Russia’s indigenous peoples are in the crosshairs of COVID-19

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases in Russia have surged. On October 21, Russian officials announced a record daily death toll of 317, but ruled out a strict lockdown.

The pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated the inequalities of societies the world over, and Russia is no exception. Now activists have raised concern for the fate of 250,000 people belonging to 41 ethnic groups — officially known as the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East. They are particularly vulnerable to infection as Russia experiences its “second wave.”

Initially, these regions’ remoteness and sheer size was an advantage — it helped them avoid the high traffic which facilitated the disease’s quick spread in well-connected metropolitan hubs such as Moscow.

But mining facilities which extract oil, gas, and other raw materials are abundant in lands inhabited by indigenous people. Russia’s Arctic and sub-Arctic regions are estimated to contain 90 percent of Russia’s natural gas and 10 percent of its oil resources. Because of these areas’ remoteness, workers from all across Russia move to company towns for months at a time.

These seasonal industrial workers are probably the primary cause of infection in these far-flung areas; places such as the Chayanda oilfield in the Sakha region, where over 3,000 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19 in May. Workers then protested over the lack of precautions taken. That same month in Belokamenka, the largest industrial construction site North of the Arctic circle, nearly 1,000 workers caught the disease, and at the Olimpiada gold mine in Krasnoyarsk Krai, over 1,000 workers tested positive.

Outbreaks at industrial settlements may well be the reason why several northern regions with indigenous populations now have some of the highest numbers of current COVID-19 infections. According to the Russian healthcare ministry’s latest pandemic update (October 21 at the time of publication), these include the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, and the Murmask Oblast.

Cases like these severely endanger indigenous populations who are under-prepared to counter a pandemic. Many of the specific burdens they face, such as higher than average rates of respiratory illnesses, preceded the pandemic. Furthermore, many rely on traditional livelihoods such as reindeer herding, fishing, and hunting to obtain everyday goods. These ways of life, hence their food security, have come under serious threat from climate change and invasive industrial projects. All these challenges are amplified by poor infrastructure and rudimentary healthcare provision.

statement recently issued by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an organisation made up of Inuit peoples from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and the Russian region of Chukotka, explained the severity of the situation for indigenous communities across the global North:

Overcrowding, food insecurity, lower life expectancy, and a high prevalence of tuberculosis are among the inequities experienced by our people that are linked to poor infrastructure. Many homes lack running water and a flush toilet. Many more depend on aging and deteriorating piped and haul systems. These conditions contribute to severe and multiple illnesses, including invasive pneumococcal disease that are among the highest in the world. Household overcrowding has numerous interrelated adverse impacts, from mental well-being to physical health.

Rates of tuberculosis (TB) in regions inhabited by indigenous peoples are 9.5 percent higher than among the Russian national average and the mortality rate from TB is 450 percent higher. In March Anders Koch, a Danish epidemiologist who specialises in Arctic health, explained to the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental organization of Arctic states – that “crowded housing conditions, poor hygienic standards and lack of running water” create a favourable environment for the spread of TB, leading to it being considered a “social disease that is affected by low social living conditions.” He concluded that living conditions in the Arctic aided the transmission of diseases.

Another statement issued by the ICC on April 21 illustrated how these factors exacerbated the dangers posed by the pandemic:

Inuit across our homelands are working to maintain our traditional culture under very trying circumstances,” said ICC Chair Dalee Sambo Dorough. “We are used to living together in groups. Social distancing is a foreign concept and our past experiences with such an advisory were triggered by devastating illnesses such as tuberculosis (TB), measles, and polio. This is why we must adapt. The issues we have been working to overcome for decades, such as overcrowded housing, lack of proper sewage and potable water systems, high rates of TB, and poor broadband connectivity become starkly evident during a pandemic, and increase the risks of spreading the disease.

The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) – which was temporarily closed in 2012 but allowed to reopen under newfound political pressure – issued a statement in March about the risks of COVID-19 for indigenous peoples. It primarily stressed that the remoteness of Arctic regions as well as a lack of access to relevant information and public services were of greatest concern.

RAIPON presented a positive picture of a proactive government approach to fighting the pandemic in remote regions. It reported that regional governments in Russia had urged local residents to avoid contact with urban populations and limit travel to urban areas in response to the pandemic. There were also reports of the government increasing funding, as well as “social benefits, delivery of basic-needs products, information spread by satellite phones” provided free of charge to nomadic Nenets peoples who practice reindeer herding in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

Another report in July explained that the spread of the virus in the Siberian village Bogorodskoye in Khabarovsk Krai was curbed due to efforts by RAIPON and local authorities. New regulations in May, added another report, also permitted indigenous groups to use larger nets for catching fish in order to ensure food security in the face of supply chain disruption. Another post by RAIPON in April indicated that Russia’s Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs had offered health monitoring, access to public services, distance learning for school children, and provision of food and essential goods including fuel.

However, other sources reported a different reality.

An August 16 report conducted by NGOs Aborigen-Forum, Center for the Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Arctic Consult, and the Batani Foundation indicated that some of those requiring medical attention in Chukotka were located between six and twelve hours away from the nearest hospital. (Aborigen Forum is managed by Dmitry Berezhkov, a former RAIPON leader who now lives in exile in Norway — ed.)

The report also includes the words of an indigenous medical worker from Yamal, Ekaterina Khudi, who described her experience contracting COVID-19 and the great lengths she had to go to in order to receive any treatment.

“I begged doctors to start a course of treatment, but as we received once again the negative tests for COVID-19, they said that we were not subjects for treatment. So they sent me back home even though […] I felt terrible and could only drink water.”

Following June 12, Khudi was required to return to work despite a high fever, a loss of smell and intense body aches. However, after she developed a fever of 39.4 degrees and started to vomit, she was taken to the hospital. There, she underwent tests which showed that she was positive for COVID-19 and that she had lung damage. She expressed concern about her future, as she had developed partial paralysis in her legs and lost some of her speaking ability, adding:

“How long [will] all this shame […] continue in our hospital? All people know what terrible things are going [on] at our hospital but everybody [is] silent.”

In addition to the devastating effects on the health of indigenous communities, the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity already prevalent due to clearcutting, forest fires and poaching. The Arctic Council reported that the pandemic disrupted “trade and supply relations” which allow indigenous groups to obtain tools, ammunition, fuel and clothing for their households. This was exemplified by the cancellation of the annual “Reindeer Herder Days” event which runs from March to April and serves as a celebration of indigenous traditional livelihoods where nomadic groups are able to stock up on critical food supplies.

Indigenous communities are also subject to quotas that restrict the amount of fish or wild animals they are able to catch without a fishing or hunting permit in order to avoid excessive fishing or poaching. In Khabarovsk Krai, which holds the third-largest population of indigenous people in Russia, there was a limit imposed on the total amount of salmon that the communities were permitted to catch along the Amur River in 2020. Because these groups rely on traditional hunting and fishing to sustain their livelihood, quotas and restrictions create further food insecurity. As one resident of the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug, Nina Yadne, told Ura.News on April 21:

Where is the guarantee that people in the tundra won’t die of starvation? Who knows what the summer will bring, given the situation with reindeer, weather, and diseases? We will be fortunate if the virus doesn’t reach [the tundra]!

In April, indigenous groups within the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region further stressed that climate change had aggravated food and gas shortages – as many remote communities rely on rivers to freeze solid in the winter in order to create trade routes – making the pandemic’s effect even more acute.

Consequences like these are exactly why indigenous people continue to struggle against large-scale resource extraction, and have continued to do so during the pandemic.

In June, work began on Kuznetskiy Yuzhny, an open-pit coal mine, in the area of Cheremza, a village in the Kemerovo Oblast largely inhabited by ethnic Shor people. The mine itself is planned to be located two kilometres from the village in southern Siberia, with the railway transporting the coal planned to be just 400 metres away. The development of this project sparked protests by environmental and indigenous activists. One Shor protester Alexey Chispiyakov, explained the situation in a video released on the International Day of Indigenous People:

Our crystal-clean mountain rivers turned black. Our gardens are covered in coal dust. Our homes are shaken by explosions daily. Game and fish are gone. Wild plants are poisoned by coal waste tailings. We are deprived of traditional sources of income and this facilitates migration from the village to the city. In the city, we disappear. Our culture and our ethnic identity disappears in the city. The Shors people make up only 4 percent of residents in Kemerovo Oblast, and this number is constantly going down.

Furthermore, the catastrophic Norilsk oil spill of May 29 has added a renewed urgency to indigenous protesters’ agendas. Valeria, an indigenous woman from the Taimyr peninsula, protested the impact of industrial companies and the oil spill on her community and their traditional way of life. Speaking to 7×7, an independent publication focusing on the Russian regions, she said the following:

There are fewer and fewer of us. Our native lands are being taken over by industrial companies. We are barely surviving on our own territories. That is why we came out: so the whole world would look at us and see the conditions we find ourselves in.

As people like Valeria and Alexey Chispiyakov see it, their livelihoods and their rights were already under serious threat before the COVID-19 pandemic began. It has merely accelerated the threat of near extinction. One report by RAIPON, released in June, even suggested that the pandemic threatens the existence of indigenous languages which are primarily spoken by community elders – those most at risk of serious COVID-19 infections.

The future prospects of Russia’s indigenous peoples can be understood by applying the words of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in April:

The committee is considering how to bring forward the lessons learned from this pandemic to ensure future preparedness, and identify strategies and priorities to fully close the existing gaps and end the disparities. Since our initial call to governments to close the infrastructure gaps throughout Inuit Nunaat through major new investments in our communities, prioritizing basic infrastructure such as housing, water, and sewer and broadband connections, we are seeing similar demands being echoed by other Indigenous peoples across the globe. Social and economic equity, and supporting population health, and reducing vulnerability to virus[es] and disease is critical. Our concern has only increased because we see the compounded threats to our basic health and well-being manifesting themselves in a very real way.

Russia’s indigenous peoples have coped with many threats to their way of life in recent decades. Tragically, it seems likely that for some of them, COVID-19 could prove one struggle too many.


Christmas Day brings final end to Barents region’s largest air polluter

Tens of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and other hazardous gases from the chimneys have annually been emitted from Nornickel’s factory in the town with the same name as the metal produced.

Damage to health, environment and cross-border relations with Norway have made Nikel infamous much further away than the acid rain has damaged the fragile taiga forest on the Kola Peninsula and northern Scandinavia.

Now, it all comes to an end.

By December 25, the last workers in smelting production will be transferred to new jobs. After that, according to the company’s Director of Human Resources and Social Policy Department, Anna Krygina, the remaining workers will be with the customer service and bringing down equipment. A work scheduled to continue to the end of 2021.

Interviewed by the Nornickel-sponsored TV21, Krygina says many of the workers will retire, while many others will be employed in other vacancies with Nornickel’s subsidiary Kola Mining and Metallurgical Combine. The company operates mines in Zapolyarny while production now shutting down in Nikel will partly be transferred to the larger factory complex in Monchegorsk.

“Today we are talking about the plans for the workers. Now, the documentation and implementation of all these plans are starting. So, we still have two months of hard work,” Anna Krygina says in the interview.

It was last fall oligarch and CEO of Nornickel, Vladimir Potanin, announced the closure the smelter, a move affecting about 800 workers. With just six weeks before shutdown, only two of the workers in the smelter have not chosen any of the option offered by the company.  

Nikel is a typical ‘monogorod’, a town whose economy survive purely on the basis on one major company. Many locals fear their town is doomed, but big promisses to compensate the loss of jobs are made by officials. Transmission to other businesses, like tourism, are set as a priority by both Nornickel and regional authorities. Successful or not, many of the current employees at the smelter will move. The Barents Observer has previously told the story about unsold appartments in Nikel, on the market for 100,000 rubles, or the same as an Iphone. 

Apartment buildings in the centre of Nikel. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

The smoke will be gone by Christmas Day, but the factory will still make the skyline of the town.

Production machinery and equipment are to be transferred to other divisions of Nornickel in the Murmansk region and on the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia.

Buildings will be demolished by 2025. Then, a two-year period with reclamation of the land plot starts and by 2027, the smelter that was raised a few years after the Second World War will be history.

Pollution comes out of walls and roofs of the smelter. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the smelter received ore from Norilsk which contained much more sulfur than from the local mines in Nikel and Zapolyarny. At the peak, annual emission was up to 400,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2). In the last two decades, emissions are reduced to less than 90,000 tons per year. The smoke brings additional tons of heavy metals, also across the border to Norway where the maximum allowed SO2 limits for air quality notoriously have been violated.


The burning scar: Inside the destruction of Asia’s last rainforests

A Korean palm oil giant has been buying up swathes of Asia’s largest remaining rainforests. A visual investigation published today suggests fires have been deliberately set on the land.

Petrus Kinggo walks through the thick lowland rainforest in the Boven Digoel Regency.

“This is our mini market,” he says, smiling. “But unlike in the city, here food and medicine are free.”

Mr Kinggo is an elder in the Mandobo tribe. His ancestors have lived off these forests in Papua, Indonesia for centuries. Along with fishing and hunting, the sago starch extracted from palms growing wild here provided the community with their staple food. Their home is among the most biodiverse places on earth, and the rainforest is sacred and essential to the indigenous tribes.

Six years ago, Mr Kinggo was approached by South Korean palm oil giant Korindo, which asked him to help persuade his tribe and 10 other clans to accept just 100,000 rupiah ($8; £6) per hectare in compensation for their land. The company arrived with permits from the government and wanted a “quick transaction” with indigenous landholders, according to Mr Kinggo. And the promise of development was coupled with subtle intimidation, he said.

“The military and police came to my house, saying I had to meet with the company. They said they didn’t know what would happen to me if I didn’t.”

When he did, they made him personal promises as well, he said. As a co-ordinator, he would receive a new house with clean water and a generator, and have his children’s school fees paid.

His decision would change his community forever.

Petrus Kinggo
Petrus Kinggo struck a deal with Korindo to sell part of the land his tribe had lived off for generations

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, and Papua is its newest frontier. The archipelago has experienced one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world – vast areas of forest have been cleared to make way for row upon row of oil palm tree, growing a product found in everything from shampoo to biscuits. Indonesia’s palm oil exports were worth about $19bn (£14bn) last year, according to data from Gapki, the nation’s palm oil association.

The rich forests in the remote province of Papua had until recently escaped relatively untouched, but the government is now rapidly opening the area to investors, vowing to bring prosperity to one of the poorest regions in the country. Korindo controls more land in Papua than any other conglomerate. The company has cleared nearly 60,000 hectares of forests inside its government-granted concessions – an area the size of Chicago or Seoul – and the company’s vast plantation there is protected by state security forces.

Companies like Korindo have to clear the land in these concessions to allow them to replant new palms. Using fire to do that – the so-called “slash and burn” technique – is illegal in Indonesia due to the air pollution it causes and the high risk blazes will get out of control.

Korindo denies setting fires, saying it follows the law. A 2018 report by the leading global green timber certification body – the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), of which Korindo is a member – concluded there was no evidence that illegal and deliberate fires were set by the company.

But according to a new investigation by the Forensic Architecture group at Goldsmiths University in London and Greenpeace International, published in conjunction with the BBC, there is evidence that indicates deliberate burning on the land during the land-clearing period. The investigation found evidence of fires on one of Korindo’s concessions over a period of years in patterns consistent with deliberate use.

Forensic Architecture uses spatial and architectural analysis and advanced modelling and research techniques to investigate human rights violations and environmental destruction. “This is a robust technique that can with a high level of certainty determine if a fire is intentional or not,” said senior researcher Samaneh Moafi. “This allows us to hold the large corporations – who have been setting fires systematically for years now – liable in the court,” she said.

The group used satellite imagery to study the pattern of land clearing inside a Korindo concession called PT Dongin Prabhawa. They used the imagery to study the so-called “normalised burn ratio”, comparing it to hotspot data in the same area – intense heat sources picked up Nasa satellites, and put the two datasets together over the same period of time, 2011 to 2016.

“We found that the pattern, the direction and the speed with which fires had moved matched perfectly with the pattern, the speed, direction with which land clearing happened. This suggests that the fires were set intentionally,” Samaneh Moafi said.

“If the fires were set from outside the concession or due to weather conditions, they would have moved with a different directionality. But in the cases that we were looking at there was a very clear directionality,” she said. captionWatch how the Forensic Architecture Group established what was happening in Papua

Korindo turned down several BBC interview requests, but the company said in a statement that all land clearing was carried out with heavy machinery rather than fires.

It said there were many natural fires in the region due to extreme dryness, and claimed that any fires in its concessions had been started by “villagers hunting giant wild rats hiding under stacks of wood”.

But locals near the concession in Papua told the BBC the company had set fires on the concessions over a period of years, during a timeframe which matched the findings of the visual investigation.

Sefnat Mahuze, a local farmer, said he saw Korindo employees collecting leftover wood, “the worthless stuff”.

“They piled up long rows, maybe 100-200 metres long, and then they poured petrol over it and then lit them,” he said.

Another villager, Esau Kamuyen, said the smoke from the fires “closed the world around them, shutting off the sky”.

According to Greenpeace International, companies are rarely held to account for slash and burn – a practice that almost every year creates a smoky haze in Indonesia which can end up blanketing the entire South East Asian region, causing airports and schools to close.

A Harvard University study estimated that the worst fires in decades in 2015 were linked to more than 90,000 early deaths. The fires that year are also believed to have produced more carbon emissions in just a few months than the entire United States economy.

Papua is home to the largest rainforests in Indonesia
Papua is home to the largest rainforests in Indonesia

Many of the tribal allegations against Korindo were investigated for two years by the Forest Stewardship Council. The regulator’s tree logo – found on paper products throughout the UK and Europe – is meant to tell consumers the product is sourced from ethnically and sustainable companies. The FSC report into allegations against Korindo was never published, after legal threats from the company, but the BBC obtained a copy.

The report found “evidence beyond reasonable doubt” that Korindo’s palm oil operation destroyed 30,000 hectares of high conservation forest in breach of FSC regulations; that Korindo was, “on the balance of probability … supporting the violation of traditional and human rights for its own benefit”; and was “directly benefitting from the military presence to gain an unfair economic advantage” by “providing unfair compensation rates to communities”.

“There was no doubt that Korindo had been in violation of our rules. That was very clear,” Kim Carstensen, the FSC’s executive director, told the BBC at the group’s headquarters in Germany.

The report recommended unequivocally that Korindo be expelled from the body. But the recommendation was rejected by the FSC board – a move environmental groups say undermined the credibility of the organisation. A letter sent to the FSC board in August, signed by 19 local environmental groups, said the groups could no long rely on the body “to be a useful certification tool to promote forest conservation and respect for community rights and livelihoods”.

Mr Carstensen, the executive director, defended the decision to allow Korindo to stay. “These things have happened, right? Is the best thing to do to say they were in breach of our values so we’re not going to have anything to do with you anymore?” he said.

“The logic of the board has been, ‘We want to see the improvements happen’.”

Korindo strongly denied that the company was involved in any human rights violations but acknowledged there was room for improvements and said it was implementing new grievance procedures.

It said it had paid fair compensation to tribes and that it had paid an additional $8 per hectare for the loss of trees – a sum decided by the Indonesian government, which granted them the concession. The BBC tried to confirm the figure with the Indonesian government, but officials declined to comment on Korindo.

Workers on one of Korindo's palm oil plantations, picking up the palm oil fruit
Workers on one of Korindo’s palm oil plantations, picking up the palm oil fruit

The Indonesian government maintains generally that Papua is an integral part of the nation, recognised by the international community. The province, which is half of the island of New Guinea (the other half belongs to the country of Papua New Guinea), became part of Indonesia after a controversial referendum overseen by the UN in 1969, in which just 1,063 tribal elders were selected to vote.

Since then, control over Papua’s rich natural resources has become a flashpoint in a long-running, low-level separatist conflict. Papuan activists call the 1969 referendum the “act of no choice”.

The Indonesian military has been accused by activist groups of gross human rights abuses in its attempts to suppress dissent in Papua and protect business interests there. Foreign observers are rarely granted access, “because there is something that the state wants to hide”, according to Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher with the US-based Human Rights Watch.

“They are hiding human rights abuses, environmental degradation, deforestation,” he said. “And the marginalisation of indigenous people – economically, socially and politically.”

In an attempt to ease tensions, Papua was granted greater autonomy in 2001, and there has been a significant increase in government funds for the region, with Jakarta vowing to bring prosperity to the people of Papua and saying it is committed to resolving past rights abuses.

'The company didn’t bring prosperity", said Elisabeth Ndiwaen. "What they did was create conflict"
“The company didn’t bring prosperity,” said Elisabeth Ndiwaen. “What they did was create conflict.”

Derek Ndiwaen was one of those in the Mandobo tribe who, like Petrus Kinggo, took money from Korindo for their land. Derek’s sister Elisabeth was away at the time, working in the city, and she didn’t find out about the deal until she returned home. According to Elisabeth, Derek became embroiled in conflict with other tribes over the land deals. She believes the stress played a role in his death.

“My brother would never have sold his pride or forest before,” she said, through tears. “The company didn’t bring prosperity. What they did was create conflict, and my brother was the victim.”

Elisabeth said that her brother was also made promises of free schooling for his children and health care for the family – promises she said were never realised.

“The forest is gone and we are living in poverty,” she said. “After our forest has been sold you would think we would be living a good life. But here in 2020 we are not.”

According to Elisabeth, Korindo told the community it would build good roads and provide clean water.

But residents in her village of Nakias, in the Ngguti district say life hadn’t changed the way they hoped. There’s no clean running water or electricity in the village. Those that can afford it use generators but fuel costs four times as much as in the capital Jakarta.

Environmental activists fear for the Papua rainforest - among the most biodiverse places in the world
Environmental activists fear for the Papua rainforest – among the most biodiverse places in the world

Korindo said that the company directly employs more than 10,000 people and has put $14m (£11m) into social projects in Papua, including food programmes for malnourished children and scholarships.

The company has stopped all further clearing until an assessment of high conservation and high carbon stock forests inside their concessions is carried out.

“The bigger question of what to do with the sins of the past will take a bit of time,” said Kim Carstensen, the FSC chairman. “Whether it’s two years, three years – that I don’t know.”

Elisabeth fears that nothing will make up for the destruction of the rainforest.

“When I see that our ancestral forest is all cleared, chopped down, it’s heart-breaking,” she said. “It should have been passed on to the next generation.”

“I walk through the plantation crying, and ask myself, where are our ancestors’ spirits now that our forest has been completely destroyed. And it happened under my watch.”

Petrus Kinggo's nephew and his generation will inherit a scarred landscape in Papua
Petrus Kinggo’s nephew and his generation will inherit a scarred landscape in Papua

Petrus Kinggo did receive money from Korindo, he said – about $42,000 (£32,000), equal to 17 years’ pay on the provincial monthly minimum wage. And the company paid for one of his eight children’s school fees until 2017. He said he did not receive a house or a generator, and the money is all gone.

“I have nothing left,” he said. “Uncles, nephews, in-laws, grandchildren, brothers, sisters all took some. And then I spent what was left on my own children’s education.”

Thousands of hectares of the Mandobo tribe’s once vast rainforest has been logged and replaced with neat rows of oil palm trees. A further 19,000 hectares now inside a Korindo concession is earmarked for clearing.

Mr Kinggo is fighting to save some of what’s left. He fears future generations will have to “live off money” rather than the forest. He blames the government for not consulting with the villagers before giving the concession to Korindo and “sending them here to pressure us”.

But when he walks through the forest now, he looks inside, and the money he took weighs on him.

“According to God I have sinned, I deceived 10 tribes,” he said.

“The company said, ‘Thank you Petrus for looking after us so well’. But in my heart I knew I had done wrong.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Record number of Native American women elected to Congress

Democrats Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids retain their House seats and are joined by Republican Yvette Herrell

The 117th Congress will have a record number of Native American women after voters elected three to the House of Representatives.

Democrats Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo member representing New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a Ho-Chunk Nation member representing Kansas, both retained their seats after becoming the first Native American women elected to Congress, in 2018.

They are joined by Yvette Herrell, who is Cherokee. Herrell, a Republican, beat the Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small for her New Mexico congressional seat.

The wins for Herrell and Haaland mean that New Mexico will be the first state to have two indigenous women as congressional delegates. The state also became the first to elect women of color as all three of its delegates in the US House of Representatives.

According to a Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) report, 18 indigenous women were running for congressional seats this year – a record in a single year. Native American women made up 2.6% of all women running for Congress this year, the highest percentage since CAWP started collecting data in 2004.

There have been four Native Americans in the US Senate and a handful of indigenous US representatives. All were men until Haaland and Davids were elected in 2018.

In Kansas, Stephanie Byers, who is Chickasaw and a retired teacher, became the state’s first transgender lawmaker when she won her race for a seat in its house of representatives.

“We’ve made history here,” Byers said on Tuesday. “We’ve done something in Kansas most people thought would never happen, and we did it with really no pushback, by just focusing on the issues.”

Also in Kansas, Christina Haswood, a Navajo Nation member, became the youngest person in the state legislature at 26. A third member of the Kansas house , Ponka-We Victors, a Tohono O’odham and Ponca member, won her re-election campaign.

The US House of Representatives will have its highest number of indigenous representatives after Tuesday’s election, according to the independent Native American newspaper Indian Country Today.

Six candidates, including Haaland, Davids and Herrell, won their elections. Two Oklahoma representatives, Tom Cole, who is Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, who is Cherokee, won their re-elections, and Kaiali’i “Kai” Kahele, who is Native Hawaiian, won an open seat for Hawaii. There were previously four indigenous members of Congress, all in the House of Representatives.


Russia Shuts Down Arctic Indigenous Rights Group

Moscow’s city court has ruled to disband an indigenous people’s rights group almost 20 years after its founding, the latest in a series of NGO shutdowns that critics see as retaliation for their activities.

Russian authorities blacklisted the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North/Russian Indigenous Training Center (CSIPN/RITC) as a “foreign agent” in 2015. Founded in 2001 to provide wide-ranging assistance to the peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East, the NGO renounced its foreign funding and was taken off the “foreign agent” list last year.

The Moscow City Court on Wednesday ruled to liquidate the NGO, effectively ending its activities.

CSIPN/RITC’s liquidation “is an irreversible process, like the death penalty,” the group’s lawyer Grigory Vaypan told the Kommersant business daily Thursday. 

Russia’s Justice Ministry had asked the court to shut down the indigenous rights group over “multiple” violations of the country’s NGO law, according to Kommersant. Vaypan characterized the violations as “formalities” and said the group had begun fixing its paperwork before Wednesday’s “strange” court ruling. 

CSIPN/RITC’s director Rodion Sulyandziga called the ruling “part of a trend to shut down organizations undesirable to the authorities.” The court’s decision comes less than a week after Russia’s Supreme Court ordered to disband a veteran activist’s 22-year-old civil rights group.

“The Arctic and its resources mean a lot to Russian business and its budget. That’s why companies look at indigenous minorities as a barrier to their activities,” Kommersant quoted Sulyandziga as saying. 

“We’ve been protecting the rights of these peoples for a fairly long time. We have access to federal and international platforms where we openly talk about violations,” he added.

“I think what’s happening is a measure of vengeance for that.”



Register here:
Download: IP and LTR_Concept Note-ENG.pdf (3000 KB)

Date and time:

11 November 2020
5.30 PST; 8.30 EST; 15.30 EET; 21.30 PHST

Duration: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Language interpretation: Spanish, French, English, Russian


Almost nine months since COVID-19 swept the world, its impacts have proven to go beyond a health crisis. Among others, the threat of a global economic crisis is already manifesting itself. Human rights and environmental organisations have called for governments and businesses to “build back better” an economic system that will depart from the unsustainable and inequitable “business-as-usual” approach, which too often leads to violation of indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands, territories and resources, including their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). But several governments have recently been fast-tracking bills as stimulus to the economic downturn that see rollbacks in environmental and human rights standards. Among them are Indonesia’s Omnibus Bill, Canada’s Quebec Bill 61 and Ontario’s Bill 197 also known as Covid-19 Economic Recovery Act, and India’s directive to open commercial mining to national and overseas private investors. All these bills are particularly worrying for indigenous peoples as most of them pose threats to indigenous peoples’ rights to FPIC and are primarily rested on exploitation of lands and natural resources, which are often within indigenous territories.

Also, the measures to manage the pandemic, particularly restrictions on mobility and public gathering, have been taken advantage of by governments to impose and implement oppressive laws and policies. Often, these directives have been more effective in curbing the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and privacy, than the spread of the virus. Similarly, some companies, with State support, have taken the opportunity of the restrictions on mobility to expand land areas under their control through land grabbing and violent displacement. This has led to increased incidents of criminalisation and attacks on indigenous peoples at the time of COVID-19. Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI) have documented, from January to July 2020, 83 incidents of killing and hundreds of human rights violations on indigenous peoples, including their collective rights to their lands, territories and resources.

In this context, the webinar aims to:

  • Provide space for indigenous leaders to present cases of criminalisation and attacks against indigenous peoples involving business corporations operating in their countries;
  • Discuss strategies to address the current issues of criminalisation and attacks against indigenous peoples using the UNGP’s framework, particularly highlighting the issue of access to justice;
  • Provide recommendations on how to prevent violations of the rights of indigenous peoples in business operations.






Jackson M. Shaa is the Executive Director Narasha Community Development Group and Principal Enariboo Primary School in Kenya. He has led NCDG to defend the rights of indigenous people in Naivasha Kenya, having represented the organization in engaging with the national and county governments, the international financial institutions and National and international civil society forums. He took part in a number of research on indigenous people and geothermal exploration in Kenya, impact of climate change and it’s impacts. On academic, he hold a masters of education from the University of Nairobi. He participated in indigenous law training at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.



Kakay Tolentino is an indigenous Dumagat woman of Sierra Madre, the longest mountain range in the Philippines. She has been doing community organising with her community and other indigenous communities in the Philippines since the 1980s. She is currently the national coordinator of Bai Indigenous Women’s Network, which is composed of 11 local indigenous women organizations. She is also the spokesperson of the No to Kaliwa-Kanan-Laiban Dam Network. She was the acting Secretary-General of the KATRIBU Partylist from 2011-2013 and is now a member of the National Council of Leaders of KATRIBU, the National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples organization in the Philippines.



Monica Ndoen works as Policy Development and Human Rights Protection Officer with Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), a national organisation that represents 2,332 indigenous communities throughout Indonesia, amounting to about 17 million individual members.



Patrick co-founded Global Witness in 1995. Since then Global Witness has become a global leader in its field, described by Aryeh Neier, former President of the Open Society Foundations, thus: “Global Witness brings together the issues of human rights, corruption, the trade in natural resources, the role of banks, the arms trade, conflict. It is the only organisation that does this. Period.”Patrick has taken part in over fifty field investigations in South East Asia, Africa and Europe and in subsequent advocacy activities. Patrick conceived several of Global Witness’ campaigns and focuses on corruption, conflict resources, forests and land, and environmental defenders. He is a board director of Global Witness and is involved in the organisation’s strategic leadership.Alongside his two co-founders, Patrick received the 2014 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.Patrick is also a trustee of the OpenCorporates Trust Limited.



Pavel Sulyandziga (PhD in Economics) is Chairperson of the Board of the International Development Fund of Indigenous Peoples in Russia (BATANI) and is currently a Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth College (US). He was a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation (2006 – 2014) and advisor to the president of RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East). At the beginning of his career he was a school teacher of mathematics in Primorskiy kray, Russia (1984-1987). In 1991 he was elected as Chairman of the Indigenous Peoples Association of the Primorskiy kray. His international activity included participating in the Eurasian Club (Japan) on assistance to the education and preservation of culture of indigenous peoples (1991-1993); and visiting Indian reservations in the USA (California, Oregon, Washington) to study their experience on education, culture and self-governance (1993). From 1993 to 1994, Mr. Sulyandziga participated in the elaboration of a project on the preservation of biodiversity in the Bikin river valley, where he was responsible for project implementation. In 1994-1995 he participated in the project «Traditional Indigenous Crafts» funded by the Eurasian Club (Japan); he was Indigenous curator of the cooperative project on the preservation of the Ussuri Tiger; and in 1997-2000 he was coordinator of the Danish-Greenlandic Initiative for assistance to indigenous peoples of Russia. In addition, Mr. Sulyandziga was a councilor to the Governor of the Primorskiy kray on indigenous issues (1994-1997). In 1997 he was elected Vice-president and then in 2001 First Vice-president of RAIPON. From 2005 to 2010 he was a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.



Naomi is the chairperson of the Task Force involved in County/community issues relating to documentation of historical and cultural institutions and other significant matters including establishment of a museum and cultural centre for the County Government of Kajiado. She is the founder of Arid Lands Institute concerned with promoting sustainable utilization of land, raising awareness on environmental protection and conservation and promoting resource tenure security; advocating for human rights of underserved indigenous communities; raising awareness and support gender equity in access, control and ownership of productive resources; and encouraging and promoting production and documentation of historical, cultural and human interest material of historical significance.


Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI), Global Witness, Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) and Indigenous Peoples Major Group (IPMG) for Sustainable Development



A thick layer of multiyear sea ice once completely covered the central Arctic Ocean. But as the ice continues to retreat, waters that were previously only accessible to heavy icebreakers could soon open up and attract commercial fishing vessels. Yet, little is known about the ecosystem emerging below the ice and unregulated fishing could have detrimental impacts.

This was a concern to the Arctic coastal states. Thus, they decided to prevent commercial fishing until better scientific knowledge was available and to engage other states with distant-water fishing capacity as well. The result was the International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, signed in 2018 by Canada, Iceland, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, the United States and the Russian Federation, as well as China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union.

We asked Maya Gold for an introduction to the milestone agreement. Maya Gold is a Senior Advisor within International and Intergovernmental Affairs at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Canada’s Head of Delegation to our Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group.

Map showing area covered by the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. (PAME/Arctic Council Secretariat)


The legally binding Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean was signed in Ilulissat, Greenland on October 3rd, 2018. Once it enters into force, the agreement will commit the parties to not authorize any vessel flying its flag to engage in commercial fishing in the high seas portion of the central Arctic Ocean. The agreement will be in place for up to sixteen years, renewable in increments of five years.

This agreement provides a framework for the parties to cooperate to better understand the ecosystems in and adjacent to the central Arctic Ocean. It prevents commercial fishing from occurring until adequate scientific information is available to inform decision making in relation to the viability and sustainability of any potential future fishing activities in the agreement area. Parties intend to meet at least every two years to review implementation progress and the scientific information developed through a joint program of scientific research and monitoring.

To bring the area into perspective: The central Arctic Ocean is the largest area of high seas in the Arctic , it is surrounded entirely by the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (in respect of Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Norway, the Russian Federation, and the United States, and spans an area of approximately 2.8 million square kilometers – virtually the same size as the Mediterranean Sea.


Under the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal states can exercise jurisdiction over fisheries zones extending 200 nautical miles seaward from coastal baselines. In some instances, the EEZs of adjacent and/or opposite states are geographically positioned such that they totally enclose an area of the “high seas” outside their fisheries jurisdiction. However, despite being entirely surrounded by the EEZ’s of states, vessels from any state in principle have the right to fish in these high seas areas, unless they have entered into an international agreement specifying otherwise.

The central Arctic Ocean has historically been an area completely covered with multiyear sea ice and inaccessible except to heavy icebreakers. With climate change, the ice in this area has been rapidly disappearing, with most recent studies indicating the area could be completely free of ice in the coming years, some predictions as early as 2030. In fact, there are now parts of the high seas in the central Arctic Ocean which are already free of ice and accessible to vessels in the summer months. With the reduction of ice in the Arctic Ocean, it is now feasible that fishing vessels could enter the central Arctic Ocean and fish. The lack of scientific knowledge about the marine ecosystem and the species found in the Arctic Ocean means that such a scenario could be catastrophic. For the duration of this agreement, such a scenario will be prevented, since the main objective of this agreement is to prevent commercial fishing from occurring in the near term until better scientific knowledge could be gained about the ecosystem.


The three other international legally binding agreements which are specific to the Arctic and were negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council are the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arcticthe Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, and the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.

Given the operational nature of those agreements, there is in fact no substantial overlap between those agreements and the central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement. Although by name you would expect the scientific cooperation agreement to be relevant, that agreement is rather about the movement of people and equipment for scientific purposes between the Arctic States, and would not be relevant for a science program in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean, which is governed by the freedom of marine scientific research under UNCLOS.

A notable difference between the these three agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council and the central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement is the membership. The fisheries agreement signatories do not mirror the Arctic Council’s membership, rather it consists of Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation, the United States, Iceland, China, Japan, Korea and the European Union.


In 2010, the United States effectively closed its EEZ North of Alaska to commercial fishing. Canada followed suit in 2014 with the “Beaufort Sea Fish Management Framework”, which was a partnership between the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the Inuvialuit Game Council and the Fisheries Joint Management Committee. It determined: “Potential commercial fisheries will only be considered in light of scientifically supportable estimates of surplus and sustainable stocks” (Fisheries and Oceans Canada 2009).

Following several rounds of bilateral discussions, in February 2014 Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States issued the “Nuuk Statement” calling for action on the central Arctic Ocean issue. These same states signed the non-binding “Oslo Declaration” the following year, in which they agreed not to allow their commercial fleets to fish in the central Arctic Ocean until there would be sound scientific base and an appropriate management regime in place (Norway 2015). The Oslo Declaration also recognized that other nations/jurisdictions with the distant-water fishing capacity needed to be engaged on this issue.

In December 2015, negotiations began among the five states that signed the Oslo Declaration as well as China, the European Union (which has competence over fisheries policy on behalf of its member states), Iceland, Japan and the Republic of Korea. David Balton, with the US State Department, was the Chair of the negotiation process and it was the US who initiated the discussions among the coastal states, which resulted in the Oslo declaration.


  • Canada
  • Iceland
  • The Kingdom of Denmark (in respect of Greenland and the Faroe Islands)
  • Norway
  • The Russian Federation
  • The United States of America
  • China
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • The European Union


As of August 2020, nine of the ten signatories have completed the ratification process for the agreement. The agreement will enter into force 30 days after receipt of the tenth and final instrument of ratification (once all ten parties ratify) and will remain in effect for 16 years. It will be automatically extended for additional 5-year periods if the parties agree.

Read the full agreement here.


Acknowledging Indigenous land is the first step in taking better care of it

Nikoosh Carlo, Ph.D., is CEO of CNC North Consulting, which focuses on community-driven solutions to climate change, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications.

In September, Schitt’s Creek, a sitcom created by the Canadian actor Dan Levy and his father, Eugene, won nine Emmys. Levy’s newly raised profile called attention to his efforts to learn about Indigenous culture and history in Canada with the help of a free online course at the University of Alberta. Back in August, he invited people to join him via an Instagram post that was liked by thousands.

The course is part of an effort in Canada to face an ugly history of nation building that continues to impact people today and that we must also confront in the U.S. Another piece of this effort is a formal land acknowledgement at the start of events or performances, such as the one offered at this year’s Academy Awards by the Maori director Taika Waititi.

“The academy would like to acknowledge that tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam and the Chumash. We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which the motion picture community lives and works,” Waititi said. Likewise, the new policy platform introduced at this year’s (virtual) Democratic National Convention acknowledged “that we gather together to state our values on lands that have been stewarded through many centuries by the ancestors and descendants of Tribal Nations who have been here since time immemorial.”

land acknowledgement highlights the ongoing stewardship by Indigenous peoples, uplifts Indigenous voices, and helps audiences and institutions reconsider their roles within a broader community. It’s a sign of respect that’s common in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, tribal nations, and increasingly in the U.S. It’s also a step toward recognizing that multiple perspectives are needed to address climate change.For a problem that is burning out of control worldwide, only cross-cultural cooperation can offer hope for the future.

Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and leadership can drive innovative climate solutions. For example, in the southwestern Alaska village of Igiugig, people are piloting sustainable microgrid projects to replace fossil fuels with wind turbines and non-dam river technology to power a community farm. At a global level, Indigenous organizations work alongside the eight nations in the Arctic Council to address sustainable development and environmental protection. One of these organizations, Gwich’in Council International, leads efforts to coordinate wildland-fire emergency response across international boundaries. For a problem that is burning out of control worldwide, only cross-cultural cooperation can offer hope for the future.

Indigenous peoples in Alaska, where there are over 200 federally recognized tribes making up approximately 15 percent of the population, have thrived in the extreme lands and waters of the Arctic for millennia.

As a child, I lived a few blocks from my grandparents, aunties, and uncles, who ensured that we harvested, ate, and shared traditional foods: salmon, moose, berries. In the blueberry patch, I heard the stories of our ancestors and learned that we are all connected in community. Indigenous peoples have a connection to the land that has made us expert observers and caretakers of the environment — a connection I feel more keenly in these pandemic times.

There’s a model for mutual respect and cooperation in traditional Alaska Native practice. It begins with how we introduce ourselves to each other — think of it as our own personal land acknowledgment:

My name is Nikoosh Carlo. I am Koyukon Athabascan, born and raised in Fairbanks and Tanana, at the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon Rivers. I am the oldest daughter of Gail and Wally Carlo from North Dakota and Tanana. My grandparents were Poldine and Bill Carlo from Nulato and Rampart, Alaska.

When others introduce themselves to me, I’m actively listening for family lineages and places so I can understand how we are connected. These introductions ground us in our history and shared values, and guide how we might work together.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are inextricably linked in the battle against climate change. We can tackle it together if we build a foundation of mutual respect. It starts with acknowledgment: of land, of history, and of Indigenous leadership. Healing the environment can also heal communities.


Nornickel is “cynical, corrupt and socially irresponsible”, says Russia’s top legislator

Following a parliament visit to the far northern company town of Norilsk, the Federation Council and its Speaker Valentina Matvienko expresses shock and outrage about company mismanagement and massive pollution in the Arctic.

After decades of massive ecological destruction in the Russian North, federal officials appear to have decided that time has come to slap the powerful mining and metallurgy company.

Rarely has a top Russian legislator lashed out against one of the country’s biggest companies like Valentina Matvienko did on the 21st October. In a press conference, Matvienko said that company town of Norilsk used to be a “garden town”, but now looks more like a “slum” with worn-out infrastructure, and power grids, water canalization, roads and housing in disarray.

“Cynical company”

The vocal attack of the company did not only aim at Nornickel’s recent huge spill of diesel fuel that has ruined vast areas of tundra and waterways. Matvienko pointed her finger at the company’s general practices.

According to the long-time speaker of the parliament body, Nornickel has put on display “complete cynicism” and “total indifference towards the motherland where they live and make huge money.”

This is not a socially responsible company, she stressed. “That is all PR,” she underlined.

Lenin statue in Norilsk, Siberia. Photo: Thomas Nilsen


Matvienko, who over the years has had several leading posts in Putin’s Russia, also accused the managers of Nornickel of grave corruption.

The company is bribing both local and regional legislators and have their people in control over the Norilsk town budget. Furthermore, she also points her finger at regional and state authorities indicating that they are part of corrupt practices.

“How come that the Ministry of the Far East (and Arctic), federal structures, the presidential envoy to the district, nobody — nobody really sees that the houses are falling apart and what state the town is in? Why has everyone kept quiet? Is everyone really in the pockets of Nornickel? Really? What other conclusion can be made?” Matvienko said.

Parliament action

The harsh comments come after the upper house of parliament conducted a visit to Norilsk, the remote northern town that is centerpiece in the mining and metallurgy company’s Arctic operations. Fifteen senators from five different parliament committees took part in the visit, along with representatives of several federal ministries, state agencies and law enforcement authorities, the Federation Council informs.

In an official statement issued after the visit, the legislators point at serious problems with the local social infrastructure, including housing, healthcare, schools and kindergartens.

“Modern-day Norilsk is one of the most polluted towns not only in Russia, but in the world, and the [oil spill] catastrophe has only aggravated the environmental problems and attracted attention towards them,” says Deputy Speaker Nikolay Zhuravlev.

Quick action

The Federation Council now demands that Nornickel takes quick action to deal with the problems.

“The water supply system must come in order, together with housing, kindergartens, schools and policlinics,” Chairwoman Matvienko underlines. It should not be a major problem, she argues.

“For them, to build a kindergarten or a school is like a cup of coffee, or like going twice to a restaurant,” she underlines and points at the super-wealthy main shareholders of the company.

And time is the essence. The work must be completed in 1-2 years, the legislators underline.

The Nornickel company town of Nikel is located along the border to Norway and Finland. Photo: Atle Staalesen

Kola Peninsula

According to critics, Nornickel’s mismanagement not only applies to operations in Taymyr, but also in the Kola Peninsula.

During the recent municipal elections in the Pechenga district, opposition politicians accused Nornickel of meddling in the vote and for putting its people in the municipal legislative assembly. They also argued that the company spent many million rubles on the election campaign of government-loyal party United Russia and that they are in full control over the local government.

“No more! For 20 years they have shown us their attitude to the people, they have robbed us, knitted knots around our necks and weaved a web out of which we must finally get disentangled,” the election campaigners said about their opponents.

The Pechenga district is located along the border to Norway and Finland and houses several major plants operated by Nornickel.

Vladimir Potanin

Norilsk Nickel is the world’s leading producer of nickel and has the key parts of its operations in the Taymyr Peninsula and Kola Peninsula. Over the years, the vulnerable Arctic lands surrounding the company plants have been subject to heavy pollution. In 2018, a total of 1,9 million tons of sulfur dioxide were emitted from the chimneys of Norilsk. That was by far the biggest SO2 emissions in the world.

At the same time, huge dividends have been cashed out by the company owners. In 2018, as much as $3,7 billion was distributed to the shareholders.

Majority shareholder is Vladimir Potanin. He was in 2019 ranked as Russia’s richest person and the 41st richest in the world.