Salvadoran environmental defenders detained for decades-old crimes

Activists worry the arrests are a move by the cash-strapped government to open the country to now banned metals mining

Five prominent environmental defenders who played a crucial role in securing a historic mining ban in El Salvador have been detained accused of civil war era and gang-related crimes, in what rights groups fear is a ruse to restart mining.

Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega were detained on Wednesday in Cabañas in northern El Salvador, accused of killing an alleged army informant more than 33 years ago during the brutal civil war that claimed 75,000 lives.

Nayib Bukele, the authoritarian populist president who swept to power in 2019, has repeatedly blocked attempts to seek justice for civil war victims – the vast majority of whom were civilians killed by the US-backed dictatorship and rightwing death squads.

The military is accused of dozens of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in Santa Marta, the community where the five detained defenders live and work, but no one has ever faced justice.

Hundreds of national and international activists and organisations have condemned the detention as politically motivated.

In a statement, the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) said the government’s decision to arrest the five men while blocking justice in high-profile cases like the El Mozote massacre “raises questions about whether the true motivation is to attempt to silence these water defenders”.

Without providing details, prosecutors have also accused the five men of illicit association – a crime which has been widely used by the Bukele regime to lock up more than 60,000 alleged gang members since March.

Rights groups fear that the community leaders, who are being held at a police station in the capital, San Salvador, could languish in overcrowded cells for months before formal charges are filed in court. The ongoing state of emergency has suspended a wide range of civil liberties and led to widespread arbitrary detentions and other abuses, according to United Nations experts.

The detained men are renowned community organisers and water protectors, who helped lead the historic and successful campaign that convinced the Salvadoran legislature to unanimously pass a ban on metals mining in 2017 to save that nation’s rivers. Amid worsening drought caused by the climate crisis, El Salvador could run out of drinking water by the end of the century unless radical action is taken to rehabilitate its contaminated waterways.

Environmental organisations fear that the arrests were a calculated attempt to destabilise community opposition as the economically stressed government seeks to overturn the mining ban.

Bukele is under enormous pressure to find new revenue streams after his ill-advised embrace of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin failed spectacularly.

In recent months, local officials in Cabañas have reportedly been approached about mining projects, while unknown individuals have offered to buy land where former mines are located.

Detainee Antonio Pacheco, director of the Association of Economic and Social Development (Ades) and former guerrilla leader, had alerted officials and organizations about these suspicious activities.

“It’s clear that the arrests are politically motivated,” said Pedro Cabezas, coordinator of the Central American alliance on mining. “All five leaders were part of the anti-mining movement which started in Cabañas, where it’s clear the current government wants to restart mining.”


Nothing about us without us. An Open Letter from russia’s ​Indigenous and Decolonial Activists

Russia’s invasion of sovereign Ukraine opened the eyes of many to the imperial nature of the russian state. The expansion of the empire and strengthening of the “russkiy mir” ideology are, without a doubt, the key reasons for the Kremlin-perpetrated bloodshed and genocide in Ukraine.

The colonial and imperial nature of this war, in turn, amplified the voices of indigenous peoples of the lands colonized and appropriated by the russian state who have been subjected to racial discrimination and other systemic discriminatory barriers. 

In defiance of these obstacles, many of us are getting involved in anti-war activism, uniting into foundations and movements and helping conscientious objectors to return home. We also work to fight propaganda in our regions where political repressions often prove to be far more rigorous than elsewhere in russia, but yet remain largely unnoticed by the general public. 

Unfortunately, both the russian regime and the so-called liberal muscovite opposition treat the indigenous activists the same: they either choose to ignore us or try to use us as the pawns in their political games. While trying to be heard by the regime is no longer viable, to the liberal opposition we would like to say: 

Nothing about us without us

— 1 —

WE, the indigenous and the decolonial activists, DEMAND to be included in all public discussions about our possible futures.

We understand that no one ethnic, national or decolonial initiative can solely represent the will of its peoples. But all such movements, without an exception, have an inextricable bond with their peoples and their land, which makes their expertise unique and essential. 

The indigenous peoples and/or natives of national republics among us remember our histories. We remember that political decisions made without the involvement of the people in question always brought about political repressions, discrimination and colonial violence. 

We consider this decision-making model to be undemocratic and deeply vicious. 

— 2 —

WE ARE CONVINCED that a simple representation is not enough. Representatives of indigenous peoples, national republics and decolonial initiatives must be included in all decision-making processes and processes of distribution of material and social capital. 

We consider the sudden interest in the decolonial agenda expressed by certain representatives of the liberal muscovite opposition to be a symbolic gesture rather than a sincere act of solidarity and support. We don’t want to become puppet activists whose presence is required for nothing more than a pretty picture. 

True representation is not just a simple inclusion. True representation means participation on all levels of decision-making. True representation is much more than listing someone with a non-Russian name among your allies or having a person with non-Slavic facial features at a negotiation table. 

— 3 —

WE ASK to speak of indigenous peoples without racist tropes, cliches, generalizations and exoticization. Here, we are not only talking about blatantly racist language but also about the words that reinforce colonial hierarchies, including using the word “minorities” when speaking of indigenous peoples or addressing people as “russkie” (ethnic Russians) instead of “rossiyane” (russian nationals regardless of ethnicity), etc. 

We also ask to refrain from portraying the indigenous peoples as mysterious and exotic others who need to be civilized, enlightened and ridden of their savage habits. 

We love our national dress and other elements of our material culture and ask those in question to do away with appropriating them for the exoticization of content they produce. 

— 4 —

WE CALL for solidarity.

We ask to show solidarity with us not only through verbal condemnation of, but also by halting cooperation with any entities, organizations, initiatives or individuals (politicians, bloggers etc.) who systematically refuse to follow the principles outlined above and turn a deaf ear to public criticism. 

We believe that providing those people and entities with material sponsorship or a platform or amplifying their voices in any other way increases the pressure on indigenous activist movements and makes their representatives ever more vulnerable. 


Please share this letter and image sets on your social media. You can download them from @decolonialsolidarity Telegram channel.


Open letter authors:

A. Choybsonov, Buryat activist
A. Erendzhenov, Oirat activist
A. Gomboeva, decolonial researcher
A. Yangulbaev, Chechen lawyer and human rights defender
B. Matune, activists, Asians of Russia
D. Badmaev, Oirat activist
D. Khovalyg, Tuvan activist
L. Latypova, Tatar activist
L. Mongush, Tuvan activist
S. Kondakova, Yukagir activist
S. Jigjitova, Buryat activist
V. Maladaeva, Buryat activist
Asians of Russia
Beda Media Editorial
Buryad Global
Free Kalmykia
Free Yakutia
New Tuva


M. Alexeeva, activist, creative producer, author
A. Arsenian, theatrical producer and curator
M. Vjushkova, scientist
M. Rafail ulı Ganeyev, Tatar language and queer activist
V. Dambaeva, accountant
D. Tsyui, journalist and Buryad activist
M. Zakharov, writer, film curator and translator
A. Zueva, journalist from Buryatia
A. Diudina, Suomen Inkeri-liitto
E. Ishchenko, curator and researcher
A. Kim, product designer
V. Kravtsova, researcher at Feminist Translocalities
M. Kurilov, curator and researcher
M. Nasybullova, Tatar-Siberian artist
V. Nore Mähäbbät, activist
A. Makichyan, climate activist
S. Manakina, activist
N. Mendyaev, Oirat-Kalmyk activist of Free Kalmykia
D. Mityushin, developer
A. Mongush, activist
N. Mongush, activist
A. Kugasova, Sakha activist
V. Dzhunko, Sakha activist
Ğ. Ğaliev, Bashqort activist
E. Ochir, Oirat-Mongol activist
V. Petrova, activist RDS
P. Rapoport, molecular biologist
D. Rasuleva, Tatar writer and poet
V. Son, activist of Invisible Rainbow
M. Tay, Tatar trans activist
A–M. Tesfaye, activist of Queer Svit
D. Torokhova, activist of Vsio Odnoznachno
V. Choinova, Sakha activist,
S. Shestakova, researcher
A. Shevchenko, activist of Voice of free Russia
A. Vogel, German leftist and queer activist
Zh. Batuev, citizen of Buryad-Mongolia
D. Dugarova, doctor
M. Kruchinski, curator at Typography Collective, researcher
V. Charniauski, decolonial activist from Belarus
A. Takkeze, researcher from Tatarstan
B. Takshina, Altai-German musician
Y. Tannagasheva, Shor activist
G. Konstandi, founder of the Voices from the Drina project.
M. Sarycheva, Bashqortostan-born researcher and cultural worker
A. Bogomolova, feminist
Z. Bocheeva, activist
N. Shamgunova, Tatar researcher of history of empire
A. Saifullin, researcher
E. Atlasova, Sakha activist
L. Zhirkova, Sakha activist
P. Zherebtsov, curator
S. Atlasova, Sakha activist
I. Dzhunko, activist from Republic Sakha
V. Kondakov, Sakha activist
A. Burliuk, curator
T. Baktemir, Astrakhan regionalist
G. Iakhiaev, Tabasaranian, software developer
m. irekleh, queer and decolonial analyst of russian cinema and tv
C. Pislari, activist, designer
H.Otchyk, Belarusian/Turkmen activist, poet
A. Khachikian, journalist
Decolonize Russia solidarity network @decolonize_russia
Feminist Transclocalities
Indigenous Peoples Movement global coalition
Invisible Rainbow
Queer Svit
Voices of Indigenous People of Russia
International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia (ICIPR)

Racism in Russia: Report of ADC Memorial and International Committee of the Indigenous Peoples of Russia to the UN CERD

To the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Marking March 21 – the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ADC Memorial and the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia have prepared an alternative report to the UN CERD, informing the Committee about the violation of the rights of ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants by the Russian regime. The criminal war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine has spread discrimination and repression to the occupied territories, aggravated the situation of the Crimean Tatars in the annexed Crimea, and caused irreparable harm to indigenous communities and ethnic minorities. Conscription and the imposition of contract army service mostly affected the poorest regions of Russia – exactly those where ethnic minorities live, thus they disproportionately suffer from mobilization. For indigenous peoples, involvement into the war threatens their physical survival, while mining companies continue to destroy their traditional territories.

Over the past decade, state propaganda has been shaping a discourse about Russia’s exclusivity, its “unique historical path” and “traditional values”, superiority in the possession of natural resources. By 2022, civil society and opposition movements were practically suppressed, independent media were closed and/or expelled from the country, anti-war and in any other civil activity criticizing the actions of the authorities and expressing solidarity with Ukraine is being persecuted. The repressive legislation on “foreign agents” has affected the rights of dozens of individuals and organizations. Leading human rights organizations have been liquidated or restricted in their work, including leading experts in the field of combating racism and discrimination. Recently it became known that the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit to liquidate the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, that has been analyzing the problems of racism, xenophobia, and human rights violations in Russia for many years.

The gradual degradation of Russian society under the influence of the state propaganda and the tightening regime took place in an atmosphere of escalating hatred and discrimination against various vulnerable groups.

Russia’s migration policy remains extremely harsh, and numerous migrant workers from Central Asian countries face racial profiling, police and judicial arbitrariness. Structural discrimination of Roma population has not been overcome; in recent years there have been massive interethnic conflicts that turned into violent pogroms; thousands of Roma were forced to flee from their places of residence. Russia’s repressive policy has spread to the newly occupied territories: Crimean Tatars are now being persecuted not only in Crimea, but also in the South of Ukraine.

The massive propaganda of national exclusivity and xenophobia inevitably legitimizes direct violence and permit aggressive nationalists to move from words to deeds. Hate-motivated conflicts, including among children and youth, often occur, and there is every reason to expect an increase in the number of ideologically motivated attacks against foreigners, migrants, and representatives of minorities.


Four Lessons from Cacoal, Brazil: How to Engage Indigenous Communities in Climate Finance

Tatiana Tintino, Verena Manolis and Cheyenne Coxon

For indigenous and local communities, climate finance is often an unwelcoming space. Climate finance programs are technical, with complicated methodologies and legal agreements. Most do not disperse funds directly to indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), leaving millions stuck in bureaucratic distribution systems. A minimal percentage of aid money for climate mitigation reaches IPLCs , despite initiatives that pledge billions to the cause – some estimate as little as under 1% goes directly to communities.

With momentum and interest in biodiversity and carbon offsets gaining after the UN Biodiversity Conference in December 2022, and the Lula administration in Brazil signaling intention to act on conservation and human rights, it is essential that IPLCs have the resources they need to navigate new opportunities and rapidly changing contexts.

On February 14th and 15th in Cacoal, Rondônia, Brazil, our Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative held a seminar on climate finance and Indigenous Territories, in partnership with Greendata. The goal of the Cacoal gathering was to exchange ideas and increase community knowledge on REDD+ and other jurisdictional and private climate finance mechanisms, including voluntary carbon markets. Our team presented updated information on climate finance, discussed opportunities for community engagement that prioritize safeguards and indigenous rights, and conducted trainings with indigenous and non-indigenous experts.

Credit: Jony Wagner

Over 100 participants joined from across Brazil, including representatives of 25 original peoples of the Brazilian Amazon; members of indigenous organizations, such as the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), the Federation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Mato Grosso (FEPOIMT), the National Articulation of Indigenous Women Warriors of Ancestrality (ANMIGA), the Association of Indigenous Warrior Women of Rondônia (AGIR), and the Indigenous Youth of Rondônia (JIR); legal experts; and representatives from regional and national agencies, including the Coordinating Body for Indigenous Peoples of Rondônia (COPIN), the State Secretariat for Environmental Development of the State of Rondônia (SEDAM), the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), Wildlife Works (WWC), the Pro-Indian Commission of Acre (CPI-AC), and the Platform Partners for the Amazon (PPA).

“In order for indigenous organizations and communities to evaluate climate finance opportunities, assess their territories’ carbon stocks and flows, negotiate with governments and private carbon market actors, understand their legal rights and the regulatory environment, and so forth, they need to have quality, tailored information and the appropriate tools and capacities,” says Beto Borges, Director of Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative.

“Forest Trends is here to support this information sharing, and this seminar is an important part of that training.”

Four key lessons from this event for the global climate finance community:

1. Climate finance will flow into communities at the speed of trust, and trust requires information.

“At present, many companies do a poor job of conveying their intentions with communities, and they make promises that can’t be fulfilled,” says Nedina Luisa Yawanawa, an indigenous teacher from the Rio Gregório Indigenous Land in Acre, Brazil.

Nedina believes it is essential to have more training initiatives made available to communities that emphasize the protection of community rights and resources. Community members having a deep understanding of the consultation process and the relationship between companies and communities is essential to setting expectations and creating an equitable partnership from day one.

“It’s no use just saying that [communities] need to be careful,” says Nedina. “We can’t go on accepting the first company [that makes a proposal]. We have the [land and resources], so we have to be comfortable making the best choice…We need to operate in a way that all communities receiving proposals are aware of the risks, and if they are going to move forward, they do so consciously and with preparedness on community management, accompaniment of important institutions, like FUNAI and the MPF, and legal support so that the communities are not alone.”

“Information on jurisdictional REDD+ and carbon markets is often presented in very technical or legal language, and not necessarily in indigenous peoples’ first language,” said Marcio Halla, Director of the Territorial Governance Facility and Economic Initiatives Lead at Forest Trends. “More concerningly, we have sometimes seen information on risks de-emphasized in proposals to communities or hidden in the fine print.”

To better equip communities with the knowledge needed to evaluate and negotiate carbon finance opportunities, Forest Trends just launched a new project, with support from the Climate and Land Use Alliance, that will offer carbon finance training programs, data, and technical assistance to indigenous communities in Brazil and Panama. We hope to expand this work to additional geographies in the near future.

Credit: Jony Wagner

2. Communities can speak for themselves in global fora.

Marciely Ayap Tupari, secretary coordinator of Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and active member of several movements in the state of Rondônia, said that the best way for the international community to support the struggle of indigenous peoples in defense of their territories is to bring them into the discussion.

“Many times, when we participate in these international meetings, we see little participation of indigenous leaders who are working with the territories. We need to participate in these spaces. Not only the leaders, but women and youth [as well] … We need to be there to talk about what our demands really are.”

Upfront investment is needed to strengthen IPLC governance so they can continue to protect their territories and participate as equal partners in climate and conservation finance. Vehicles like the Territorial Governance Facility [link in Spanish] can provide financial and technical support for governance capacity-building.

3. The relationship between communities and jurisdictional and national governments is being rebuilt.

A new administration in Brazil offers opportunities to begin building trust between indigenous communities and government agencies, after a long history characterized by neglect, colonialism, and outright aggression.

Looking forward, regional, and national governments can play a critical role helping to protect indigenous rights and promoting equitable benefit sharing  of any value generated by projects. Leonardo Trevizani Caberlon, prosecutor for the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) of Rondônia, explains, “One of the roles of the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office is defending indigenous peoples and enforcing the laws [already in place to protect their rights]. The MPF also monitors any projects that involve indigenous populations, and if the indigenous people have an interest in consultation, a [second] opinion, or monitoring, the MPF is at their disposal. The MPF will also have the important role of supervising and investigating any irregularities that may occur during the course of these procedures and could request conviction of those who may be [in violation].”

“We are encouraged that at the Federal level, Marina Silva is back as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and the new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples is led by Sonia Guajajara, the first indigenous person to head a Ministry in Brazil. It is also the first time in Brazilian history that FUNAI is presided by an indigenous person: Joênia Wapichana, another prominent indigenous leader, who is completing her term as the first indigenous woman deputy in the Brazilian Federal Congress,” added Beto Borges.

4. Public and private finance need to align with indigenous cultures, not the other way around.

Marciely Ayap Tupari explains why the seminar’s conversations are so important for shaping how companies should interact with indigenous partners: “The whole world sees that indigenous peoples protect the forest without [asking for] money. We do it in our own way because nature is our life. Seeing this, companies often end up coming to us with a proposal, wanting to finance, wanting to supposedly protect nature, but in their own way. When we explain our vision as indigenous peoples, many do not understand. That is why we talked about this issue of companies enticing leaders, offering money to implement carbon credits, but without really talking to the people who live there. This is worrying.”

Beto Borges also emphasizes the need for culturally appropriate jurisdictional finance, adding that state governments should also adapt how they interact with indigenous communities: “While these are promising developments at the Federal level to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples, including their carbon ownership rights, we hope to see the same level of recognition and commitment by the state governments in the Amazon. Most of the state governments in the Brazilian Amazon submitted proposals to the LEAF program; it is very important, however, that they consult with indigenous peoples and involve them in the design and implementation of safeguards and fair benefit sharing mechanisms in jurisdictional climate funding. Otherwise, jurisdictional funding will fail indigenous peoples.”

A set of core principles for working with forest communities on carbon offsets and conservation projects was recently published by the Peoples Forest Partnership, a coalition of indigenous organizations, companies, investors, and nonprofits (Forest Trends is the current Secretariat). We believe these offer a useful model for the entire climate finance field to follow in partnering with indigenous and traditional communities.

Credit: Jony Wagner

Our priorities in 2023

Our team has come out of the Cacoal gathering even more energized to keep supporting our IPLC partners with these priorities. This year, we are ramping up our existing resources geared towards providing accessible, culturally appropriate information and capacity building on climate finance programs. In late 2021, we launched the Territorial Governance Facility with four IPLC organizations to strengthen the governance capacity necessary for successful participation in climate finance. February marked the beginning of a new initiative with the Climate and Land Use Alliance to co-create technical tools and other training resources with IPLCs to navigate carbon markets. We look forward to continuing our work with indigenous partners in Brazil and around the world to prioritize the resources, information, and direct support they are calling for.


“We are the Hongana Manyawa. We defend the forests and mountains because we think of them as our parents.”

Uncontacted tribal people face total destruction from mining for electric car batteries

Uncontacted tribal people in Indonesia who choose to live in the rainforest far from outsiders could be wiped out by a massive nickel mining project. Many are already on the run from mining which is tearing up their ancestral lands and damaging their rivers.

An estimated 300 to 500 uncontacted Hongana Manyawa people live in the forested interior of the island of Halmahera. Huge areas of their territory have now been allocated to mining companies, and in some areas the excavators are already at work.

The project is part of Indonesia’s plan to become a major producer of electric car batteries, by mining and smelting nickel and other minerals – a plan into which international companies like Tesla are already pouring billions of dollars. French, German and Chinese companies are involved in mining in Halmahera. The uncontacted Hongana Manyawa, despite contributing nothing to climate change, now risk being wiped out by the industrialized world’s switch to electric cars. The Hongana Manyawa need our urgent support.

Contacted Hongana Manyawa woman in the Halmahera rainforest © Nanang Sujana

Guardians of their forest

The Hongana Manyawa – which means ‘People of the Forest’ in their own language – are one of the last nomadic hunter gatherer tribes in Indonesia, and many of them are uncontacted.

They have a profound reverence for their forest and everything in it: they believe that trees, like humans, possess souls and feelings. Rather than cut down trees to build houses, they make their dwellings from sticks and leaves. When forest products are used, rituals are performed to ask permission from the plants, and offerings are left out of respect. 

The Hongana Manyawa root their whole lives to the forest, from birth to death. When a child is born, the family plant a tree in gratitude, and bury the umbilical cord underneath: the tree grows with the child, marking their age. At the end of their lives, their bodies are placed in the trees in a special area of the forest that is reserved for the spirits.

If there is no more forest, then there will be no more Hongana Manyawa.

Hongana Manyawa man

Providing for themselves almost entirely from hunting and gathering, the Hongana Manyawa are nomadic; setting up home in one part of the forest before moving on and allowing it to regenerate. They have unrivalled expertise in the Halmahera rainforest, hunting wild boar, deer and other animals and maintaining a close connection with the sago trees – now threatened by deforestation from mining – which provide their main source of carbohydrate. They also have incredible medicinal knowledge and can treat many sicknesses with local plants, although this has become increasingly difficult following the new diseases brought by forced contact and resettlement in villages. 

It’s more convenient for me to keep moving because the food is much more diverse and available, I can go hunting regularly. Permanently staying in the village is very uncomfortable and there is a lack of food.

Hongana Manyawa man
Nomadic Hongana Manyawa group in the Halmahera rainforest. The Hongana Manyawa get all they need from the forest and have lived there for thousands of years © AMAN

Avoiding contact to stay alive

This incredible footage, taken in 2021, shows an uncontacted Hongana Manyawa man, throwing things and singing angrily to ward off the outsiders who have come into his territory:

The arrival of the mining companies is just the latest threat to the Hongana Manyawa and their land. In recent decades, Indonesian governments have repeatedly tried to force contact onto the Hongana Manyawa, with the aim of stopping their nomadic way of life and evicting them from their ancestral forest home. They say this is to “civilize” them: they have tried to settle the Hongana Manyawa and have built Indonesian-style houses for them. The Hongana Manyawa say these new houses, with roofs made of metal sheets rather than palm leaves, made them feel “like animals in a cage”. 

One Hongana Manyawa woman told Survival:

We are so happy living by the forest with different kinds of meat and food, where we can collect roof materials so we can replace the zinc roof the government has built for us. 

Hongana Manyawa woman

As with uncontacted tribes the world over, forced contact has proved disastrous for the Hongana Manyawa. They were immediately exposed to diseases to which they had no immunity – from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, terrible outbreaks of diseases which the Hongana Manyawa refer to as “the plague” affected the newly-settled villages, leading to widespread suffering and even death.

We had many different diseases when first settled, some of the sickness led to deaths, some people had fever that went on for days and nights and endless coughing for days and even weeks.

Hongana Manyawa man
Uncontacted Hongana Manyawa during an encounter with Indonesian villagers (front) in 2009. Encounters between uncontacted Hongana Manyawa and outsiders are extremely rare, often violent and always dangerous. © Survival

The contacted Hongana Manyawa also serve as convenient scapegoats for the police, who frequently blame them for crimes they have had nothing to do with. Several of them have been imprisoned for murders they did not commit and have languished in jail for many years. 

It’s better to live in the forest so we don’t get accused of these things. We feel unsafe and many of the men moved into the forest and then came to get their wives and families. Some are deep in the forest…they are deeply traumatized.

Hongana Manyawa woman

Far from being respected for their unique and self-sufficient ways of living, the Hongana Manyawa experience severe racism and are regularly described by Indonesian officials and the media as ‘primitive’. There is a widespread belief that they would benefit from ‘integration’ into wider society: a belief that comes with disastrous and deadly consequences.

Many Hongana Manyawa are now living in government-built villages. Many others – traumatised by the government’s forced settlement attempts, like other peoples around the world who have experienced forced contact – have returned to their forest. 

The uncontacted Hongana Manyawa have made it clear time and time again that they do not want to settle or have outsiders coming into their forest. They are very much aware of the dangers – including fatal epidemics of disease – which forced contact brings. As with the uncontacted Sentinelese tribe of India, it is little wonder that they are defending their lands and shooting arrows at those who force their way in.

But now they face the threat not just of being forced out of the forest that sustains them, but of seeing it all destroyed by corporations rushing to provide a supposedly ‘sustainable’ and “environmentally friendly” lifestyle to people thousands of miles away.” 

‘Green’ mining threatens the lives of uncontacted tribal people  

The greatest threat to the Hongana Manyawa today comes from a supposedly ‘green’ industry. 

Their rainforest sits on lands rich in nickel, a metal increasingly sought after as an ingredient in the manufacture of electric car batteries. Indonesia is now the world’s largest producer of nickel, and Halmahera is estimated to contain some of the world’s largest unexploited nickel reserves. Nickel is not essential for these batteries, but now that the nickel market is booming, mining companies are homing in and tearing up huge swathes of rainforest. 

The uncontacted Hongana Manyawa are on the run. Without their rainforest, they will not survive. These cars are marketed as ecofriendly alternatives to fossil fuel powered cars, but there is nothing ecofriendly about the way nickel is being mined in Halmahera. 

It goes without saying that uncontacted tribes cannot give their Free, Prior and Informed Consent to exploitation of their land – which is legally required for all ‘developments’ on Indigenous territories under international law. 

Nevertheless, Weda Bay Nickel (WBN) – a company partly owned by French mining company Eramet – has an enormous mining concession on the island which overlaps with Hongana Manyawa territories. WBN began mining in 2019. Since then, huge areas of rainforest which the Hongana Manyawa call home have already been destroyed. The company plans to ramp up the mining to many times its current rate and operate for up to 50 years.  

We still have a sacred forest but there are not many animals there. Now it is peatlands, it is no longer good forest. 

Hongana Manyawa man

The Indonesian government claims that nickel mining is “critical for clean energy technologies” yet coal-fired power stations are being constructed at IWIP to process the nickel. The International Energy Agency estimates that 19 metric tons of carbon are released for every metric ton of nickel smelted and there is evidence from a similar project in Sulawesi of this leading to respiratory diseases for locals. Not only is this mining (accompanied by roads, smelters and other huge industrial projects) devastating the Hongana Manyawa’s rainforests, it is also polluting the air and damaging the rivers. The processing of nickel is often highly toxic, involving a host of chemicals which produce almost two metric tons of toxic waste for every metric ton of ore processed.

Survival is fighting against false solutions to the climate crisis, which are destroying Indigenous lands and lives. 

They are poisoning our water and making us feel like we are being slowly killed.

Hongana Manyawa woman

Eramet, Tesla and connected companies 

International companies are involved, directly or indirectly, in the mining of uncontacted Hongana Manyawa land.

WBN is a joint venture between several companies, but French company Eramet is part-owner and responsible for the mining itself. Eramet prides itself on its environmental and human rights credentials, claiming that it will “set the standard” and “be a benchmark company” when it comes to human rights. Yet it continues to mine on the territory of the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa.

Survival has learned that German chemical company BASF is also planning to partner with Eramet to build a refinery in Halmahera and that a possible location for this may be on uncontacted Hongana Manyawa territory. This would be devastating for the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa in the area, who are already in hiding from mining. 

Watch this Tribal Voice interview with two Hongana Manyawa elders, decrying the destruction of their rainforest and stating plainly that they do not give consent for nickel mining companies to take their land:

Survival has been told that uncontacted Hongana Manyawa are now fleeing further and further into the rainforest, traumatized by the attacks on their forests and way of life.

Trees are gone and replaced with the big road, where giant machines go in and out making noise and driving the animals away.

Hongana Manyawa woman
Deforestation from mining in Halmahera. ©

Tesla, the world’s largest electric vehicle company, has signed contracts worth billions of US dollars to buy Indonesian nickel and cobalt for its batteries. Its CEO Elon Musk has also had high level negotiations with the Indonesian government to open an electric car battery factory in the country. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has even offered Tesla a ‘nickel mining concession.’

Tesla’s Indigenous rights policy states: “For all raw material extraction and processing used in Tesla products, we expect our mining industry suppliers to engage with legitimate representatives of indigenous communities and include the right to free and informed consent in their operations.”

Yet Tesla has now signed deals with Chinese companies Huayou Cobalt and CNGR Advanced Material, both of which have links to nickel mining in Halmahera. While supply chains are secretive and often obscure, Tesla’s interests in Indonesia and the scale of the planned mining in Halmahera make it likely that nickel mined from Halmahera could well end up in Tesla cars. 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Indonesian President Joko Widodo meeting in Texas in 2022. Tesla has signed agreements to buy billions of dollars worth of nickel from Indonesia.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Indonesian President Joko Widodo meeting in Texas in 2022. Tesla has signed agreements to buy billions of dollars worth of nickel from Indonesia. ©

I do not give consent for them to take it…tell them that we do not want to give away our forest

Hongana Manyawa woman

Demand for electric cars is driving the destruction of uncontacted people’s lands. 

Rather than destroying yet more of the natural world, and the people who defend it, in the name of combating climate change, we should be supporting uncontacted tribes to defend their rainforests and their land rights; they are the guardians of the green lungs of the planet.

We the Hongana Manyawa, do not want a mine to come, because it will destroy our forest. We will really defend this forest. If the forest is damaged, then where will we live?

Hongana Manyawa man

Take Urgent Action for the Hongana Manyawa

The Hongana Manyawa are running out of forest and running out of time. They desperately need international support to stop the destruction of their homelands before it’s too late. 

The Hongana Manyawa’s land rights must be recognised. Survival is calling for the declaration of an emergency zone for the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa. Around the world, Survival has successfully campaigned for the land rights of uncontacted tribes, defending them from outsiders bringing in deadly diseases and devastating development projects which could destroy them.

We are calling for:

– Eramet and the other companies mining in Halmahera, to immediately abide by international law and stop mining and other developments on the lands of uncontacted tribal people.
– Tesla and other car companies to publicly commit to ensure that none of the nickel or cobalt they buy ever comes from the lands of the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa in Halmahera. 
– The Indonesian government to establish an ‘Uncontacted Tribe No-Go Zone” to protect the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa and their territories.

With your support, the territories of the uncontacted Hongana Manyawa can be protected from mining so that they can continue to live as they choose on their own land. 

I want to share my knowledge with my grandchildren and those who want to learn how to eat and live in the forest.

Hongana Manyawa man
Contacted Hongana Manyawa elder in the Halmahera rainforest. The Hongana Manyawa are determined to defend their forest. © Nanang Sujana

Act now to help The Hongana Manyawa

Yes, I will take action!


Vatican rejects ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ justifying colonialism

After decades of demands by Indigenous people, Vatican ‘repudiates’ theories that backed colonial-era seizure of lands.

The Vatican has rejected the “Doctrine of Discovery”, a 15th-century concept laid out in so-called “papal bulls” that were used to justify European Christian colonialists’ seizure of Indigenous lands in Africa and the Americas.

In a statement on Thursday, the Vatican’s development and education office said the theory (PDF) – which still informs government policies and laws today – was not part of the Catholic Church’s teachings.

It said the papal bulls were “manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities”.

“In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being,” the statement reads. “The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery’.”

For decades, Indigenous leaders and community advocates had urged the Catholic Church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, which stated that European colonialists could claim any territory not yet “discovered” by Christians.

The papal bulls played a key role in the European conquest of Africa and the Americas, and their effects are still felt by Indigenous people.

Calls to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery grew louder last year when Pope Francis made a trip to Canada during which he apologised for the Catholic Church’s role in widespread abuses that took place at so-called residential schools.

Between the late 1800s and 1990s, more than 150,000 Inuit, First Nation and Metis children across Canada were taken from their families and communities and obligated to attend the forced-assimilation institutions, which were rife with physical, psychological and sexual violence.

The Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee said at the time of the pope’s residential school apology that more action was needed from the church – notably, the revocation of the papal bulls.

“An apology to Indigenous Peoples without action are just empty words. The Vatican must revoke these Papal Bulls and stand up for Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their lands in courts, legislatures and elsewhere in the world,” the committee said in a July 2022 statement.

Indigenous leaders welcomed Thursday’s Vatican statement, even though it continued to take some distance from acknowledging actual culpability.

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada who was part of the delegation that met with Pope Francis at the Vatican before last year’s trip and then accompanied him throughout, said the statement was “wonderful”.

He said it resolved an outstanding issue and now put the matter to civil authorities to revise property laws that cite the doctrine.

“The Holy Father promised that upon his return to Rome, they would begin work on a statement which was designed to allay the fears and concerns of many survivors and others concerned about the relationship between their Catholic Church and our people, and he did as he said he would do,” Fontaine told The Associated Press news agency.

“Now the ball is in the court of governments, the United States and in Canada, but particularly in the United States where the doctrine is embedded in the law,” he said.

“Today’s news on the Vatican’s formal repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery is the result of hard work and advocacy on the part of Indigenous leadership and communities,” Canadian Justice Minister David Lametti wrote on Twitter. “A doctrine that should have never existed. This is another step forward.”

The Doctrine of Discovery was cited as recently as a 2005 US Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation and written by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

On Thursday, the Vatican offered no evidence that the three papal bulls (Dum Diversas in 1452, Romanus Pontifex in 1455 and Inter Caetera in 1493) had themselves been formally abrogated, rescinded or rejected, as Vatican officials have often said.

But it cited a subsequent papal bull, Sublimis Deus in 1537, that reaffirmed that Indigenous peoples should not be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, and were not to be enslaved.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Canadian Jesuit whose office co-authored the statement, stressed that the original papal bulls had long ago been abrogated and that the use of the term “doctrine” — which in this case is a legal term, not a religious one — had led to centuries of confusion about the church’s role.

The original papal bulls, he said, “are being treated as if they were teaching, magisterial or doctrinal documents, and they are an ad hoc political move. And I think to solemnly repudiate an ad hoc political move is to generate more confusion than clarity”.

He stressed that the statement was not just about setting the historical record straight, but “to discover, identify, analyse and try to overcome what we can only call the enduring effects of colonialism today”.

Michele Audette, an Innu senator who was one of the five commissioners responsible for conducting the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the announcement left her in disbelief.

“It’s big,” she said in an interview on CBC Daybreak. “That doctrine made sure we did not exist or were even recognised … It’s one of the root causes of why the relationship is so broken.”



In December 2022, the United States Supreme Court adopted changes to its rules. The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) is happy to report that in those changes is a big win for Indian Country, one for which NARF actively advocated on behalf of tribal nations. Specifically, in the 2023 rules, tribal governments will be allowed to file longer amicus briefs, in recognition of their status as governmental entities. This change comes after NARF submitted comments to the Court urging that tribal governments be treated equally to federal, state, and local governments.

In 2019, the Court adopted rules that reduced the length allowed for many amicus briefs filed with the Court. However, briefs filed by federal, state, and local governments were permitted a much higher word count. Notably, tribal governments were not included in the list of governmental entities exempted from the restrictions. Therefore, during the next revision process (held in 2022), NARF submitted comments addressing this disparity.

NARF’s comments to the Court detailed why the change was right and needed. On a basic level, including tribes in the list of governmental entities is consistent with how other branches of the federal government treat tribes. However, it also addresses several unique issues faced by tribal interests in the Court. For example,

  • The higher word count for governments recognizes their unique interests in participating as amici curiae out of respect for their inherent sovereignty and/or their exercise of governmental authority. Like other governments, tribes have an interest in advocating for their powers and advancing the unique interests of themselves and their members.
  • Cases related to tribes’ authority, treaty rights, and resources frequently do not include tribes as parties. In those cases, tribes participate as amici, and it is critical that tribal perspectives be fully heard on those issues. The United States does not always adequately represent tribal interests in a case. In fact, the positions of the United States and tribes are not always aligned.
  • Similarly, in the context of Federal Indian Law, cases often address foundational constitutional law principles. Facilitating tribal participation allows tribes to provide important information and context to the Court.

NARF appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Court’s proposed rule changes and commends the Court on making this important change to properly recognize tribal sovereignty.


First Nations police launch human-rights complaint against Ottawa over funding

Police chiefs presiding over First Nations police forces in Ontario have launched a human-rights complaint alleging that the federal government is placing reserves in crisis by failing to deliver adequate funding.

The claim, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, was filed last week at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) by police chiefs at nine First Nations police forces in Ontario. It also has the support of a group representing 22 First Nations police forces in Quebec. Altogether, the groups in both provinces make up the vast majority of self-administered Indigenous police forces in Canada.

The police chiefs in the claim allege that Ottawa has allowed“chronic underfunding and under-resourcing of the safety of Indigenous communities,” which they say is discriminatory because it contributes to high crime in communities that were promised equitable levels of safety to communities outside reserves.

The claim says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have not followed through on public pledges to bring in legislation to improve security by enshrining First Nations policing programs into law as an essential service, which could lead to greater levels of funding.

“Despite these commitments made by the leader of this country, the complainants now find themselves in a manufactured public safety crisis,” reads the 32-page filing to the CHRT. In the complaint, the police chiefs say that inflexible federal civil servants are crafting deals through “negotiation tactics aimed at forcing First Nations to sign unfair, discriminatory funding agreements.”

The complaint seeks damages of $40,000 per reserve resident as well as orders directing Ottawa officials to negotiate deals in better faith.

The police chiefs’ claim echoes a similar case over alleged underfunding of the Indigenous child-welfare system. A CHRT ruling in 2016 led to a $40-billion compensation plan announced five years later. That complaint also sought $40,000 for each affected person.

Last year, the CHRT ruled that government underfunding of the Mashteuiatsh Police Service in Pekuakamiulnuatsh First Nation in Quebec was discriminatory.

The new complaint amounts to an indictment of the federally runFirst Nations and Inuit Policing Program (FNIPP), a 30-year-old funding formula created to put more police on Canada’s reserves by splitting costs with provinces.

The federal government now pays about $200-million each year into the program, which has created nearly 40 Indigenous police forces. But police chiefs leading most of these organizations support the new rights complaint. The federal Department of Public Safety did not immediately reply to e-mailed questions about the legal action.

The police chiefs said in interviews that frustrations have been building for years because funding is discretionary and never guaranteed by government. They argue the program’s short-term deal-making processes also means that Indigenous police forces may find themselves without any money at all if bargaining for a new deal breaks down.

“We have a federal government with this First Nations and Inuit Policing Program that essentially allows the contract to expire without any mechanisms to continue the funding – that’s unconscionable,” Police Chief Kai Liu,who runs the Treaty Three Police Service across a sprawling part of northwestern Ontario, said in an interview.

Police Chief Liu, who is also president of the Indigenous Police Chiefs of Ontario, is the lead complainant in the CHRT claim. He said his own police force is one of three in Ontario whose funding agreements expired at the end of the fiscal year this past weekend without any arrangements assuring future funding being put in place. Negotiations with the federal government are continuing for a new deal.

Federal civil servants, he said, have told him that government funds cannot be used to pay for lawyers who act for Indigenous communities and policing services in these negotiations. The money also comes with restrictions that it cannot be used to create police squads such as tactical units or canine teams.

He and other forces are demanding change. Such positions “make no logical sense when it comes to policing,” said Chief Liu. He said, the lack of a deal in his jurisdiction risks demoralizing overworked officers who are already struggling to respond to emergency calls in a timely manner.

While police response times are at issue across rural Canada, First Nations can face much higher crime rates than other communities. Last September, a man killed 11 people and wounded 18 others in a mass stabbing centred on the James Smith Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan. That violent rampage drew national attention and raised questions about why nearest police were posted at a detachment 45 kilometres away.

The CHRT complaint points out that Mr. Trudeau promised new policing measures when he visited the James Smith in the aftermath of the rampage. “Prime Minister Trudeau announced a renewed commitment to ensuring First Nations benefit from the same standard of policing available to non-Indigenous communities,” the complaint says.

In 2019, the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls urged the federal government to replace the FNIPP with legislation that would “immediately and dramatically transform Indigenous policing.” Later that year, Mr. Trudeau wrote a mandate letter directing his cabinet ministers to develop that law but federal officials last month told The Globe they cannot give any timelines.

The police chiefs at several First Nations forces say they cannot wait for a bill. “It’s like saying the cheque is in the mail,” said Chief Shawn Dulude of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service.

He leads the First Nations police chiefs’ organization in Quebec and said the 22 forces intend to intervene at the human-rights tribunal in support of the Ontario complaint.

“I’m afraid that we’re going to see a third mandate go by and what they promised us will not have materialized,” he said, referring to Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government.

Last month, a Globe investigation into First Nations policing in Saskatchewan revealed how the FNIPP is not reaching residents of many reservesin that province. Citing The Globe’s reporting, the new rights complaint says this is just one example of a program that has gone off track.

Julian Falconer, the lawyer acting on behalf of the First Nations police chiefs in Ontario, says the FNIPP was created with the stated goal of ensuring that residents of reserves are as safe as Canadians living outside of them.

But federal officials have stopped using this language, he said, and that’s significant. “We call it the phantom policy. It’s concealed from public view.”


Sámi rights must not be sacrificed for green energy goals of Europe

  • Last week, the European Commission released the Critical Raw Materials Act for minerals used in renewable energy and digital technologies.
  • It mandates that EU countries should be extracting “enough ores, minerals and concentrates to produce at least 10% of their strategic raw materials by 2030,” and part of that looks likely to come from mines on Indigenous Sámi land.
  • Mines already sited there have caused pollution, devastated ecosystems, poisoned reindeer forage, and taken away their reindeer grazing areas. “How can this transition be sustainable if it destroys our land and violates our Indigenous and human rights?” a new op-ed asks.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Growing up in Gällivare/ Váhtjer, a Swedish village in Sápmi, north of the Arctic Circle, the threats facing Sámi people were a daily reality.

We are Europe’s only Indigenous people, but colonialism means our territory, Sápmi, is split across four countries: Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia.

But across these national borders, the same pressures bear down on us, from mining to forestry and wind farms.

Dry pike. Image by Jan-Eerik Paadar / Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät (the Sámi Parliament) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Fish drying outside a Sámi cabin. Image by Jan-Eerik Paadar / Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät (the Sámi Parliament) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

For outsiders’ commercial gain, our land has been seized, our people displaced, and the reindeer herding that’s been the foundation of our lives for millennia, eroded.

Adjacent to my village is Malmberget, a scene of deep mine iron ore extraction, and a little over 100 kilometers away is Kiruna, the world’s largest underground iron mine. Both are owned by Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB), the 100% state-owned Swedish mining company.

Kiruna is one of the nine out of 12 mines in the north of Sweden which are on Sámi land. These mines – as well as the infrastructure accompanying them – have caused pollution, devastated ecosystems, poisoned the lichen that our reindeer survive on, and  taken away our reindeer grazing areas.

Herd of Finnish forest reindeer in Finland. Image by Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät (Sámi parliament) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
A Sámi herd of reindeer in Finland. Image by Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät (the Sámi parliament) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

More mining

Now a new danger has emerged.

European Union policymakers want to secure the ‘critical raw materials’ which its Member States need for the green energy and digital transitions. They’ve identified 30 raw materials as being of vital strategic and economic importance.

By 2030, according to a report based on the draft text of the European Commission’s Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), which was just released on March 16, EU countries should be extracting “enough ores, minerals and concentrates to produce at least 10% of their strategic raw materials by 2030.”

This will mean that they want to increase mining on our land.

Mineral rush

In January, LKAB announced that it had found Europe’s largest deposit of rare earth elements north of Kiruna. They calculated that the deposit contains at least one million tons of rare earth oxides, minerals used in everything from electric vehicles to wind turbines to mobile phones.

As the rush to extract these and other critical raw materials intensifies, the Sámi people are being told that we have to ‘co-exist’ with mining. Yet co-existence always means us moving and changing our traditional way of life: a way of life that has existed alongside nature for a long, long time.

We are also told that these operations are sustainable and part of the green energy transition. But how can this transition be sustainable if it destroys our land and violates our Indigenous and human rights?

Conference of Sámi parliamentarians in Inari on 19 May 2022. Image by Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät (the Sámi Parliament) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Conference of Sámi parliamentarians in May 2022. Image by Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät (the Sámi Parliament) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The United Nations has criticized the SwedishFinnish and Norwegian governments for violating  Sámi rights in the past. For example, in 2020 the UN Committee on the elimination of Racial Discrimination condemned Sweden for ignoring Sámi rights by establishing a mine in Rönnebäck. It also called on Sweden to revise its mining legislation to ensure that it respects and complies with the Sámi people’s rights, saying that Swedish law didn’t provide the Sámi reindeer herding community with a real opportunity to have the legality of the mining project tested before the courts.

And earlier this month, the Norwegian government was forced to apologize to Sámi reindeer herders for violating their rights by issuing licenses to operate  wind farms on the Fosen peninsula, after the Supreme Court ruled in the herders’ favor.

The overwhelming message in these cases – and throughout Sámi history – is  that we must have a say in any decisions that fundamentally affect our lives.

As such, our right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to any mining, wind farms or forestry on our land should be sacrosanct: FPIC is a fundamental right, not merely a principle, as the Swedish government claims.

The EU must also recognize and support this right. A good start would be by enshrining FPIC in the CRMA.


Polarization in Siberia: Thwarted Indigeneity and Sovereignty

Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer updates her monograph Galvanizing Nostalgia?  to explore why many in the republics are against Russia’s war in Ukraine.  Drawing on long-term fieldwork in Sakha, Tyva and Buryatia and with diaspora communities, she outlines an uneven legacy of revitalization and grievances in relation to the Kremlin and its policies.

As we rethink our approaches to Russia, its colonizing history, and its current leaders’ aggressions against Ukraine, we must also consider vast parts of Russia’s eastern lands that are understudied and too often misunderstood. A Sakha (Yakut) engineer explains that most of his mining friends abhor Russia’s war in Ukraine. A creative gaming company founded in Yakutsk has decamped to Thailand with hundreds of its IT workers’ families. COVID crisis call centers in some republics have switched to mobilization information, fielding calls mostly from frantic women trying to save their husbands and sons. Women protesters in Yakutsk braved cold and jail to stage an antiwar dance chant (ohuokhai) in the main square; many were arrested.

Such narratives challenge surveys and publicity asserting that most “Russians” (Rossiyane) patriotically support the war or are not courageous enough to oppose it. Resistance, including arson against military recruitment offices, has diversified. Are non-Russians inside the republics, given their disproportionate mobilization, the exception to generalizations about citizen support for Putin’s fatal regime? Could Russia’s faltering “Federation” fall apart? These and other hot issues regarding the peoples of Siberia are explored in my Galvanizing Nostalgia? Indigeneity and Sovereignty in Siberia, featuring long-term anthropology fieldwork in three republics, Sakha, Buryatia and Tyva. I argue that Northeastern territories, disproportionately influenced by climate change, hold important keys to Russia’s wealth, development, and stability.

One theory about the timing of the invasion of Ukraine suggests that Putin hoped for a diversionary victory that could unite Russia’s multiethnic peoples against an artificial outside enemy, staving off domestic political, economic and ecological discontent. Instability and dissent have been building in the republics since Putin came to power and abrogated Yeltsin’s 1990s negotiated bilateral treaties. Polarization has grown, although secessionist claims were rare until the Ukraine war, and today are expressed mostly by diaspora politicians without relatives inside who could be punished.

Sakha: Resource Rich and Pivotal

The Sakha Republic, said to contain most of Mendeleev’s table, is crucial for Russia’s war economy. Its Putin-appointed yes-man leader Aisen Nikolaev has conformed to central pressures, including at a Northern Forum conference in late 2022, where a Soviet-style panel celebrating “100 years of republic sovereignty within Russia” lauded a history of mutually beneficial federal relations enabling “massive investment projects, social programs, increased infrastructure, resource innovation, spiritual development and the growth of unique culture.”

“But this paternalistic propaganda is belied by resentments against resource extraction without environmental protections and by economic recentralization that has robbed the republic of their cuts of diamond profits.”

Sakha citizens use an old Sakha word “Il Darkhan” (Elder-Leader) for their head of government to cleverly avoid the forbidden term President, and are proud of their Turkic language. The Sakha have regained a slim majority in the republic over the plurality Russian and Ukrainian population, in addition to Even, Evenki and Yukaghir Indigenous minorities. Many republic citizens, sometimes calling themselves Yakutiane, dream of greater negotiated sovereignty and hide their sons in disgust against a war they refuse to gloss as a righteous “military operation.”

Buryatia: Gerrymandered and Struggling

Buryatia, impoverished and gerrymandered, has a legacy as a once powerful Mongolic Buddhist state on the border with Mongolia. The dismemberment of “Greater Buryatia” began in the early Soviet period precisely because Russian central authorities perceived Buryat-Mongols as a serious threat. Today the Buryat constitute about a third of the Republic of Buryatia. They lost under Putin two satellite regions, Ust-Orda and Aga, sequentially amalgamated by rigged referenda in 2006 and 2008 into neighboring Irkutsk and Chita (now Zabaikalsk Krai) regions. Powerless to resist, many Buryat nonetheless resent land claims, privatization, non-negotiated development, and propaganda since 2014 that has proclaimed them “Putin’s Militant Buryats.” While Buryatia is known for high education rates and pervasive Russification, Buryats have fought for their language rights and the ecology of Lake Baikal together with some Russian allies. Their first President Leonid Potapov in the 1990s was a Buryat-speaking Russian. The initial post-Soviet period enabled conditions for successful revival of shamanic and Buddhist spirituality in the republic, and also for an influx of Chinese and other outsiders.

Tyva: A Borderline State with Demographic Advantages

Tyva (Tuva), nestled in the Altai-Sayan Mountains, came into the Soviet Union as a mere oblast at approximately the same time as the Baltic States. From 1921-44, the country of Tannu (Taiga)-Touva had its own monetary unit called aksha, and collector-worthy stamps. With longer borders than the current republic, it had been a protectorate of Mongolia in the early twentieth century. It became a republic inside Russia (RSFSR) quite late, 1961. Empowered by demographics but not mineral wealth, the republic is well over three quarters Tyvan. Many Russians fled its territory after anti-Russian unrest as the Soviet Union dissolved. In the early 1990s, a party called “Khostug Tyva” (Free Tyva) advocated separation from Russia, but cooler heads prevailed, such as that of activist Kadyr-ool Bicheldei, and Tyva accepted its economic dependency on Moscow. It is native son Sergei Shoigu has become Putin’s friend and Minister of Defense. Many of its impoverished unemployed youth have become soldiers on the front lines of the Ukraine war, despite their Buddhist backgrounds. Sadly, some became targets of seemingly racist Donetsk republic militias’ brutalization.

Soviet-style repressions and Revitalization

Cultural and civilizational ties among citizens of the eastern republics have been alternately ignored or considered threatening at various levels of government. Practicing divide and rule strategies, Soviet authorities repressed pan-Turkismpan-Mongolism and homegrown Eurasianism without valuing their potential influence in defusing chauvinist types of more narrow nationalism. All three of these crossover ideologies have blossomed in the post-Soviet period with horizontal contacts, fluctuating degrees of official support, attempted cooption and understanding. People are nostalgic for various pasts, differentially interpreted and used in leaders’ rhetoric in various ways. Multiple and situational identities have flourished as many Siberians have become increasingly cosmopolitan. Particularly fascinating have been cross-republic revivals of shamanic and Buddhist activism, enabling all three republics to open themselves to mutual cultural pilgrimage, tourism and international spiritual seeking. The popular movement of shaman Alexander represents an example of the Putin regime’s return to Soviet-style repression of dissent using punitive psychiatry.

The China factor

A controversial aspect of politics and economic dependencies involves the degree of China’s influence in Russia’s eastern territories. While the Chinese presence is significant, it is crucial for analysts to be geographically nuanced, differentiating regions from sub-regions, republics from oblasts, and Siberia from the Far East, two separate mega-zones in official Russian conceptions. China has historical claims on certain territories north of the Amur River, but is far less interested in occupying all of Siberia in the Western sense. The presence of seasonal Chinese traders and workers in the Sakha Republic hardly makes it a target of territorial expansion. A Power of Siberia pipeline running to China does not give the Chinese territorial rights, nor does their observer status in the Arctic Council.

Ethnonational fault lines

Further interethnic complexities are built into Russia’s legal definition of “Indigenous people,” which diverges from international usage. Russian law defines its “Native” (korennye, from ‘rooted’) peoples as only “small-numbered” (under 50,000), while United Nations definitions incorporate larger non-state ethnonational groups with long-recognized homelands, such as the Sakha, Buryat, Tyvans, Khakas and Altaians. While recognition as Indigenous can be beneficial in the international context, it is less commonly used by peoples with named (titular) republics. A two-tiered system exists within the republics for “small-numbered” peoples, such as the Even, Evenki, Yukaghir, Todja, Akha and Soyot, some of whom complain of dual assimilation pressures. These are compounded by restrictive 2022 registration procedures, and new decrees that mobilize previously exempt Siberian Natives into the war in Ukraine. Many groups claim victimization with discourses raging along ethnonational lines. This influences how non-Russian elites in the republics think about their relationships with the federal center.

Russia’s valiant but dispersed opposition and its multinational “matryoshka doll” composition reveal fault lines in Russian society. While wide-ranging protests have been repressed, hopes for cultural, personal and societal dignity have not. Each republic within Russia valorizes different legacies, and has had various relationships with Moscow in the past century. Some are more polarized than others, especially those in the North Caucasus. Russia’s society is more fragile than many analysts realize. Whether Russia eventually will fragment along the lines of its republics, or hold at least partly together in a real federation through negotiation and nested sovereignty depends on its peoples pulling back from dangers of violence that result from mutual polarization. Siberians merit being on the map of international awareness, for their striking multiethnic histories and their strategic significance for Russia’s survival.

As the most enterprising and morally attuned of Russia’s multiethnic intelligentsia and workers abandon the country, recovering intertwined cultural, societal, political, ecological and economic conditions that could heal Putin’s authoritarianism becomes increasingly unrealistic. Russia may spiral out of any single leader’s control.