Down To Earth talks to Pavel Sulyandziga, an indigenous activist about what is happening in Russia, especially to its indigenous and marginalised people
A lot has been said about how the Russian invasion is devastating for Ukraine. But what about the people in Russia? A war always comes at a cost; also, there are economic sanctions against Russia by the United States and some of its allies. While the possible effect of these on the common Russian has been discussed, what about the country’s marginalised communities?
The country is home to a large number of indigenous minorities — from the Karelians and Saami near the Finnish border to the Chukchi on the Bering Strait.
Pavel Sulyandziga is an indigenous activist from Russia who has taken political asylum in the United States. He is a member of the Udege, a people found in the Russian Far East, near the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Their homeland is also home to the Amur tiger, the largest cat in the world, which is a cultural totem of the tribe.
Down To Earth caught up with Sulyandziga and asked him about what exactly was going on in Russia. Edited excerpts:
Rajat Ghai: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused consternation around the world. But, away from the headlines, how will these developments affect the indigenous, minorities and marginalised communities in both countries?
Pavel Sulyandziga: The war is impacting everyone. The sanctions that have been invoked by other countries will have a strong impact on Russia and will impoverish common people.
What is even more terrifying is the Russian regime will now be even less concerned about the rights of indigenous and minority peoples in the country.
The rights of indigenous people are often violated. These people will now be ignored more. Land theft and the violations of our rights will become more frequent. Our efforts to protect those rights through the courts and other ways will be ignored.
Indigenous people live in remote areas that are cut off from the mainstream. Groceries and other products will not be provided or will become costly and unaffordable.
RG: Are there indigenous communities in Ukraine?
PS: There are indigenous people in Ukraine. The majority of them live in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. There is military action taking place on the Crimean Peninsula currently.
At the time that Russia annexed Crimea, many indigenous leaders left the peninsula and moved north into central Ukraine. Today, a number of them have taken up weapons and are fighting for their country.
RG: What are the issues of indigenous people in the Russian Federation presided over by Vladimir Putin?
PS: The biggest tragedy at the moment is that people in Russia’s indigenous communities are being called to serve in the war in Ukraine.
This is especially concerning since many of these communities are not fully informed about what is going on in Ukraine thanks to Russian propaganda, which tells them that they are going to free the country from ‘Banderites’ (from the name of Stepan Bandera, a far-right Ukrainian politician of the last century) and Nazis.
Unemployment is quite high in these communities. They are being promised huge sums of money to enlist and fight.
I would like to underscore that most Russian indigenous communities are small in number and the loss of a few members may be a big one for such groups. For instance, my people, the Udege, live in four villages and number 1,600 people.
The other issue that I see as very important is of food and groceries and whether people will receive them. I am also concerned about medical care since most of these communities do not have hospitals and are forced to travel to seek medical care.
Now, with the value of the rouble declining and living costs increasing, I am worried that people may not be able to receive proper medical care or medicines.
Of course, the ongoing issues of land seizures and violation of our environmental rights will continue and possibly become more difficult to address given the current wartime situation and its impacts on government.
RG: Russia has the largest shoreline in the Arctic, which is now melting. What changes will take place in the Russian Arctic given that President Putin has voiced its full exploitation?
PS: There are definitely some significant causes for concerns. Russia has extensive plans for exploiting Arctic resources, especially oil and gas.
It is my belief that due to the lack of technical support from western companies, they will be forced to delay these projects. They are just not in a position currently to implement them.
RG: Will the war in Ukraine affect the environment in the wider region?
PS: There is certainly the potential for significant complications. I am watching the situation quite closely, specifically with regard to Russia’s takeover of the Chernobyl site and the Zaporozhia nuclear power station.
I am worried about the possibility of Putin making use of biological weapons in the region. Let us hope that does not happen.
Of course, the impacts in Ukraine are terrible. The bombs, the planes and the technology that has been used there has a high degree of toxicity and will have an impact on communities.
RG: What are the similarities and differences between the USSR and Putin’s Russia, especially in terms of political economy?
PS: There are huge differences in basic economic terms. Russia delayed in developing it but it still has a market economy, which did not exist in the Soviet era.
But things are much worse today than in the Soviet Union. The Soviet economy and nation were self-contained. They produced everything themselves even though it was not of good quality. That is gone in today’s Russia. Putin has buried manufacturing and industry.
For instance, the domestic commercial airline industry entirely depends on Boeing and Airbus planes. Seventy per cent of their parts have to be imported. Even the Russian car industry depends on imported parts.
One thing that the Soviet regime does share with Putin’s Russia is the lack of concern for the people. The soldiers sent to the frontline in Ukraine are novices. They are not prepared for this kind of undertaking and are essentially cannon fodder.
The famous Soviet military commander, Georgy Zhukov, when asked about losses on the front, is known to have said: No problem. The mothers will bear more children.
Putin is the same.
We see this in Volodymyr Zelensky’s frequent ceasefire proposals for prisoner exchanges, evacuations and collecting the dead. But Putin refuses to engage. It shows that he just does not care.
RG: How has Putin fared in conserving wildlife and biodiversity?
PS: I have two answers to this. First, I would say that Putin couldn’t care less about environment and ecology. But Putin’s regime does have some accomplishments with regards to environmental conservation.
But these accomplishments are focussed in the public relations sphere rather than meaningful conservation and protection. When we talk about the Amur tiger, it is an achievement.
In conversations I have had with conservationists, they say ‘You Udege people are lucky. Putin loves your tiger.’
At some point, Putin decided that he was going to be the biggest protector of tigers in the world. He proposed a global programme that involved the heads of six tiger range countries. He wanted to host the first tiger summit. It was supposed to take place this autumn in Vladivostok near my homeland. But I don’t think it will take place now.
Dear friends, brothers and sisters!
Today, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation held a meeting of the Coordinating Council, where leaders of indigenous peoples and leaders of regional NGOs unanimously supported the decisions of our president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
The text of the letter can be found below or by clicking on the link.
WE – the undersigned representatives of the Indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East living outside of Russia against our will—are outraged by the war President Putin has unleashed against Ukraine. At the moment, the entire population of Ukraine is in grave danger. Old people, women and children are dying. Cities and towns of an independent country are being destroyed because their inhabitants did not want to obey the will of a dictator and a tyrant.
As representatives of Indigenous peoples, WE express solidarity with the people of Ukraine in their struggle for freedom and are extremely concerned about ensuring the rights of Indigenous peoples during the war on Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula that remains illegally occupied by Russia.
As representatives of Indigenous peoples, WE are outraged by statements of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) on March 1, 2022 and the statement of civil society leaders on March 2, 2022 in support of the decisions of President Putin. Such public statements can only be considered as direct support for the military aggression against the Ukrainian people, and their signatories are accomplices of the murderers of civilians in Ukraine.
WE believe that the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) has become an adjunct of the Russian Government domestically and internationally. Once a leader in the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, it is today became an organization whose main purpose is to justify the actions of the Government and extractive companies that feed President Putin’s regime and destroy the traditional lands of indigenous peoples.
WE believe that the leaders of RAIPON—Grigory Ledkov, Alexander Novyukhov, and Anna Otke who signed the letter should be also treated as war criminals, not merely accomplices of the war, because they voted for military action as members of the Russian Parliament.
From now on, WE will consider any statements on any international platforms made by RAIPON and its representatives or by representatives of other organizations of Indigenous peoples which supported Vladimir Putin’s decisions regarding Ukraine as falsehood and propaganda as their main purpose is maintaining the prestige of the Russian authorities at the international level.
WE call on any international organizations, nonprofit and intergovernmental, scientific, environmental, human rights and others, including institutes and branches of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Arctic Council to ignore the statements of RAIPON representatives and spokespeople of other organizations which supported Vladimir Putin’s decisions. Those statements are propaganda originating in the Russian political regime. We appeal to the international community to no longer consider RAIPON a legitimate representative of the Indigenous peoples of Russia.
WE also declare that we are withdrawing from all Russia-based organizations and networks of Indigenous peoples of Russia in which we were previously members. We announce the creation of a new, independent organization—the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia.
Tjan Zaotschnaja – Itelmen
Dmitry Berezhkov – Kamchadal
Pavel Sulyandziga – Udege
Yana Tannagasheva – Shor
Andrey Danilov – Saami
Vladislav Tannagashev – Shor
Irina Shafrannik – Selkup
ADC Memorial has reported to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation on the violation of the rights of the indigenous peoples of southern Siberia to safe drinking water and sanitation. Reports from civil society will be included in the report to the 51st session of the Human Rights Council in September 2022.
The material submitted by ADC Memorial presented an overview of violations of the environmental rights of indigenous peoples of southern Siberia – the Khakas, Shor, and Teleut peoples – who are harmed by the activities of coal and gold mining companies that have polluted the water, soil, and air. Coal mining and placer gold mining have already caused a true environmental catastrophe for many regions. With the development of the coal industry in the Republic of Khakassia, many lakes and small rivers that are a source of drinking water for the local population and for livestock are gradually drying up and becoming polluted. Gold mining is equally destructive for bodies of water. In May and June of 2021, WWF experts identified 30 cases of complex river pollution resulting from placer gold mining in four regions of Siberia on plots along a total length of 1,474 km. Of these cases, five occurred along 203 km in Khakassia, and five were found along 218 km in Kemerovo Oblast. Such a powerful adverse impact on the soil and water of indigenous peoples makes traditional nature use impossible and harms the health of indigenous peoples.
The material devotes special attention to the fact that Russian law does not give indigenous peoples the right to own land that is part of their traditional settlement territories. The law only provides for the right to use lands at no charge in places where indigenous peoples have traditionally lived and supported themselves. As a result, territories that have served as a place of life and activity for indigenous communities for millennia and have been used for traditional trades like raising livestock, hunting, fishing, and foraging are being transferred to private companies that are decimating the natural and cultural environment of these indigenous peoples.
Mining companies are also able to violate the environmental rights of indigenous peoples because Russia’s law on small indigenous peoples does not contain the concept of free, prior, and informed consent to all actions concerning territories where communities reside. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the principle of free, prior, and informed consent is a necessary condition for managing any activity relating to traditional lands, territories where indigenous peoples live, and resources indigenous communities use in their daily lives.
The lack of strict norms protecting the situation of indigenous peoples living on their ancestral lands leads to violations of the right to land, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to the self-determination and cultural development of indigenous peoples. These violations are systemic. The Russian government must respect and protect indigenous rights in accordance with its international obligations.
Mining the minerals that may be needed for a green energy revolution could devastate tribal lands. The Biden administration will be forced to choose.
YELLOW PINE, Idaho — Net in hand, Louis Reuben waded into the frigid waters where his ancestors once fished, long before Idaho’s rivers were dammed and contaminated, before the Nez Perce were driven off their land when white miners struck gold.
“They used to say you could walk across the river on the backs of salmon,” he said one rainy autumn morning as he tallied and measured the depleted stocks of young Chinook salmon that hatch in these mountain creeks. “Now, it’s totally different. It’s devastating, if you think about it.”
President Biden came into office vowing to safeguard Native American resources like these and uphold the rights of tribes that have endured generations of land theft and broken treaties. But in the rolling headwaters of central Idaho, where mining interests have long overrun tribal rights, the administration’s promise is colliding with one of its other priorities: starting a revolution in renewable energy to confront climate change.
Deep in the Salmon River Mountains, an Idaho mining company, Perpetua Resources, is proposing a vast open-pit gold mine that would also produce 115 million pounds of antimony — an element that may be critical to manufacturing the high-capacity liquid-metal batteries of the future.
As it seeks the Biden administration’s approval for its mining plans on federal lands, Perpetua is waging an aggressive campaign to cast itself as an ally in a new clean-energy economy. It says its Stibnite Gold Project would be the only American mine to produce antimony, which now largely comes from China, and would supply the metal to a Bill Gates-backed start-up that makes batteries that could one day store energy on solar-powered electricity grids.
“It’s responsible, modern mining,” Mckinsey Lyon, a Perpetua vice president, said as she led a tour up to the dormant mining site, still contaminated by decades of mining. She said Perpetua would clean up the mountainous basin while extracting “minerals our country needs for energy security.”
The Biden administration has warned that failing to expand the nation’s supply of rare-earth minerals, including antimony, could present a risk to the nation’s energy and military preparedness. But deposits of antimony in the United States, unlike the one in Idaho, are generally small, and some of them locked away in mines that have been shuttered for decades.
Perpetua has launched a Washington campaign to press its case. In Idaho, it has made direct promises of money to neighboring communities, contingent on the project’s success.
The clean-energy public relations campaign is the newest threat to the Nez Perce, who for generations have watched fish populations decline and pollution rise. Mining interests drove them out of their homelands and fouled their rivers and ancestral hunting grounds. For a community trying to preserve its culture and kinship with the territory, an effort that has involved millions of dollars invested in restoring fish stocks, the proposed mine represents another existential threat.
A review by the Environmental Protection Agency found that Perpetua’s initial plan for a 20-year operation would inflict “disproportionately high and adverse impacts” on tribes, according to a November 2020 letter from the agency, and environmental groups have warned that the mine could damage or destroy huge swaths of fish habitat.
The Nez Perce are not alone. Across the American West, tribal nations are on the front lines of a new debate over how to balance the needs and costs of clean energy. Extracting the fuels of the future is a process that is often far from clean, and just as fights over the environmental costs of oil exploration helped define the fossil fuel era, conflicts like this one are creating the battle lines of the next energy revolution.
The push to unearth new minerals presents a hard choice for the Biden administration in politically divided Western states where mining remains an important source of jobs and political power. The choices are destined to grow more challenging as commodities like lithium, copper, cobalt and antimony become more valuable, and critical to the nation’s future.
Perpetua says its Idaho mine holds enough antimony to one day power a million homes using hulking batteries that would capture and release energy created by solar farms. Perpetua and its partner, the battery-maker Ambri, say the batteries would last for 20 years and lose little of their power-storing capacity over their lifetimes, potentially revolutionizing America’s power grids.
But the batteries are a new technology that have yet to prove their effectiveness in the real world. And it will likely be at least another five years before any Perpetua project is able to deliver any antimony to be made into batteries.
In the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona, a Canadian mining company that is seeking federal approval to dig an open-pit mine over the objections of the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui and Hopi people has said its copper will provide “the key element to our green energy future.”
The tribes say the mines would damage their hunting and fishing lands, siphon scarce water and desecrate burial grounds and ceremonial sites.
In Nevada, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone are protesting a mining company’s efforts to blast apart a dormant volcano to dig for lithium — a critical mineral used in batteries for electric cars. In the Big Sandy River Valley in Arizona, another lithium mining project could destroy a hot spring considered sacred by the Hualapai Tribe.
An hour outside of Phoenix, leaders of the San Carlos Apache have been reaching out to Democratic leaders to stop a copper mining project that the tribe says would destroy a swath of sacred ground called Oak Flat. The British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto wants to dig an underground copper mine that would create a mile-wide crater in the earth, which Apache people say would destroy land where they pray and hold four-day ceremonies to usher girls into womanhood.
The Biden administration delayed the project by withdrawing an environmental review that was fast-tracked in the final days of the Trump administration. But the tribe wants the project killed.
Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache, said he had been calling Mr. Biden and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency oversees the Tonto National Forest where the proposed mining site sits. The tribe has vested special hopes in persuading Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, to intervene.
“There’s a lot of hope and trust in her,” Mr. Rambler said.
The Biden administration already has put limits on exploration, going to court to disrupt the Pebble Mine project in Alaska and barring new oil and gas leases in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Other projects are also getting renewed scrutiny, but the administration has not closed any doors.
Steve Feldgus, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a statement that the department was committed to building a clean-energy economy while also protecting communities.
“We recognize that as demand for clean energy technology increases over the short- and medium-term, an increased supply of critical minerals and materials will be necessary to meet national and global climate goals,” he said. The agency will be engaging with a variety of groups, including tribes, to “ensure critical minerals production is sustainable and responsible,” he said.
Members of the San Carlos Apache and other tribes have filed lawsuits to fight the mines, but they face a legal system forged by century-old laws and court decisions that have favored the mining companies.
Federal mining law grants private companies enormous power to stake claims and dig on public lands, often despite arguments that mines violate treaty-guaranteed rights to fish, hunt and collect plants. Tribal members have also tried unsuccessfully to argue that mines would illegally prevent them from praying and practicing their religions on sacred public lands.
But the legal ground may be shifting. A 2020 Supreme Court decision expanded tribal sovereignty in Oklahoma and ordered the federal government to uphold the commitments it made in treaties with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Under the decision, the State of Oklahoma could lose its power to oversee coal mining on tribal lands, and tribes elsewhere are making reinvigorated legal arguments that proposed mines violate their treaty rights.
“They should have a decisive say on any federal action that impacts their people, their land, their territories and especially their sacred sites,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
In Idaho, a 19th-century treaty between the Nez Perce and the U.S. government could prove critical to the fight against the Stibnite Gold Project.
The Nez Perce historically had a network of villages across some 16 million acres, from the ridge of the Bitterroot Mountains in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west. But as settlers poured in along the Oregon Trail, the federal government and the Nez Perce struck a treaty in 1855.
The Nez Perce gave up about half of their ancestral lands while retaining a right to hunt and fish in their “usual and accustomed places.”
Soon after, though, gold was discovered within the reservation. With prospectors flocking to the region, the U.S. government initiated a new treaty negotiation that shrank the reservation by 90 percent. Among the Nimiipuu, as tribe members refer to themselves, the 1863 agreement became known as the Steal Treaty.
With dams, mining, pollution and development now spread through much of the land, salmon, the signature species that has always been a bedrock of the environment in the Pacific Northwest, are struggling. Just 44 adult sockeye salmon completed the 900-mile journey this year from the Pacific Ocean to the Sawtooth Basin in Idaho. The Nez Perce now spend millions of dollars each year on restoration efforts, with hatcheries, testing and trucks to carry salmon past dams that produce some of the region’s hydroelectric power.
The Idaho mountain basin at the center of the latest fight is currently a dormant gash in the Payette National Forest.
The mine, in the ghost town of Stibnite, once produced gold and metals that hardened American munitions and armor in World War II. It now reflects the legacy of thousands of shuttered mines that have polluted waterways and soil across the West. Heaps of mine waste are contaminated with arsenic and heavy metals. A flooded mining pit slices a portion of the South Fork Salmon River in two, preventing fish from swimming upstream.
Perpetua has won over many nearby residents by promising to repair the damage done by more than a century of mining. It says it will restore creeks now channeled into rock-lined ditches and reconnect the severed section of river so fish can swim freely. There have been years of cleanup efforts at the site, but Perpetua says it alone is willing to undertake a full-scale restoration that could cost $100 million.
“Nobody wants it in their backyard,” said Willie Sullivan, who manages the water system in the tiny nearby village of Yellow Pine. “But have the environmentalists stopped using phones or computers? The things that are required to develop these modern technologies all come from the ground.”
The Nez Perce and environmental activists say the mine will do lasting damage over the next 20 years.
Perpetua would vastly increase the footprint of the mine, digging three pits hundreds of feet deep. It would divert creeks and a river, potentially harming more than 20 percent of the area’s salmon and trout habitat, according to analyses by environmental critics. (The company disputes those assessments and says it would actually increase salmon habitat by restoring damaged rivers.) The Environmental Protection Agency has said the mine could produce mercury pollution and long-lasting contamination in the streams and groundwater.
Mining machinery on site will crush millions of tons of ore, then use cyanide to extract the gold. The waste, a contaminated sludge of 100 million tons of earth and water, will be stored in a mountain valley behind a 450-foot rock dam. Perpetua says it is a secure design, fortified by liners and a huge rock buttress, but a spill or leak could harm fragile fish populations and do long-term environmental damage.
To transport thousands of construction workers, miners and support crews to a remote site up twisting, rutted dirt roads, Perpetua plans to carve a new road on the fringes of pristine wilderness. Heavy trucks will make dozens of trips every day for years. Some residents who have watched drivers lose control and tumble down the mountains, their trucks landing in the streams, say they are terrified about the environmental consequences of a roadside spill.
Perpetua has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars wooing nearby communities and burnishing its image as a mining company that can help produce the technology to wean America off fossil fuels.
The company’s largest shareholder is the billionaire investor John Paulson, a supporter of former President Donald J. Trump, but Perpetua has reached across the aisle to lobby politicians in Washington. The company has spent $200,000 on Washington, D.C., lobbying, retaining the services of a former Obama energy-policy official and an aide to former Senator Harry Reid, a powerful Nevada Democrat with deep ties to the mining industry.
The company has also gone to unusual lengths to build support in local communities. It brought a plan to local officials promising to award grants from a nonprofit foundation it created to support community projects, with the company contributing more funds each time the project reached a new milestone — after getting federal approval, after getting final permits, after starting construction and after starting production.
Colby Nielsen, the council president in the town of McCall, said that many locals were opposed to the project, and that he felt the company’s proposal was improper.
“I think the benefit agreement was just their attempt to buy people off, essentially, in a legal way,” Mr. Nielsen said.
McCall did not sign on to the agreement. But a series of other local communities did. The mayor of Cascade wrote that the project could bring “some much-needed economic stimulus.” Officials in Adams County wrote that the project “will provide substantial benefits.”
Idaho’s Republican-controlled Legislature is also supporting the project.
In interviews in the tiny town of Yellow Pine, residents said they supported the mine’s promises to create hundreds of jobs and clean up decades of environmental contamination.
The company’s charity has given $30,000 in grants to Yellow Pine — to build a helipad, to improve the dirt roads, to help the volunteer Fire Department upgrade its hoses and fittings. Residents said the company has included them in planning discussions and listened to their concerns about truck traffic.
“You do have a sense of, ‘Am I being bribed into this?’” said Merrill Saleen, deputy chief of the Yellow Pine Fire Department, which applied for $17,000 in grants from the company. “But it is without strings.”
The U.S. Forest Service, which has the authority to greenlight the mine, is conducting another environmental review of the project after the company changed its mining plans. An earlier analysis released during the Trump administration was criticized by conservation groups and other federal agencies as flawed and full of holes. The Trump administration had allowed the company, then known as Midas Gold, to write the biological assessment for its own project.
“The Forest Service continues to work with the mine proponent, cooperating agencies and other stakeholders regarding concerns about fisheries and aquatic-related issues,” the Forest Service said in a statement. The agency said it was “making every effort to mitigate for concerns expressed by the tribes.”
Perpetua says its updated plans would shrink the size of the site by about 13 percent and reduce higher water temperatures — which can be deadly for fish — by planting trees and bushes. The new environmental analysis is expected early next year, and could be the starting point for years of lawsuits and regulatory fights.
Along the banks of the Clearwater River, Shannon Wheeler, the Nez Perce vice chairman, walked next to a pair of hatchery pools, watching salmon as they flopped in the water, acclimating to the water conditions and preparing for a journey out to the ocean. Just up the gravel road was another pool, filled with larger salmon that had made it home. But they were covered in white fungus, scarred by the challenges of traveling through dams and a river warmed by an extreme heat wave stoked by climate change.
The tribe’s stories tell of how the salmon saved the Nez Perce, Mr. Wheeler said. Those stories have been passed through generations, affirming a bond and an ancient covenant with the salmon.
“Salmon saved us,” Mr. Wheeler said. “When he saved us, he also said that he would give himself to us, and when he gave himself to us, he would lose his voice. And so then we would have to be his voice.”
Thacker Pass is rich in lithium deposits but is also a place of historical and cultural significance to the Paiute people
On a windy afternoon in northern Nevada, where her family has lived for generations, Daranda Hinkey stood before one of the largest lithium deposits in the world – the place where, as she puts it, “there’s so much lithium it makes people foam at the mouth.”
The area is known as Peehee Mu’huh – or Thacker Pass – and while it could be a lucrative resource for companies hoping to cash in on the electric vehicle revolution (lithium can be used to power rechargeable batteries), Hinkey and her peers say large-scale mining operations could irreversibly damage one of her community’s most sacred sites.
Hinkey and other tribal members say that, in 1865, a massacre took place at Thacker Pass, killing at least 31 members of the Paiute tribe. That there was a massacre in the area is not contested: Hinkey’s great-great-great grandfather, Ox Sam, was one of three survivors. But the location of the massacre is disputed, with the Indigenous groups recently losing a court case seeking to prove that Thacker Pass was the site.
Hinkey’s stance remains that “it’s like putting a lithium mine on Arlington cemetery. It’s just not fair” – a contention to which Lithium Nevada, the company proposing to mine in the locality, takes strong exception. The company points to a history of mining in its proposed project area since the 1970s, and points to the court judgment’s observation that no human remains have been found as evidence of a massacre site there.
In addition to its historical significance, Thacker Pass plays an important role in the everyday lives of local Indigenous communities; it’s the region where they harvest traditional foods, medicines and supplies for sacred ceremonies.
Today, in order to guard the site, Hinkey and dozens of other local tribal members and descendants are camping near the proposed lithium mine, as a form of protest against extraction in the area. Some members of her coalition have gone so far as to quit their jobs to spend more time on-site. And while the number of campers varies from day to day, Hinkey said they plan to stay until the mine is halted.
While she and her peers are also exploring legal options, the group remains unsure of what comes next – whether their protest can make a difference in Nevada, in an area poised to be extremely important to the transition away from fossil fuels. But they aren’t giving up.
“I still think people think we’re ‘savages’ in some way. We still use the land, we still care for it. They see that as weak, but we see that as strength.”
The global lithium-ion battery market is expected to grow by a factor of five to 10 in the next decade, according to the Department of Energy, in part because of the soaring demand for electric vehicles, as well as its use in personal electronics and renewable energy storage.
But despite having one of the largest lithium reserves in the world, the United States is not a major player in the extraction of the mineral. The Biden administration has called for an investment in “safe, equitable and sustainable domestic mining ventures”, as part of an effort to secure a larger share of the lithium-battery supply chain.
Lithium Nevada estimates that the project at Thacker Pass will produce roughly 60,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate a year once operational, increasing US production of the material roughly tenfold.
“It’s a gamechanger,” says Tim Crowley, the company’s vice-president of government affairs and community relations at . “It’s absolutely essential if we’re going to make America competitive and minimize the geopolitical challenges that we face in relying on other sources [of lithium].”
What ancestral homelands, what Indigenous lands are they taking from?Daranda Hinkey
Hinkey, a graduate of Southern Oregon University’s environmental science, policy and sustainability program, says she understands the need to move away from fossil fuels. But she questions whether lithium mining is the best path to get there.
“A lot of environmentalists will argue that we do need that lithium, we do need that electric car. But I don’t think they’ve thought about the outcome of all of that [mining],” Hinkey says. “What ancestral homelands, what Indigenous lands are they taking from?”
According to the investor analyst firm MSCI, 79% of lithium reserves in the United States are within 35 miles of Native American reservations.
Payal Sampat, mining director at Earthworks, an environmental advocacy group, says Indigenous communities have often “already been pushed out of their homelands, affected by genocide”. For these groups to “have to pay the price for the transition to a low carbon economy – that perhaps those same communities are not even going to benefit from – is completely unacceptable”, she adds.
Recently, opponents of the project turned to the courts. Over the summer, several Indigenous groups – including the People of the Red Mountain, the group camping outside the proposed mine – joined an existing suit brought by environmentalists and a local rancher to stop the mine from going forward. A decision is still pending.
But activists have also faced legal setbacks; in November, a federal judge ruled that evidence provided by the Indigenous groups regarding the historical significance of Thacker Pass “does not definitely establish that a massacre occurred within the project area”.
Crowley said that the company is “going to great lengths to make sure that the environment is protected and that we’re being responsible”, in response to Indigenous concerns. “And we’re also going to great lengths to make sure that any historic artifacts are preserved and treated appropriately.”
Mine opponents are acutely aware the legal system may ultimately side against them. They are considering direct action tactics, the kind used by activists in the Dakota Access pipeline protest at Standing Rock.
“It’s really easy to think that if we just say the right things, if we just argue the right things, if we just have the best lawyers, we’re going to win these things, and this is going to go away,” said Will Falk, a lawyer for the People of Red Mountain and one of the first campers at Thacker Pass.
“That’s wishful thinking,” he said. “Eventually we’re going to have to be ready to physically block construction equipment. I think that one of the ways to wake up people in the United States [is seeing] people getting dragged away by the police for trying to protect their land. And I think that’s where this is going.”
Vancouver/Ottawa – December 6th, 2021. In a new backgrounder report, MiningWatch Canada and the BC Mining Law Reform network conclude that British Columbia fails to meet the Indigenous consent standard for mining, even two years after the passing of the province’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA).
The report comes on the heels of a call made by investors managing some $1.1 trillion urging faster progress on Indigenous consent and mining reform in British Columbia. It also follows Gitxaała Nation’s recent legal challenge of the province’s Mineral Tenure Act.
The public interest organizations highlight that, “While B.C.’s mining legislation as a whole continues to allow mining companies to operate with little regard for Indigenous rights, the Mineral Tenure Act —which has its origins in the colonial gold rush days of the 1850s— is arguably the worst offender. In over 150 years, it has not been updated to reflect Indigenous rights.”
The organizations state: “This is especially concerning given that in 2020 alone, approximately 5,000 new mineral claims (1.9 million hectares) and approximately 1,400 new placer claims (63,000 hectares) were acquired without First Nations’ knowledge.”
The B.C. government made a great play of how DRIPA would position the province as a leader in the implementation of of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), including the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC).
The report concludes: “This should mean FPIC is required for all stages of decision-making about mining projects that may affect an Indigenous Nation or its territories, from the granting of mineral rights to the decision on whether to proceed with a project to the conditions under which a project is designed, implemented, monitored, evaluated, and reclaimed.”
Forcing already endangered cultures to accept disruptive activities in the name of mitigating climate change amounts to a new form of colonialism.
As I write this, I am sitting by Várjjatvuotna; this is the name for Varangerfjord in my native Sámi language, once the only language spoken here. The sun is still below the horizon, but it casts a strong orange light in a strip between the mountains in the south and the dark clouds. It is January, and the temperature fluctuates between minus 20 degrees Celsius one moment and zero the next. When I was growing up in the 1970s, freezing cold was common at this time.
Recently, the Norwegian national broadcaster, NRK, presented a climate scenario for the year 2100. The scenario shows that my municipality, Unjárga – Nesseby (located at 70 degrees North), tops the list of places in Norway that can expect the most warming in the next 80 years. The area we live in, the only actual Arctic area in mainland Norway — is predicted to have the same climate in 2100 that Sogndal located in western Norway at 61 degrees North some 1,400 kilometers southeast, has today. How will that affect our livelihoods, our harvesting culture, our knowledge and language?
When I wander with my mother on the homelands of our people, she constantly talks about the land around us while we are walking, passing on the knowledge she heard from her mother and aunt. She talks about the weather conditions last spring and reasons where the berries are most likely to be found — and where there probably are no berries. In good cloudberry years, the trips with my family on the Varanger Peninsula can extend over several days.
One night we sat together around the fire. I asked my mother about the plans for the next day, in order to understand how she thinks about berry picking.
“Today we have spent the whole day picking cloudberries east of the campsite and mostly south of the lake. Where do you think we should be going tomorrow?” I asked. “Well,” she replied, and began to reason: “since there have been such strong easterly winds in early summer, there are probably not so many berries on the open bogs, but there are usually berries in the thicket on the northwest side of the lake, there the blossoms have probably been sheltered from the winds. There are often a lot of berries right there, they are big, too.” Then she interrupted herself, looked up at the clear sky and added: “Na, jos ieš ii čokkeš vuos”. It is Northern Sami, and can be translated as, “if he/she is not picking the berries him/herself” (Sámi language does not distinguish between genders in personal pronouns). She referred to the clear sky which already in August can warn of frost during the night, which would spoil the cloudberries.
This is not the first time I heard this kind of phrasing in the Sámi language. A reservation is always present. It is a recognition of the powers beyond one’s own power, powers you must have with you if you are to be lucky enough to get a good harvest. This is a worldview and knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation through customary use and belonging, faith and belief. We call it árbediehtu — Indigenous knowledge.
In his master’s thesis “Bivdit Luosa” – To Ask for Salmon, Sami scholar Aslak Holmberg writes about the young salmon fisherman Áslat. Áslat has learned from the elderly that guolli galgá bistit suddásis suddásii – the salmon you catch should last from the time the river freezes until it opens again. If you have salmon left, which you caught last summer, when a new fishing season begins, then fishing luck will not stand with you. Then you either have taken too much fish, or you have shared too little. To fish for salmon is in Northern Sami “bivdit luosa,” but the word “bivdit” can also mean to ask for salmon. A key lesson in Sámi culture is that you should not ask for more than you need.
Reindeer herder Elle Merete was given her own calf and her own reindeer mark when she was six years old. “It was the proudest moment in my life,” she says. ‘I got the reindeer earmark that mirrored the one of my aahka – grandmother. This has created a strong relationship and a special and strong community between aahka and me. When I marked my first calf in my own reindeer mark, I knew that this calf and the herd that would come from it over time would be my responsibility. I learned its colors, its qualities and of course reading and cutting my earmark. It was my responsibility that the calf became a good reindeer, that it had good food and was safe from danger in the reindeer grazing area, so that it would continue to provide our family with a livelihood.
It is not easy to put árbediehtu — Indigenous peoples’ knowledge — into words. It is a distinctive knowledge system, an understanding that is deep and complex. The Norwegian Biodiversity Act calls it “experience-based knowledge.” Some call it “silent knowledge” because it is not written down and can be perceived as pure intuition. It could also be called “silenced knowledge” because it has been marginalized by centuries of missionary work and “Norwegianization” which has led to this knowledge being seen as inferior. Loss of knowledge is a painful loss for a people.
Indigenous knowledge is a systematic way of thinking and knowing that is elaborated and applied to phenomena across biological, physical, cultural and linguistic systems. Indigenous knowledge is owned by the holders of that knowledge, often collectively, and is best expressed and transmitted through Indigenous languages. It is a body of knowledge generated through cultural practices, lived experiences, extensive and multi-generational observations, lessons and skills.
It has been developed and verified over millennia and is still developing as a living process, including knowledge acquired today and in the future, and it is passed on from generation to generation. In the last few years, the value of Indigenous knowledge has gained more official recognition. It is seen in the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and in the last two reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But how does this knowledge function when the places that generated it become different places?
According to NRK, the climate in Unjárga (or Nesseby) in 80 years is likely to be similar to today’s Sogndal. You can try to imagine it: Do cloudberries grow in Sogndal? Are there a lot of ticks in Sogndal? Do they carry diseases foreign to Unjárga? What will it be like to raise reindeer in a climate like Sognefjord’s? Today, reindeer husbandry is conducted in areas in the world where there is snow part of the year, because the reindeer and the people who follow the reindeer are adapted to manage in snow conditions parts of the year.
Sápmi has been the home of Sámi since time immemorial. It spans the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula, an area that is considered both Arctic and sub-Arctic. Here, the climate is changing two to three times faster than the global average. Globally, the discussion is about limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but in Arctic areas, that would be 3 to 4.5 degrees C. Commitments agreed to so far will not hit the 1.5-degree target, but rather 2 degrees or more, so in the Arctic a 4 to 6 degrees increase can be expected. It is not mainly the summers that are projected to get hotter; it is the winters. And they’re projected to get wetter too.
We already know a great deal about the impacts of climate change. We know that in Sámi areas we can expect a longer growing season, an earlier spring and later winter, which will lead to changes in the flora. The tree line will climb to higher altitudes,the forest will spread, and other species may take over from those we know in the area today. We will see overgrowth and more dense scrub, which also contributes to more of the previously white surface in winter becoming dark, which will feedback amplification of warming. The wetter climate can lead to better conditions for other plant species than those that are there today, and they will be able to displace the typical Arctic flora.
These factors can attract new types of insects and parasites, which can damage existing flora. Moth larvae have already caused immense damage to the dominant birch forests of northern Norway. An increase in parasites living on reindeer will affect animal welfare and human health. New and foreign insects can be bothersome to both animals and people, and in the worst case bring with them new diseases. We have also seen examples of early and dry springs that are out of step with insect pollination. Milder winters, where the temperature more often fluctuates around thawing and freezing, lead to icing of pastures and it becomes difficult for the reindeer to get to their food under snow and ice. When the sea temperature rises, today’s fish species will seek colder waters and new species will come to the coast and into the fjords. Warmer seas will also lead to ocean acidification. This will affect shellfish and fish fry and their growing conditions. The fishermen report changes in wind directions and stronger winds. Climate research does not say much about this but for fishermen it means more days on shore. Recently, heath and forest fires have also occurred in the southernmost areas of Sápmi. These current and future changes undermine the nature and resource foundation of Sámi culture. Species that sustain us in the Sámi food culture and in the Sámi handicraft (duodji) tradition disappear or deteriorate in quality.
Sámi livelihoods have good competence in dealing with changes — in nature-based industries, people deal with changing conditions in weather, wind, and surroundings all the time. If the pastures are locked by ice in the winter, then you have to lead the herd to alternative areas where they may access the pasture. In the worst case, they must be fed. If bogs, rivers, and lakes open up earlier in the spring, the reindeer herd must be led on alternative routes on their migration to the summer grazing. The female reindeer needs peace when it arrives at the place where it will give birth to its calf. During the height of summer the reindeer need their windy high-lying areas to get away from bothersome insects. This has been learned through generations.
It is the diversity of resources that is the foundation for life. Changing conditions and changing access to resources have taught us that one cannot be dependent on a single resource, such as cod, as in the case of the Sámi by the coast and in the fjords. When the cod fishery failed, the entire economic base did not collapse. Instead, it has been established that if something is wrong in the fjord, the fishing activity rests for a while and one moves on to harvest another resource on land or take a larger share of paid work. This is the essence of mixed economies. Flexibility is the key to survival in harsh climatic conditions.
It is life in the fjord that is the foundation for life in Sámi fjord areas — and it has been so for more than 10,000 years. A culture built around alternating use and flexibility and based on a diversity of resources will be less vulnerable to climate change than a culture that bases its livelihood on harvesting a single resource. If the culture stands strong, and one is able to control one’s own adaptation measures, and if other external stressors and pressures are kept at the minimum — then the people of that culture possess an ability to adapt to the prevailing conditions at any given time. Gal mii birget — we will cope — we often say. In the daily struggle to adapt to the changes in the natural environment, there may not be much time to mourn the changes you see.
The largest immediate threat to Sámi culture and to reindeer husbandry in particular might not be climate change per se, but the authorities’ mitigating measures intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — let’s say the secondary effects of climate change. You need to look for alternative energy sources for coal, oil and gas. Giant wind turbines are best located far away from urban areas and therefore granted a license mainly in existing reindeer-grazing areas. Wind turbines represent major nature destruction, with associated roads and power grids to transport energy to the market. Today’s turbines are enormous and the low sun in the north means that the turbines cast long moving shadows. A turbine does not only take the piece of land it is on.
Last month, Norway’s Supreme Court granted Sámi a victory when it revoked the licenses of two wind farms in grazing areas. Still, though herders now press for their removal, the Norwegian government hadn’t committed to tearing them down by the time this was published.
The mainstream society’s shift from fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly driving — with electric cars, electric ferries, electric buses, and electric bicycles stimulates the immense need for development of batteries. This requires minerals, including copper from mines found in Sámi areas. Not small mines, which were seen in the area a hundred years ago, but large mining facilities that require large areas. They require more roads, power lines, and permission to dispose of toxic tailings on the seafloor in the fjord. Mines also contribute to the fragmentation of intact land. The authorities knowingly and willingly sacrifice the productive fjord systems for jobs, economic growth and more climate-friendly driving – rather than simply driving less.
At the same time, corporations and governments are looking to the Arctic for new opportunities. New sailing routes are opening for increasingly regular shipping through the Arctic, and the Russian Federation is promoting destinations along the Northern Sea Route. More shipping traffic combined with the idea of a railway from the coastal town of Kirkenes in northeast Norway to the end of the present railway in Finland will open up a sea and land of opportunities to extract and transport resources directly out to the market (though this project is now on hold). These developments would lead to enormous encroachment on infrastructure-free areas, presently used for reindeer husbandry, on both the Finnish and Norwegian sides of the border.
Climate change is leading to a massive change in the way Sámi land is used. Sápmi continues to be a source of resources targeted by governments and outside capital.. The green shift is nothing more than a continued extraction of resources in Sámi areas, as has been the tradition since the earliest encounters between cultures. The difference is that resource utilization has been given a nice color, green; we call it “green colonization.” We were first colonized by people from outside our lands, then colonized by climate change itself, driven by people from outside our lands, and are now being colonized a third time by responses to climate change.
The Sámi people are standing up against this continued colonization. It will lead to Sami culture balancing on the verge of extinction in many areas. Reindeer husbandry and small-scale fisheries need more flexibility to adapt their activities, not less flexibility, which are the consequences of the green shift. At the same time, the business community still lives by the principle of seeking continuous economic growth, economies that are built on people’s ever-increasing consumption patterns. Are not far more resources taken out than you strictly need to survive, and also live? It is a paradox that the only ones who are met with demands for reduction from the authorities are reindeer husbandry and traditional sea salmon fishermen.
The Sámi are among those who contribute the least to what leads to climate change, yet we are among the first to be affected by the changes. Our industries are among the first to be affected by climate change, then we are affected again by society’s measures to mitigate climate change. The same goes for Indigenous peoples around the world. It is an obvious injustice that those who have the greatest consumption of fossil fuels, and thus also have the greatest need for climate-friendly infrastructure, impose on people and areas with the least responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions the greatest burdens of land loss and reduction in culture-bearing occupations. We must see a more equitable distribution of the burdens where society at large takes a greater share of the responsibility. We expect climate justice. We will take our share of responsibility and ensure good and healthy food, but the Sámi people can not bear the heaviest burden for society’s need for a green shift.
Over the last year, we’ve been visiting communities to talk about how Inuvialuit want to care for their families and culture.
Today, as a result of that consultation, the IRC Board passed the first Inuvialuit Law, which will make sure that Inuvialuit children and youth in care, as well as their families, are supported wherever they live, to the benefit of our communities and Inuvialuit culture.
The law, which is called Inuvialuit Qitunrariit Inuuniarnikkun Maligaksat, establishes our inherent jurisdiction over child and family services and has four guiding principles, based on what we heard from Inuvialuit Settlement Region communities over the course of the past year:
With this new law, Inuvialuit becomes the first Inuit region to enact its own child wellbeing legislation, an important step in self-determination and a proud achievement for all Inuvialuit.
While all existing child and youth protection laws remain in force for now, as this new legislation is implemented, the new law requires all federal, territorial and provincial governments to meet certain basic standards when providing child and family services to Inuvialuit children, youth, and their families.
Inuvialuit Qitunrariit Inuuniarnikkun Maligaksat, which was named by Elders to represent all dialects and means “Inuvialuit Family Way of Living Law,”is designed to support a gradual transition over several years to full Inuvialuit control of the care of Inuvialuit children and youth. Over time, it will see the creation of future facilities, community staffing and a new dedicated organization to be called Maligaksat, which will advocate for Inuvialuit children and youth wherever they live and serve to fill the gaps in existing services.
“The wellbeing of our culture and our children starts with the family,” said IRC CEO and Chair Duane Ningaqsiq Smith. “This law is an important part of the IRC’s continuing work to lift up the Inuvialuit and be a model of proud and impactful self-government.”
The laws and regulations can be found here and more information about the law and what it means to you is attached below.
Laws and Regulations (Link to Inuvialuit Registry on IRC Website)