel has used to shirk pollution fines (it only paid $530 in 2017 even after poisoning a river in Siberia and dying it red with wastewater). According to the Bellona Foundation, an environmental think tank based in Norway, NorNickel has bribed environmental watchdogs to avoid fines.[9] Evidence shows that NorNickel is responsible for frequent accidents including wastewater spills, emissions that far exceed the permissible standards, and other issues on a regular basis. In 2020 alone, the company had more than 2,000 environmental violations.[10] Russian outlets report that the company has spills and accidents on a near-daily basis.[11] In fact, NorNickel was excluded from the 2020 environmental transparency list of Russian companies compiled by WWF, although in previous years it ranked twelfth out of forty spots.[12]

Although one of NorNickel’s oldest smelters, as you mention, has been shut down near the Norwegian border, the situation in Siberia remains unresolved. Minimal improvements have been carried out in Norilsk itself, which is deep in the Russian mainland, even though Indigenous peoples of the region have been speaking out against the endless pollution there for decades. Indigenous peoples on whose traditional territory NorNickel operates have never given their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent for NorNickel’s activities. Although NorNickel has noted that it will increase its efforts to consult Indigenous peoples of the region (an option that the company initially rejected) on their planned developments, and even pledged to pay for the damage wrought by the disaster of summer 2020, these steps were only taken after extensive media attention on the situation there.[13] Given that NorNickel has operated in the region for decades without taking meaningful actions on clean up, we remain skeptical of its commitment to socially and environmentally responsible operations. Further, we lack confidence that the company will follow through on its promises once press attention has shifted elsewhere.

In regards to Nornickel’s claims, repeated in your letter, about company responses to the catastrophic oil spill of May 2020, experts report that proposed company measures to compensate and consult Indigenous residents are incomprehensive and insufficient. NorNickel’s pledge to pay communities 174 million rubles may seem substantial, but it is not enough: it will take close to two decades, if not longer, to restore the damaged ecosystems. Experts estimate that NorNickel’s proposed budget will not cover the entire clean-up period, or the ongoing pollution impacts to Indigenous culture, traditions, and livelihoods. Experts also point out the land is currently impossible to use due to the extent of environmental degradation and conditions that threaten community health.[14]

Your letter cites NorNickel’s internal investigation through Environmental Resource Management (ERM). However, ERM blamed management and systems failures, including a “compliance mindset” aimed at pleasing regulators and inspectors, as causes of the spill. Furthermore, ERM was unable to gain access to Nornickel facilities until mid-September, more than three months after the spill, and after the tank itself had been removed.[15] Your letter also cites the “Great NorNickel Expedition,” (actually titled the “Great Norilsk Expedition”); however, the results of these studies — paid for by NorNickel — cannot be trusted without independent verification. Meanwhile, NorNickel blocked the collection and transport of samples and analyses from areas impacted by the spill by independent observers and organizations.[16]

To address reputational problems with Nornickel discussed above, we believe that it is essential for BASF to use reliable, third-party sources for external validation of NorNickel’s claims. This is especially important given Nornickel’s well-established record of corruption and negligence.[17] Time and time again, Nornickel’s internal reports and promises have proven unreliable. Similarly, Russian authorities that are ostensibly responsible for company oversight have proven unreliable and unwilling to hold NorNickel accountable for its social and environmental violations or to guarantee Indigenous rights. For example, just a month after the catastrophic fuel spill in Norilsk, Russian outlets reported that NorNickel poured untreated toxic waste into a river (a tactic they have consistently practiced for decades). The company did so despite promising for years to reduce their environmental impact and advertising that it was spending millions of dollars on pollution mitigation.[18] Given the current context, we can only treat this action as a deception that demonstrates NorNickel’s unwillingness to follow through on its social and environmental promises.

Russian outlets have also reported that NorNickel has the largest environmental expenditures among Russian companies, spending about 5 percent of its revenue on environmental protection in 2017-2018, yet the impact of this investment is not readily apparent as Indigenous peoples suffer from the ongoing ecological disaster in the region.[19]

In hoping for improvement, we must recall that NorNickel is a company that has a history of polluting with impunity despite promises to the contrary. Though it has spent millions to improve its environmental record, and promised further investment, there is little tangible evidence that the situation has improved. As of winter 2020, NorNickel had not paid the fines levied against them for the May 2020 fuel spill, and the company continues to contest the fines in court — demonstrating its lack of willingness to accept responsibility for its environmental impacts and legacy.[20]

Therefore, your statement about Nornickel’s investments into sustainability belie credibility. After decades of failing to meet environmental clean-up and remediation objectives, an internal investment plan cannot be considered to be an adequate indicator for the likelihood of any future progress toward more sustainable practices.

Moving forward, a true commitment to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent — as required by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,[21] by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) Standard for Responsible Mining,[22] and the International Council of Metals and Mining — requires good-faith engagement and consultation with Indigenous Peoples, including all Indigenous communities and groups on lands affected by Nornickel, not just with a single, government-controlled Russian Indigenous organization.[23] Given Nornickel’s history, we fear that despite Nornickel’s promises, it will not be able to meet the international industry practices outlined by ICMM and IRMA principles.

We believe that BASF’s failure to take action to address Nornickel’s impacts to Indigenous Peoples of Russia’s Far North represents a violation of BASF’s Group Position on Human Rights, which states:

“We expect our suppliers to respect human rights. Our supplier Code of Conduct is part of our standard purchasing contracts and conditions of purchase. We reserve the right to terminate a business relationship if a supplier fails to meet these obligations.
We identify those supply chains that are at greatest risk impacting human rights, e.g. located in countries prone to human rights violations, in industries with likely poor working conditions, or less than responsible habits. In those cases, we employ due efforts and engage with our suppliers aiming that they fulfil their human rights obligations.”[24]

We believe that NorNickel has also demonstrated its inability to meet BASF SE’s standards in its Supplier Code of Conduct “to fully comply with applicable laws and to adhere to internationally recognized environmental, social and corporate governance standards,” or to promote the safe and environmentally sound development, manufacturing, transport, use and disposal of products and to reduce waste and emissions to air, water and soil. For these reasons, we fear that BASF SE is unable to adhere to its Supplier Code of Conduct as long as it continues a business relationship with Nornickel.[25]

By maintaining a business relationship with NorNickel, we also believe that BASF will be in violation of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (2011) and OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Meaningful Stakeholder Engagement in the Extractive Sector (2016). The OECD documents note that enterprises should respect the rights enshrined in United Nations instruments on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, clarifies the requirement for Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, and requires human rights due diligence. By sourcing minerals from NorNickel without fulfilling these responsibilities, BASF is contributing to severe impacts on Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. Failure to uphold these responsibilities leaves BASF open to a complaint under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (2011).

In summary, NorNickel’s serious reputational problems and abysmal environmental record demonstrate that NorNickel’s internal company assessments cannot be used as sufficient evidence to demonstrate its efforts to improve sustainability. We therefore respectfully reiterate our earlier request for you to not buy products from NorNickel until its compliance with internationally recognized social and environmental standards is validated by an independent third party. This is a company that has a legacy of empty promises and a history of negligence, corruption, and environmental and human rights violations. After decades of missed opportunities and false promises, asserting that the company is trying to improve and deserves a chance is insufficient to establish itself as a reliable and responsible partner.

Given the increasing level of ethical and environmental scrutiny that is being brought to bear on supply chains for battery nickel, it is imperative that BASF does not fall foul of investor sentiment. For BASF’s Group Position and Supplier Code of Conduct to have credibility, BASF must take action to address NorNickel’s violations.

We request a meeting with you to discuss our concerns and explore potential approaches to resolving these issues. We hope that a meeting can explore how best to jointly ensure that NorNickel undertakes meaningful steps on these issues. Given the ongoing pandemic, we think it would be most effective to meet via video.


Gennady Schukin
Aborigen Forum (Russia)

Pavel Sulyandziga
International Indigenous Fund for Development and Solidarity “Batani” (Russia/USA)

Danielle DeLuca
Cultural Survival (USA)

Rodion Sulyandziga
Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North (Russia)

Andrey Danilov
Saami Heritage and Development Fund (Russia)

Dmitry Berezhkov
Arctic Consult (Norway)

Kate Finn
First Peoples Worldwide (USA)

Dalee Sambo Dorough, PhD
International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council

Joan Carling
Indigenous Peoples Rights International (Philippines)

Andrea Carmen
International Indian Treaty Council (USA)

Lola Garcia-Alix
International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (Denmark)

Brian Keane
Land is Life (USA)

Tilman Massa
Dachverband der Kritischen Aktionärinnen und Aktionäre / Association of Ethical Stakeholders (Germany)

Johannes Rohr
European Network on Indigenous Peoples (Germany)

Sabine Schielmann
Institute fur Ökologie und Aktions-Ethnologie (Germany)

Yvonne Bangert
Gesellschaft fur Bedrohte Volker / Society for Threatened Peoples (Germany)

Gudrun Wippel
Menschenrechte 3000 / Human Rights 3000 (Germany)

Johannes Peter
World Economy, Ecology & Development (Germany)

Marianne Klute
Rainforest Rescue (Germany)

Michael Reckordt
PowerShift e.V. (Germany)

Uwe Berger
Carpus e.V. (Germany)

Christian Wimberger
Christliche Initiative Romero (Germany)

Sibyl Diver
Environmental Justice Working Group at Stanford (USA)

Jennifer Castner
The Altai Project (USA)

Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello
Earthworks (USA)

Tabea Willi
Gesellschaft fur Bedrohte Volker / Society for Threatened Peoples (Switzerland)

Agathe Duparc
Public Eye (Switzerland)

Andy Whitmore
London Mining Network (United Kingdom)

Alice Beriot
Igapo Project (France)

Svet Zabelin
Socio-Ecological Union International (Russia)

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim
AFPAT (Chad)

JATAM Sulteng/Mining Advocacy Network Central Sulawesi (Indonesia)

Elsa Stamatopoulou
Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University (USA)

Helen Tugendhat
Forest Peoples Programme (United Kingdom)

Jane Lingbawan
Asia Indigenous Peoples Network on Extractive Industries and Energy

Eva María Sáinz Ramos
Almáciga (Spain)


Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights as a Minimum Standard for Corporate Practice

By building strategic alliances with investors and shareholders, Indigenous Peoples are proactively protecting their rights by urging corporate respect of those rights in routine operations.

When the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, it was the first time Indigenous Peoples’ rights were widely affirmed on a global scale. The Declaration contemplated not only the inextricable connection between Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods, culture, and land, but also their collective rights to decision-making and self-determination. Countries have integrated those rights into their domestic policies and laws at different levels, but the Declaration provides a minimum standard under which Indigenous Peoples’ rights can be considered. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples worldwide view the Declaration as the authoritative enumeration of their rights that guides their interactions with government or with business.

In general, corporate consideration of Indigenous Peoples and their human rights is often peripheral to business operations and, when considered, are generally relegated to an environmental compliance process. This means that the impacts of development on Indigenous communities are often only addressed during project implementation, or only after a violation of their rights has occurred. Such an approach detrimentally narrows the focus to remedy of harms already done rather than preventing violations at the outset. Further, when tribes and Native people have used the courts to realize their rights under the Declaration, the relief is too often reactive to damages or human rights violations that have already occurred. When sacred lands or objects have already been destroyed, for example, there is no remedy even if a court case is ultimately won.

Since transnational corporations affect the human rights of peoples around the world in their ordinary course of business, in 2011 the United Nations set forth the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a three-part framework to address human rights impacts. The framework includes: 1) States’ responsibility to protect human rights, 2) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and 3) access to remedy for affected communities. Businesses have a responsibility to assess where their operations intersect with international human rights standards, and to do so with an eye towards prevention of human rights abuses. The Guiding Principles point to the significant overlap between a corporate director’s fiduciary duty to shareholders to manage the business with due care, and the director’s role to adequately assess the risks of corporate operations along a number of criteria such as financial risk, environmental risk, social risk, and human rights risk. This framework runs parallel to the decade-long shift in the corporate sector towards the adoption of broader environmental, social, and governance criteria (ESG), as well as the adoption of policies to respect human and environmental rights as a matter of business.

Building Alliances

As part of the growing ESG movement, Indigenous Peoples have realized the cumulative power of building strategic alliances with concerned investors as an effective means to proactively protect their rights, as well as to integrate respect for their rights into corporate practice. These investors reach other impact-oriented investors to build coalitions that can elevate Indigenous leaders in strategies such as letter writing, speaking at industry events, direct dialogue with banks and corporations, and filing shareholder proposals. Together, these coalitions of investors and Indigenous Peoples bring their shared interest into focus by leveraging assets under management to influence corporate decision-making.

Indigenous Peoples have pioneered the use of shareholder advocacy as a strong tool to integrate respect for human rights into corporate practice, successfully eradicating racist branding and addressing cultural appropriation. For example, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility organized 800 investors to call on Liz Claiborne to retire the “Crazy Horse” brand; in 2007, the label was discontinued. Similarly, after long engagement around the Washington NFL team’s racist logo and mascot, in June 2020 investors—representing more than $620 billion in assets—sent a letter to corporate sponsors Nike, PepsiCo, and FedEx urging them to make good on their commitments to eradicate racism by pressuring the team to change its name. A letter with nearly 1,500 signatories of Native organizations and leaders was sent to show the wide consensus for change in Indian Country. By July 13, the team had retired the name and logo.

These successes are compounding, and shareholder advocacy is becoming an increasingly important strategy to protect Indigenous lands, territories, and resources from extractive development. Core to this engagement to build preventative frameworks is advocating for Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) over the development of their lands, territories, and resources. FPIC is of paramount importance because it is a critical safeguard of other rights, as true implementation of FPIC allows Indigenous leadership the opportunity to meaningfully choose what type of development may occur in their communities. Because the right to set self-determined development priorities needs to be recognized prior to project finance or project implementation, Indigenous Peoples are now leveraging early opportunities for shareholder advocacy and corporate engagement to influence business behavior towards optimal operationalization of FPIC.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Dakota Access Pipeline

Although Indigenous Peoples and investors have come together frequently over the last decade, few examples are as visible and powerful as what occurred during the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on their treaty territory. The Tribe had expressed their desire to reroute the pipeline away from their lands as early as 2014, filed a legal case in 2016 directly opposing the route as planned, and expressed to the media their position that the pipeline violated their treaty rights. When DAPL’s parent company—Energy Transfer Partners—continued construction, decimating objects with cultural and spiritual value to tribes across the Great Plains, the clear disregard for the Tribes’ resources and concerns led to significant social unrest. Indigenous Peoples and allies from around the world gathered on the banks of the Cannonball River to physically protest construction of the pipeline. In fact, the #NoDAPL movement swelled to 15,000 people at its apex and resulted in conflict, arrests and further human rights violations.

In parallel to legal and international advocacy measures, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe activated a shareholder advocacy campaign targeted towards financial institutions funding pipeline construction. The Tribe, supported by a significant coalition of investors, sent a letter representing over $685 billion assets under management—the total market value managed on behalf of the investors’ clients—that elevated to those institutions the real-time impacts of corporate actors’ failure to consider human rights during construction. After meeting with multiple institutions over the course of the campaign, several European banks pulled their commitments from the pipeline.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s corporate engagement campaign put the rights of Indigenous Peoples on the radar as a material consideration for financial institutions. In 2018, First Peoples Worldwide used publicly available data to study whether the social and human rights risks attendant to DAPL manifested in financial losses. The study found that, though initially estimated to cost $3.8 billion, the pipeline cost more than $12 billion by the time it was operational in June 2017, losses accumulated from the long delays in construction due to social unrest and legal filings. Energy Transfer Partners’ stock price significantly underperformed relative to market expectations during the event study period, and it experienced a long-term decline in value that persisted after the project was completed. In fact, from August 2016 to September 2018—while the S&P 500 increased by nearly 35 percent—ETP’s stock declined by almost 20 percent.

While the case study does not attribute this underperformance exclusively to social pressure, the early failure to respect the human rights of the affected Indigenous Peoples led to social protests and pressure, which led to the delays that ultimately cost the company and associated financial institutions billions of dollars. Given these financial losses, this case study demonstrates the need for corporate directors and shareholders to understand, review, and incorporate respect for Indigenous Peoples into their business operations as a matter of fiduciary duty, if not as a matter of sustainable finance.  

Implementing Shareholder Advocacy in the Arctic

More recently, the Gwich’in Steering Committee has leveraged shareholder advocacy to create new momentum to protect the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge, which is currently under direct threat of development by oil and gas companies. The Coastal Plain is sacred for the Gwich’in and other Alaskan Natives – the Gwich’in call it “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). In 1988, Gwich’in Elders and Chiefs gathered for the first time in over 150 years and formed the Gwich’in Steering Committee (GSC) to act as the unified voice to protect their ancestral lands. Since then, the Gwich’in people have used every mechanism possible to protect the Coastal Plain from oil and gas development and recently have engaged with corporate and financial institutions in those efforts. In 2019, the GSC met with multiple financial institutions to urge them to ban financing for oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge. At the meetings, representatives from the banks recalled meeting with Standing Rock Sioux tribal leaders in 2016 and indicated that those meetings continue to influence their policies.

To date, more than 30 international financial institutions have adopted policies that exclude project-level financing for oil and gas development in the Arctic. Significantly, since the meetings in 2019, all six major US banks and all major Canadian banks released updates to their policies banning project-level financing for fossil fuel development in the Refuge, and lease sales performed dramatically below expectations, with no major energy companies participating.

This strategy is increasingly important as incursions continue unabated around the world affecting Indigenous communities in Russiathe AmazonAustralia, and Africa, and, in the US, in MinnesotaArizona, and southern Alaska, among so many more.

Forward-Looking Accountability

Engaging with investors and shareholders to elevate the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ rights is an increasingly critical avenue for advocacy and change, especially as companies and investors seek additional means to activate their own values aligning with social, environmental, and racial justice. Shareholder advocacy creates accountability not only between a boardroom and the impacts of business in Indigenous communities but between a corporation’s own policies and actions. Through understanding and incorporating these rights at every stage of decision-making—especially the initial stages—businesses can pave the way for a more integrated respect of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, one that is forward-looking instead of reactionary. In this way, centering the rights of Indigenous Peoples is an imperative for companies who are seeking the best means not only to prevent human right violations but to activate greater respect for Indigenous Peoples by aligning their operations with Indigenous self-determination and well-being.


‘It’s cultural genocide’: inside the fight to stop a pipeline on tribal lands

Dressed in a ribbon skirt and mask, Tara Houska gazed down at the trickling waters of the Mississippi near its headwaters. The great American river that eventually flows into the Gulf of Mexico is just a stream in these parts of northern Minnesota.

A pipeline will soon burrow underneath this part of the Mississippi and its surrounding wetlands. It is one of hundreds of water crossings, including wild rice fields, that lie in the path of a new stretch of Line 3, a pipeline bringing nearly 1m barrels of tar sands a day from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin.

But opposition to the pipeline is considerable, andis supported by environmental organizations and activists resisting pipelines such as the Dakota Access pipeline, and Keystone XL – a project that Joe Biden cancelled on his first day in the White House.

The on-the-ground activists are called “water protectors”, who are against the pipeline because of its impact on the climate crisis, oil spills and infringement on Native treaty rights.

There are numerous sites in Minnesota, along the new Line 3 route, where water protectors have set up camp. Much of the route goes through tribal lands, as well as Minnesota’s iron range and areas popular for recreation, including hunting, fishing and people enjoying the outdoors.

It is a lush, wooded part of the state, thick with birch and pine trees, pristine lakes, rolling creeks and lakes filled with wild rice, an agricultural product that is historically significant to the Ojibwe.

Enbridge contractors work on Line 3 in Aitkin county in Palisade, Minnesota, on 4 February 2021.
Enbridge contractors work on Line 3 in Aitkin county in Palisade, Minnesota, on 4 February 2021. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber/The Guardian

Tall grasses poked out of the snow at the spot near the Mississippi headwaters in northern Minnesota, where Houska spoke. “It’s really hard to be in a situation in which we’re looking at this beautiful place and thinking about the fact that our governor has chosen to support or at least tacitly allow a tar sands project, one of the biggest tar sands infrastructure projects in North America,” Houska said. “It’s a perpetuation of cultural genocide.”

A ‘replacement line’ or expansion?

Line 3 is a proposed reroute of a 52-year-old pipeline operated by Enbridge, a Canadian energy corporation based in Alberta. In 2014, after two major oil spills for which Enbridge was responsible, including the largest inland oil spill in US history, the Department of Justice under the Obama administration ordered the replacement line, due to its structural issues. The “replacement” pipeline runs mostly on a completely new route through Minnesota, barreling through hundreds of lakes, rivers, aqueducts and wetlands. It also traverses land that Native American opponents say is protected by US treaties with Ojibwe nations.

For the past three years, Houska, an attorney, has set up camp here with the resistance group Giniw Collective, which she founded. Last week Houska met with the congresswoman Ilhan Omar at the bridge overlooking the river, along with a group of other Native female leaders.

“We need Biden to revoke the water-crossing permit,” Omar told the Guardian. “That is one of the greatest opportunities that can be given to this community.”

Omar sent a letter to Biden calling on him to cancel the permits allowing the pipeline to cross under the river.

Among the objections are that the line will bring an expansion of tar sands, which have higher emissions than other types of crude oil. In addition, opponents say the line is a violation of indigenous territory, as it causes pollution in lands and waters that the Ojibwe were promised to be able to use for ever.

Banners and signs in protest of Line 3 in Palisade, Minnesota.
Banners and signs in protest of Line 3 in Palisade, Minnesota. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber/The Guardian

Enbridge calls its $3bn endeavour the Line 3 Replacement Project, claiming the new pipes simply replace existing infrastructure that dates back to the 1960s. But opponents say that it is an expansion not a replacement project, as the majority of the new pipeline in Minnesota takes a different course than the original.

“What I want to say loud and clear is that this is not a replacement line,” said Dawn Goodwin, an Ojibwe advocate from the White Earth reservation, and one of the women who met with Omar at the river. “It’s actually relocation, a whole new project, a whole new corridor.”

The fight against Line 3 evokes a series of treaties signed between the US government and the Ojibwe people, including the treaty of 1837, which explicitly grants the Ojibwe the right to hunt, fish and gather in the lands they gave up, and the 1855 treaty, which in 1999, the supreme court ruled also retains those rights.

More than 100 people have been arrested as they protested against the line in the last month, since construction of the project began, Houska said, but battles are still raging in the courts and between government agencies. In one case, the Minnesota department of commerce claims the utilities regulator should not have sanctioned the project without first evaluating the long-term demand for oil.

Meanwhile, pressure mounts on Biden to halt Line 3 as indigenous activists and environmentalists argue that building new fossil fuel infrastructure will jeopardize his ambitious climate plans.

But not everyone is against Line 3.

Environmental activists protest in front of the construction site for the Line 3 oil pipeline.
Environmental activists protest in front of the construction site for the Line 3 oil pipeline. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

‘Preserve our land’

Tim Halberg owns the land on both sides of the river where the pipeline crosses underneath. A research scientist and the proprietor of a land management company, Halberg uses the land to hunt, trap, fish and swim with his family. He grew up four miles north of the crossing, the descendant of Swedish immigrants.

Halberg was approached by Enbridge four or five years ago for permission to use his land for the right of way. He doesn’t see a problem with the pipelines being underground. “The grassland doesn’t get impeded by a pipe in the ground,” he said. “Oil spills are bad, but remember what oil does with water – oil floats. It’s easier to recover.”

Oil pipeline spills are known to happen, like the Kalamazoo oil spill in 2010, in which 1m US gallons of oil flowing through Enbridge’s Line 6B burst into the Kalamazoo River.

Michael Barnes, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said according to the project’s environmental impact statement, Line 3 is unlikely to have much impact on greenhouse gas emissions. “Restored capacity on the replacement line displaces crude oil being delivered today by truck or train, which are more carbon intensive modes of transport,” Barnes said in an email to the Guardian.

Barnes also said that Enbridge has demonstrated “ongoing respect for tribal sovereignty”, pointing to support from the project by both the Leech Lake and the Fond du Lac.

Nancy Beaulieu, an organizer for the environmental group MN350 and a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe who met with Omar at the headwaters, is unhappy with how some tribal leaders have accepted the project without consulting their members. This includes the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe – an umbrella organization of the Ojibwe tribes with the exception of Red Lake.

Nancy Beaulieu at Lake Irving in Bemidji, Minnesota.
Nancy Beaulieu at Lake Irving in Bemidji, Minnesota. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber/The Guardian

“Being stakeholders of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, we should have prior informed consent, but we have not,” Beaulieu told the Guardian. “Our Minnesota Chippewa tribe constitution has a preamble to conserve and preserve our resources and our land for the wellbeing of our people and our descendants. Line 3 violates our preamble.”

Others including White Earth, Red Lake and most recently Mille Lacs, have fought Enbridge in court. That fight received a blow this week when the Minnesota appeals court denied a request for a stay of construction. Joe Plummer, a tribal attorney representing Red Lake, said the fight was far from over. “This is only a decision on our emergency request to stop construction,” Plummer said. Oral arguments for the case begin in March, and the tribe has a request in the US district court that challenges the army corps of engineers’ approval.

Another place where the pipeline will cross the Mississippi is near Palisade, Minnesota, in Aikin county. Nearby, a water protector camp called the Welcome Center hosts Natives and allies who want to stand up to Enbridge.

One truth-teller at the site is Tania Aubid, an Ojibwe woman who has no time for elected tribal leaders giving away Native land. “They may have been elected into office, but they don’t know anything about the history of their own people,” she said.


Covid-19 takes the life of the last male from Brazil’s indigenous Juma tribe

The elder Aruká, who died last week in a hospital in the upper Amazon River basin, leaves behind three daughters who are now the only survivors of a group that counted on thousands of members just three centuries ago

Aruká Juma, a native Brazilian, was aged between 86 and 90 when he died from complications caused by coronavirus on Wednesday in an intensive care unit (ICU) in a hospital in Porto Velho, a city located in the upper Amazon River basin, and 120 kilometers by road and two hours by boat from his village.

His death, just like the 1,150 other Covid-19 fatalities registered that day across Brazil, was a tragedy for his next of kin. But Aruká was also the last male from the Juma people, a living memory of ancestral wisdom and a survivor of an attempt to wipe out his kind. The three daughters he leaves behind are now the only ones left from a people who counted on between 12,000 and 15,000 members in the 18th century.

Aruká was the last Juma man who had knowledge of the ways of hunting, the artisan ways of his people


Acute respiratory failure combined with an infection meant that the senior did not survive the illness, according to digital daily Amazonia Real. As a youngster, he and six other Jumas survived a massacre that was ordered by traders interested in the rubber and chestnuts from his land, according to the detailed information from the Social-Environmental Institute about every one of the hundreds of ethnic groups in Brazil. Hunted down as if they were wild animals, around 60 of the indigenous peoples were killed. It was the last mass-extermination attempt that was suffered by the tribe, which was described by chroniclers as cannibals, perverse and ferocious.

Aruká’s case illustrates how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the indigenous peoples who live in the villages of Brazil, which is the second-worst country in terms of the global impact of the pandemic. Three figures sum up the national drama: 242,000 dead, nearly 10 million infections and a 14% unemployment rate. Among the indigenous peoples who live in villages – a small minority that is particularly vulnerable in this vast territory – Covid-19 has killed 567 people. The life of this Juma offers, what’s more, a look at the history behind these communities that have been decimated since Portuguese colonization and that are essential for the conservation of the Amazon, the biggest tropical jungle in the world. The tribes are key, as such, in the fight to slow down climate change.

Anthropologist Edmundo Peggion came to know the last Juma in the 1990s. “Aruká was the last Juma man who had knowledge of the ways of hunting, the artisan ways of his people,” explains the professor from the Paulista State University (Unesp) via telephone. “There is a consensus in the region, among the Kagwahiva indigenous people, of their importance for the collective memory.” Kagwahiva is the linguistic group to which the Juma belong. “He was recognized as an amóe, a title of respect,” Peggion explains, in reference to a word meaning “grandfather.”

As well as the long-term threats facing Brazil’s indigenous peoples, such as gold miners and illegal loggers, they have also been facing the coronavirus pandemic and Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the health crisis – the Brazilian president is anti-vaccine, has played down the severity of Covid-19 and has also trampled on the rights of indigenous peoples.

The main associations protecting Brazilian natives have directly blamed the government for Aruká‘s death. “Once again, the Brazilian government has acted with a degree of criminal negligence and incompetence,” they charged in a statement. “The government murdered him.”

Aruká Juma in a photo taken in 1998 by Edmundo Peggion, when the authorities transferred him and his family to the Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous land.
Aruká Juma in a photo taken in 1998 by Edmundo Peggion, when the authorities transferred him and his family to the Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous land.EDMUNDO PEGGION / EL PAÍS

The epidemic is spreading fast via the rivers of the Amazon, and the invaders of lands are a source of infection. While vaccines are arriving in remote indigenous villages, there is mistrust of health workers. And the lack of vaccine supply is threatening the campaign in all of Brazil – the program had to be suspended in Rio de Janeiro last week.

Aruká had to be taken to hospital in January and intubated. He became one of the Brazilians to be given what the country’s Health Ministry describes as early treatment, using drugs such as chloroquine – a medication whose efficiency against Covid-19 has not been scientifically proven, and whose usage has been turned into government policy by Bolsonaro.

The death of the indigenous senior “is a devastating loss,” says Edson Carvalho, from the NGO Kanindé. “The history of his life was and will continue to be a symbol of the tremendous fight waged by the Juma people,” he adds, speaking via telephone from Porto Velho, the city where Aruká died.

He will be buried in his village, which is where he was when he noticed the first coronavirus symptoms in January. It’s a place far from any city, a 38,000-hectare indigenous reserve that was created after a long and tough battle that involved years of administrative procedures. The Brazilian authorities were unconvinced as to whether this territory, and its handful of residents, was worthy of the legal protection needed to impede the exploitation of its resources.After another battle with the authorities, Aruká managed to return to the lands where he grew up and where his ancestors lived for centuries

Before this was achieved, at the end of the 1990s the last Juma peoples were removed from their land by the authorities. Aruká, his three daughters, a brother-in-law and his wife were moved against their will to the domain of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, explains Peggion, who had close contact with both groups at the time. There the daughters married men from the other tribe, with whom the Juma had a common language. Abandoning their habitat “had a huge impact in the life of all of the Juma,” the anthropologist explains, adding that the older couple died shortly after the relocation. “In those years, outside of his territory, Aruká was very depressed, he really missed his territory,” the researcher explains.

After another battle with the authorities, Aruká managed to return to the lands where he grew up and where his ancestors lived for centuries. He was accompanied by his daughters (Jumas), their husbands (Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau) and the children of the three couples. The Kanindé NGO claims that the daughters are the last of the line, given that it is the father who passes down the ethnicity. The firstborn, Borehá, is the new chief of the decimated group.

Faithful to his campaign promise, Bolsonaro has failed to give legal protection to a single extra square inch of indigenous land during the two years he has held the presidency. The cases that are being processed have been frozen while the number of Amazon inspectors – the bodies that work to take care of the environment and the indigenous peoples that have protected it for countless generations – is being reduced.


More Native Americans Named to Key Posts in Biden Administration

In a slow rollout of appointments since taking office last month, President Joe Biden has added an additional three Native American members to various department and task force positions in February, making good on “the Biden-Harris commitment to diversity.”

Department of the Interior

On Feb. 3, former attorney at the Native American Rights Fund in Alaska and a tribal member of the Chickasaw Nation, Natalie Landreth, was appointed to serve in the Department of the Interior as deputy solicitor for land.

Landreth will serve under the first Native American cabinet member, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, once the congresswoman is confirmed by the Senate to the secretary of the Interior.

During her 17-year tenure at the Native American Rights Fund, which represents tribes in legal battles over sovereignty, treaty rights and environmental law, Landreth was involved in lawsuits to stop the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline which Native groups say could pollute sacred lands and waters in Indian Country. Last year, Landreth also successfully challenged Montana’s requirement that mail-in ballots have witness signatures, thereby correcting the most common reason such ballots hadn’t been counted.

Department of Transportation

Navajo Nation’s former Department of Transportation head, Arizona State Rep. Arlando Teller, was appointed last week to serve under department secretary Pete Butigeg as deputy assistant secretary of tribal affairs in the Department of Transportation. Teller is the first openly gay person to be confirmed to a Cabinet post.

He resigned from his legislative seat Jan. 31.

He is the second Navajo person to join the Biden-Harris administration, after Wahleah Johns was selected to serve as Director of the Office of Indian Energy in the Energy Department last month.

President of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, tweeted that, “Words cannot express how proud we are of these two young Navajo professionals, who have dedicated themselves to serving our Navajo people and are now moving on to the federal level to help empower all tribal nations.”

COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force

On Feb. 10, the White House named 12 members to a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. 

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris created the group “to help ensure an equitable response to the pandemic, the President signed an executive order on January 21 creating a task force to address COVID-19 related health and social inequities,” according to a press release. 

Among the 12 member group of diverse backgrounds, Victor Joseph of the Native Village of Tanana in Alaska was selected to serve as a non-federal task force member.

Joseph was elected to Tanana Chiefs Conference Chairman in March of 2014, and served until last October. Prior to that role, he served in various tribal positions, and as Alaska Representative on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Tribal Advisory Committee and the Indian Health Services Budget Formulation Committee. 


Indigenous community wins recognition of its land rights in Panama

  • A ruling by Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice in November 2020 led to the official creation of a comarca, or protected Indigenous territory, for the Naso Tjër Di people in northern Panama.
  • The 1,600-square-kilometer (620-square-mile) comarca is the result of a decades-long effort to secure the Naso’s land rights.
  • Panama’s former president had vetoed legislation creating the comarca in 2018, which he said was unconstitutional because it overlapped with two established protected areas.
  • Other Indigenous groups in Panama with longstanding comarcas still struggle to hold back outside incursions for projects such as dams and power transmission lines.

The Naso Tjër Di people of Panama now have a protected territory of their own. The creation of the 1,600-square-kilometer (620-square-mile) comarca, as it’s called in Panama, came as a result of a recent decision by the country’s Supreme Court recognizing the Indigenous nation’s land rights.

The court’s decision rested in part on evidence of the role that Indigenous groups play in protecting the environment in Panama, as has been shown elsewhere on the planet, according to an analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

Leaders in the Naso community have been working toward the goal of a comarca for decades, seeing it as a bulwark against potentially destructive outside incursions.

“Having that official recognition of their land is so fundamental to their well-being and survival as a group,” Sarah Dorman, a staff attorney with CIEL, told Mongabay.

The Naso nation comprises around 4,000 people living in the rainforests of northern Panama along the Teribe River, territory they have lived in for generations. But even as other Indigenous groups in Panama have been able to secure their own comarcas, the Naso’s claim to the land remained unrecognized by the government.

Deforestation in Panama. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Deforestation in Panama. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Change appeared to be coming in 2018, when Panama’s National Assembly passed a law to establish the Naso Tjër Di Comarca. Shortly after the vote on the legislation, though, then-President Juan Carlos Varela vetoed it. He said the comarca would overlap with two protected areas designated in the mid-2000s: La Amistad International Park and Palo Seco Protected Forest, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As a result, he argued, the legislation creating the comarca was “inconvenient,” “unenforceable” and unconstitutional.

In response, the legislature overrode Varela’s veto, triggering a review of the matter by the Panamanian Supreme Court. The court rejected Varela’s arguments on Nov. 12, 2020, ruling that the Constitution required that the government secure continued collective access for Panama’s Indigenous people to their ancestral lands.

The ruling notes that “the Indigenous population has preserved the environment in the places where they have settled, because they are bearers of ancient knowledge about biodiversity, plants, animals, water, and climate that allows for the sustainable use of the resources available to them,” according to a translation from CIEL.

Reynaldo Santana, the king of the Naso, speaks to a crowd. Image courtesy of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP).
Reynaldo Santana, the king of the Naso, speaks to a crowd. Image courtesy of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP).

In another “key reference,” according to Dorman, the court’s members also wrote that Indigenous “laws, customs, and traditional practices reflect both an attachment to the land and the responsibility to conserve it for the use of future generations.”

In a statement following the ruling, the NGO Rainforest Foundation US said its analysis found that less deforestation had occurred on Naso lands than in the Palo Seco Protected Forest.

“As the court says itself, Indigenous peoples are among the best protectors of the environment,” CIEL’s Dorman said.

The court’s decision extended the thrust of a legal memo issued by the Panamanian Ministry of Environment in 2019, saying that protected areas weren’t an impediment to Indigenous land titling.

Looking up at the canopy in Panama’s rainforest. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Looking up at the canopy in Panama’s rainforest. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The Naso Tjër Di Comarca became official on Dec. 4, 2020, when Panama’s current president, Laurentino Cortizo Cohen, went to the town of Sieyik, where the Naso’s king resides, to sign the legislation. In a speech, Cortizo Cohen said the overlap between the comarca and the protected areas would ensure that the forests in the area would be doubly protected, according to a government statement.

Dorman said the recognition of the Naso’s territory is “huge” from a legal perspective. But she also said that more remained to be done to secure their forests.

CIEL works closely with the Ngäbe and Buglé Indigenous peoples in Panama, and these groups achieved a joint comarca in 1997. Dorman said that once a comarca is formed, the law requires demarcating the boundaries between a comarca and adjacent areas within two years.

“That has not been finished to this day,” she said.

In the years since, Ngäbe and Buglé community leaders say they’ve been sidelined for development projects, most recently the construction of a power transmission line through their territory that they worry will force them from their homes.

An agouti, a rodent found in Panama. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
An agouti, a rodent found in Panama. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The Naso have faced their own spate of development projects affecting their lands and fissuring their community. After years of construction on a tributary of the Teribe River, the Bonyik hydroelectric dam came online in 2014, and its social impacts reportedly rippled through Naso communities, according to a World Bank investigation as well as a 2014 report by James Anaya, then the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The dam also lies within the boundaries of the Palo Seco Protected Forest. In fact, human rights groups and Indigenous communities have expressed concern that such protected areas may in fact be a tool to dispossess Indigenous groups like the Naso of their lands to pave the way for lucrative development projects.

Today, the Naso have recognition of their land rights, predicated on their ancestral claims and backed by evidence that shows the group’s superlative environmental stewardship. But until the borders are established, they are still vulnerable from a legal standpoint, Dorman said.

“If your land is not delineated completely,” she said, “it’s just so much harder to legally defend against these outside encroachments.”