Landmark decision: Brazil Supreme Court sides with Indigenous land rights

  • Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court (STF) has unanimously accepted an appeal by the Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous people and agreed to review the process around a past case that cancelled the demarcation of their Indigenous territory.
  • The Guarani Kaiowá’s decades-long fight for land rights to their ancestral territory, the Guyraroká land in Mato Grosso do Sul state, had been suspended by a 2014 ruling halting the territory’s demarcation process.
  • The STF’s decision to review the process in the 2014 case, which hadn’t allowed for Indigenous consultation, is seen by analysts as a victory for Indigenous groups in Brazil, and as a setback for President Jair Bolsonaro who has declared his opposition to any Indigenous demarcation occurring during his administration.
  • In a related upcoming case, the STF is expected to rule on the “marco temporal,” which requires that Indigenous people have been living on claimed lands in 1988 in order to establish a legal territory. But litigators have argued that date is unfairly arbitrary, as many Indigenous groups were forced off ancestral lands by then.

In a landmark decision that could bolster Indigenous land rights in Brazil and serve as a setback to the Bolsonaro administration’s stonewalling of demarcations, the country’s Supreme Court has agreed to review the process around a past case that cancelled the demarcation of an Indigenous territory claimed by the Guarani Kaiowá people.

In a unanimous decision last week, judges from the Supreme Federal Court (STF) accepted an appeal by the Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous people, whose decades-long fight for rights to the Guyraroká land was paralyzed by a 2014 ruling halting the territory’s demarcation process.

“This now paves the way for us to start the motion to annul that decision,” said Rafael Modesto dos Santos, legal advisor to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) and one of the lawyers for the Guyraroká community. “In other words, the process will start from zero. But before, we weren’t even allowed on the starting line.”

A Guarani man from the community of Guyra Roka, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Indigenous people say their land was stolen from them decades ago. Image by Sarah Shenker/Survival.

The Guyraroká territory, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, was recognized as an Indigenous territory in 2004, and FUNAI, the federal agency tasked with protecting Indigenous interests, began the lengthy demarcation process in 2009.

But before the territory could gain full protected status under federal law, STF judges ruled that the Guarani Kaiowá had no legal claim to their ancestral territory because they were not living on it when the Brazilian constitution came into force in 1988.

The community tried to appeal the decision several times with no success, before the case was closed in 2016. But in last week’s ruling, the STF said the 2014 decision to throw out the demarcation process could be appealed and reviewed because the legal proceedings had lacked input from the Indigenous community.

While this latest STF ruling does not overturn the 2014 decision to scrap the territory’s demarcation, the reopening of the case marks a turning point and also sets an important precedent for other disputes over Indigenous lands in Brazil, according to Juliana de Paula Batista, a lawyer with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that defends the rights of Indigenous and traditional people.

“It wasn’t just any victory, it was a victory by unanimous vote,” she told Mongabay. “All the judges agreed that, in a legal proceeding that harmed Indigenous people and did not give them the opportunity to participate, the proceeding must be annulled.”

“There is now a possibility for the judgement annulling the demarcation of Guyreroka to be overturned and another judgment to be handed down,” Batista said, adding that the ruling could also help other Indigenous groups who in the past weren’t allowed to participate in legal proceedings that revoked their land rights.

A Guarani Kaiowá girl from the Guyra Roka community with a pet monkey. The STF’s decisions in upcoming cases could greatly affect the wellbeing of future generations of Indigenous people in Brazil. Image by Fiona Watson/Survival.

Last week’s decision is especially important within the current political context, in which signals by President Jair Bolsonaro have emboldened attacks on Indigenous land rights, according to Sarah Shenker, a campaigner with Survival International, an NGO that defends the rights of Indigenous people and has been working with the Guarani people for decades.

“With this war that is being waged on Brazil’s Indigenous people, it’s especially important that the Supreme Court has voted in favor of the Guarani and reminded everybody that Indigenous people have the right to a fair hearing,” Shenker said in an interview with Mongabay.

The Guyraroká territory at the center of the dispute sprawls across some 11,000 hectares (27,181 acres) of Mato Grosso do Sul, in Brazil’s agricultural heartland. A large part of the area being disputed by the Guyraroká is controlled by José Teixeira, a powerful politician and rancher.

The Guarani Kaiowá people say their land — part of Brazil’s vast tropical savanna biome known as the Cerrado — was stolen decades ago and turned into sugarcane plantations. The Indigenous families living on what they claimed as ancestral lands were forced into government reserves or pushed to the margins of nearby towns, according to Indigenous rights activists.

In 2000, a group of families returned to “re-occupy” a slice of the territory, setting up a makeshift village. Today, some 26 families remain on about 55 hectares (136 acres) of that territory, according to Shenker.

“These powerful ranchers are using the Guarani’s land,” she said. “And in the meantime, the Guarani are living in terrible conditions, in overcrowded reserves or on the sides of main roads or on tiny patches of their land, which they’ve tried to re-occupy.”

The Guarani Kaiowá say that pesticide runoff from the huge plantations now surrounding the Guyra Roka community have poisoned local fish. Image by Sarah Shenker/Survival.

In 2013, the Guyraroká community’s leader Ambrósio Vilhalva was found dead just meters away from his home, a makeshift canvas shack in the occupied village. Police later said the murder was not connected to the local land dispute.

While the latest STF ruling has given the Guyraroká community new hope, there is no clear timeframe for when the case will move forward, Modesto dos Santos told Mongabay. “But we are confident that we will win.”

Legal experts say the Guyraroká case could be held up by another proceeding — a case involving the Xokleng Indigenous people in Santa Catarina state that also questions whether the government can deny land rights to Indigenous people whose territory was appropriated before 1988.

The STF ruling in that case — stalled since October 2020 — is expected to set a precedent that will decide whether the courts can place a time limit on the land rights of the Guarani Indigenous people — known as “marco temporal” in Portuguese.

Litigators have argued that the 1988 Indigenous occupation date is unfairly arbitrary, since many Indigenous groups had their ancestral lands stolen from them before that date and been forced off their lands.

“This is a process that will determine whether the “marco temporal” will be applicable to all Indigenous lands or not,” said Batista. “So we’re all watching closely.”


Opposition Wins Greenland Election After Running Against Rare Earths Mine

Greenland’s left-wing environmentalist party promised to halt a mining project that could have made Greenland a major source of rare earths but at a potentially steep environmental price.

Greenland’s left-wing environmentalist party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, won a victory in general elections on Tuesday after campaigning against the development of a contentious rare earths mine partly backed by China.

The party, which had been in the opposition, won 37 percent of the vote over the longtime incumbents, the center-left Siumut party. The environmentalists will need to negotiate a coalition to form a government, but observers said their election win in Greenland, a semiautonomous territory of Denmark that sits on a rich vein of untapped uranium and rare earth minerals, signaled concerns from voters over the impact of mining.

“The people have spoken,” Múte B. Egede, the leader of Inuit Ataqatigiit, told the Danish broadcaster DR, adding that voters had made their position clear and that the mining project in Kvanefjeld in the country’s south would be halted.

Greenland Minerals, an Australian company behind the project, has said the mine has the “potential to become the most significant Western world producer of rare earths,” adding that it would create uranium as a byproduct. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the vote.

The supply of rare earths, a crucial part of the high-tech global supply chain and used in the manufacture of everything from cellphones to rechargeable batteries, is currently dominated by China. Shenghe Resources, a Chinese rare earth company, owns 11 percent of Greenland Minerals.

Opposition to the Greenland mine, which the incumbent Siumut party had supported, played a primary role in its defeat, its leader, Erik Jensen, conceded in an interview with the Danish station TV2.

The mining project has been in development for years, with the government approving drilling for research, but not issuing final approval for the mine.

Among Greenlanders, opposition to the mine had grown over potential exposure of a unique, fragile area to “radioactive pollution and toxic waste,” said Dwayne Menezes, the director of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative, a London-based think tank. “What they’re opposed to is dirty mining.”

The election result sent a clear message, Mr. Menezes added: Mining companies that want access to Greenland’s deposits will have to abide by stringent environmental standards and should look to give Greenlanders a “viable alternative.”

In Greenland, whose economy is heavily dependent on payouts from Denmark, the tensions over the mine centered on the potential economic boon, including hundreds of jobs on an island with about 57,000 people, versus the environmental cost of doing business.

But the vote also highlighted the Arctic region’s growing geopolitical significance on a warming planet, as its polar seas become more navigable and as the melting ice unveils newly accessible resources, including the rare earths that play an essential part in the production of many alternative energy sources.

“On a global level, we are going to need to address head on this tension between Indigenous communities and the materials we are going to most need for a climate-stressed planet,” said Aimee Boulanger, the executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a nonprofit.

Given China’s dominance over the global rare earth production and supply, Mr. Menezes said that Western countries should be looking for ways to enhance their partnerships with resource-rich Greenland to keep it in “their sphere of influence.”

Two years ago, Greenland’s lucrative resources and its increasing strategic importance led President Donald J. Trump to muse about purchasing the island. Greenland’s government, however, made clear that it was not for sale.

“We’re open for business, not for sale,” the island’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted on Twitter at the time.


Nordic countries set up Sámi reconciliation commissions to investigate indigenous injustices

Colonial era policies in northern Scandinavia continue to affect Sámi life, culture and land use. Meanwhile, truth commissions are being set up and aim to investigate injustices against Indigenous people carried out by the states.

There are an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Sámi in the Arctic regions, whose traditional homeland, an area collectively referred to as Sapmi, spans the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s western Arctic.

From at least the 19th century, governments in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia pursued aggressive policies of assimilation, involving the education system and church discouraging or actively suppressing Sami languages and culture and forcibly assimilating Sami children into the dominant culture.

The Council of Europe and European human rights organisations have repeatedly condemned the lack of local representation of the Sámi in national governance decisions.

The process, Sámi representatives told EURACTIV, has negatively affected Sami languages, education and way of life until today.

But while the persecution of rights to culture and language have gradually ceased, climate change and land exploitation pose new threats to the existence of Sámi communities.

‘Truth commissions’

Sámi parliaments across Northern Europe have suggested the set-up of so-called truth commissions as one means of addressing systemic discrimination.

Inspired by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which completed its work in 2015, they are meant to include methods such as public hearings and “psychosocial support” for those who testify.

The Norwegian body was established in 2018, while the Finnish government agreed to the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2019 and the Sámi in Sweden started their work on a similar structure in 2020.

Russia, however, is lagging behind with attempts being made to silence critical indigenous voices in the country.

Most of the truth commissions are expected to take several years.

Asked what measures are needed to counteract ethnic discrimination of Sámi, Tuomas Aslak Juuso, President of the Finnish Sámi Parliament, told EURACTIV that the best tool is to focus on reminding Northern European countries of the need to observe human rights.

According to Juuso, “it is important to remind that human rights are a core part of democratic work, especially in Northern Europe, where maybe many people think that we are already human rights countries that are doing everything well in this domain.”

“That’s why we arrived at the need for the reconciliation commission – to recognise that there have been  wrongdoings with dishonest colonial practices that are still impacting Sami people heavily,” he added.

One issue is a general lack of trust by Sámi people that the process will end with tangible improvements for their daily life.

“The majority population has been taught that they are an inferior, lower class of people,” a 2018 report prepared for the Finnish prime minister on the feasibility of a truth commission stated.

“They suspect that … the Finnish government is trying to improve its reputation internationally as a country that respects human rights … at the same time [as] it is further weakening the rights of the Sámi people,” the report added.

Getting a chance to understand the situation and educate the population of the home countries could contribute to “moving away from discrimination attitudes”, Juuso stressed.

“It’s important that governments show a willingness to commit to those rights, which have been promised and which they are obliged to fulfil,” Juuso told EURACTIV.

Europe’s closer look

As the EU works on updating its Arctic policy, which is due to be published by the end of this year, youth representatives from the European Arctic have called on policymakers to ensure that Arctic youth and Indigenous peoples are included in the actions that will directly affect their futures.

“Perhaps in the past, authorities, in general, have been guilty of paying lip service to the views of people who live in the Arctic, to indigenous peoples and also to young people,” Michael Mann, EU Special Envoy for Arctic Matters, told EURACTIV during a recent event.

Arctic stakeholders stressed that identity is of major importance to the young generation, who have “preserved Sámi language, culture and traditions, despite strong assimilation politics”.

“Sámi are threatened with losing their land due to renewable energy production such as windmill parks, mines and new infrastructure. Reindeer herding and industrial projects in traditional lands cannot coexist,” Enni Similä, chair of the Finnish Sámi Youth Association, said.

“We have been watching with interest the various lawsuits that have been going on in the Northern countries aimed at safeguarding these traditional lands and ways of life and in our policymaking,” the EU’s Arctic envoy said.


Indigenous peoples by far the best guardians of forests – UN report

Preserving Latin America’s forests is vital to fight the climate crisis and deforestation is lower in indigenous territories

The embattled indigenous peoples of Latin America are by far the best guardians of the regions’ forests, according to a UN report, with deforestation rates up to 50% lower in their territories than elsewhere.

Protecting the vast forests is vital to tackling the climate crisis and plummeting populations of wildlife, and the report found that recognising the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples to their land is one of the most cost-effective actions. The report also calls for the peoples to be paid for the environmental benefits their stewardship provides, and for funding for the revitalisation of their ancestral knowledge of living in harmony with nature.

However, the demand for beef, soy, timber, oil and minerals means the threats to indigenous peoples and their forest homes are rising. Hundreds of community leaders have been killed because of disputes over land in recent years and the Covid-19 pandemic has added to the dangers forest peoples face.

Sateré-Mawé men collect medicinal herbs to treat people showing Covid symptoms, in a rural area west of Manaus, Brazil.
Sateré-Mawé men collect medicinal herbs to treat people showing Covid symptoms, in a rural area west of Manaus, Brazil. Photograph: Ricardo Oliveira/AFP/Getty Images

Demands by indigenous peoples for their rights have become increasingly visible in recent years, the report said, but this has come with increasing persecution, racism, and assassinations. Supporting these peoples to protect the forests is particularly crucial now with scientists warning that the Amazon is nearing a tipping point where it switches from rainforest to savannah, risking the release of billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

The report was produced by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (Filac), based on a review of more than 300 studies.This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on EarthNemonte NenquimoRead more

“Almost half of the intact forests in the Amazon basin are in indigenous territories and the evidence of their vital role in forest protection is crystal clear,” said the president of Filac, Myrna Cunningham, an indigenous woman from Nicaragua. “While the area of intact forest declined by only 5% between 2000 and 2016 in the region’s indigenous areas, in the non-indigenous areas it fell by 11%. This is why [indigenous peoples’] voice and vision should be taken into account in all global initiatives relating to climate change, biodiversity and forestry.”

“Indigenous peoples have a different concept of forests,” she said. “They are not seen as a place where you take out resources to increase your money – they are seen as a space where we live and that is given to us to protect for the next generations.”

Indigenous and tribal territories contain about a third of all the carbon stored in the forests of Latin America, said Julio Berdegué, the FAO’s Regional Representative: “These peoples are rich when it comes to culture, knowledge, and natural resources, but some of the poorest when it comes to incomes and access to services.” Supporting them would also help avoid new pandemics, he said, as these are most often the result of the destruction of nature.

Cattle graze on land recently burned and deforested by farmers near Novo Progresso, Pará state, Brazil.
Cattle graze on land recently burned and deforested by farmers near Novo Progresso, Pará state, Brazil. Photograph: André Penner/AP

“Even under siege from Covid-19 and a frightening rise in invasions from outsiders, we remain the ones who can stop the destruction of our forests and their biodiverse treasures,” said José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, indigenous leader of an umbrella group, the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin. He said the report’s evidence supports his call for climate funds to go directly to indigenous peoples and not governments vulnerable to corruption.

The report found the best forest protection was provided by peoples with collective legal titles to their lands. A 12-year study in the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Colombian Amazon found deforestation rates in such territories were only one half to one-third of those in other similar forests. Even though indigenous territories cover 28% of the Amazon Basin, they only generated 2.6% of the region’s carbon emissions, the report said.

Indigenous peoples occupy 400m hectares of land in the region, but there is no legal recognition of their property rights in a third of this area. “While the impact of guaranteeing tenure security is great, the cost is very low,” the report said, needing less than $45 per hectare for the mapping, negotiation and legal work required.

The report said it would cost many times more to prevent carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning using carbon capture and storage technology on power plants. The granting of land rights to indigenous people has increased over the last 20 years, Cunningham said, but has slowed down in recent years.

Paying indigenous and tribal communities for the environmental services of their territories has reduced deforestation in countries including Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. Berdegué said such programmes could attract hundreds of millions of dollars per year from international sources.

The need for protection is urgent, the report said, with annual deforestation rates in Brazil’s indigenous territories rising from 10,000 hectares in 2017 to 43,000 hectares in 2019. In January, indigenous leaders urged the international criminal court to investigate Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, over his dismantling of environmental policies and violations of indigenous rights.

Elsewhere, the area of large intact forests in indigenous territories has fallen between 2000 and 2016, with 59% lost in Paraguay, 42% in Nicaragua, 30% in Honduras and 20% in Bolivia. Mining and oil concessions now overlay almost a quarter of the land in Amazon basin indigenous and tribal territories, the report said.


There’s a Global Plan to Conserve Nature. Indigenous People Could Lead the Way.

Dozens of countries are backing an effort that would protect 30 percent of Earth’s land and water. Native people, often among the most effective stewards of nature, have been disregarded, or worse, in the past.

With a million species at risk of extinction, dozens of countries are pushing to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and water by 2030. Their goal is to hammer out a global agreement at negotiations to be held in China later this year, designed to keep intact natural areas like old growth forests and wetlands that nurture biodiversity, store carbon and filter water.

But many people who have been protecting nature successfully for generations won’t be deciding on the deal: Indigenous communities and others who have kept room for animals, plants and their habitats, not by fencing off nature, but by making a small living from it. The key to their success, research shows, is not extracting too much.

In the Brazilian Amazon, Indigenous people put their bodies on the line to protect native lands threatened by loggers and ranchers. In Canada, a First Nations group created a huge park to block mining. In Papua New Guinea, fishing communities have set up no-fishing zones. And in Guatemala, people living in a sprawling nature reserve are harvesting high-value timber in small amounts. In fact, some of those logs could end up as new bike lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“If you’re going to save only the insects and the animals and not the Indigenous people, there’s a big contradiction,” said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, who leads an umbrella group, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin. “We’re one ecosystem.”

Nature is healthier on the more than quarter of the world’s lands that Indigenous people manage or own, according to several scientific studies. Indigenous-managed lands in Brazil, Canada and Australia have as much or more biodiversity than lands set aside for conservation by federal and other governments, researchers have found.

That is in stark contrast from the history of conservation, which has a troubled record of forcing people off their land. So, it is with a mixture of hope and worry that many Indigenous leaders view this latest global goal, known as 30×30, led by Britain, Costa Rica and France. Some want a higher target — more than 50 percent, according to Mr. Díaz Mirabal’s organization — while others fear that they may once again be pushed out in the name of conservation.

In the Brazilian Amazon, Awapu Uru Eu Wau Wau puts his life on the line to protect the riches of his ancestral lands: jaguars, endangered brown woolly monkeys, and natural springs from which 17 important rivers flow. His people, the Indigenous Uru Eu Wau Wau, have legal right to the land, but must constantly defend it from armed intruders.

Just beyond their 7,000-square mile territory, cattle ranchers and soy planters have razed much of the forest. Their land is among the last protected forests and savanna left in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. Illegal loggers often encroach.

A group of Uru Eu Wau Wau dismantled and prepared to burn a shack built by loggers in the forest. Victor Moriyama for The New York Times
A plaque, pockmarked from shotgun blasts, indicating indigenous territory in Rondônia State, Brazil. Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

So Mr. Uru Eu Wau Wau, who uses his community’s name as his surname, patrols the forest with poison-tipped arrows. Others in his community keep watch with drones, GPS equipment and video cameras. He prepares his daughter and son, 11 and 13 years old, to defend it in the years ahead.

“No one knows what’s going to happen to us, and I’m not going to live forever,” Mr. Uru Eu Wau Wau said. “We need to leave it to our children to get on with things.”

The risks are high. Mr. Uru Eu Wau Wau’s cousin, Ari Uru Eu Wau Wau, was murdered last April, part of a chilling pattern among land defenders across the Amazon. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, at least 46 were murdered across Latin America. Many were Indigenous.

The community’s efforts have outsized benefits for the world’s 7.75 billion people: The Amazon, which accounts for half the remaining tropical rainforest in the world, helps to regulate Earth’s climate and nurtures invaluable genetic diversity. Research shows Indigenous property rights are crucial to reducing illegal deforestation in the Amazon.

Nature is under assault because humans gobble up land to grow food, harvest timber and dig for minerals, while also overfishing the oceans. Making matters worse, the combustion of fossil fuels is warming up the planet and making it harder for animals and plants to survive.

At fault, some scholars say, are the same historical forces that have extracted natural resources for hundreds of years, at the expense of Indigenous people. “What we’re seeing now with the biodiversity collapse and with climate change is the final stage of the effects of colonialism,” said Paige West, an anthropologist at Columbia University.

There is now broad recognition that reversing the loss of biodiversity is urgent not only for food security and a stable climate, it’s also critical to reducing the risk of new diseases spilling over from wild animals, like the coronavirus.

Burning in the Amazon rainforest to clear for cattle grazing in Rondônia in 2019. Victor Moriyama for The New York Times
Oil leaking from a wreck near the Blue Bay Marine Park, off the coast of Mauritius, last year. Agence France-Presse

Enter 30×30. The goal to protect at least 30 percent of the Earth’s land and water, long pushed by conservationists, has been taken up by a coalition of countries. It will be part of diplomatic negotiations to be held in Kunming, China, this fall, under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. The United States is the only country, apart from the Vatican, that has not joined the convention, though President Biden has ordered up a plan to protect 30 percent of American waters and lands.

Indigenous communities are not recognized as parties to the international agreement. They can come as observers to the talks, but can’t vote on the outcome. Practically though, success is impossible without their support.

They already protect much of the world’s land and water, as David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the United Nations agency for biodiversity, pointed out. “People live in these places,” he said. “They need to be engaged and their rights respected.”

A coalition of Indigenous groups and local communities has called for the agreement to protect at least half of the planet. Scientific research backs them up, finding that saving a third of the planet is simply not enough to preserve biodiversity and to store enough planet-warming carbon dioxide to slow down global warming.

A half century ago, where boreal forest meets tundra in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the Łutsël K’é’ Dene, one of the area’s Indigenous groups, opposed Canada’s efforts to set up a national park in and around its homeland.

“At that time, Canada’s national parks policies were very negative to Indigenous people’s ways of life,” said Steven Nitah, a former tribal chief. “They used to create national parks — fortress parks, I call it — and they kicked people out.”

But in the 1990s, the Łutsël K’é’ Dene faced a new threat: Diamonds were found nearby. They feared their lands would be gutted by mining companies. So they went back to the Canadian government to revisit the idea of a national park — one that enshrined their rights to manage the land, hunt and fish.

Steven Nitah, a former tribal chief and negotiator for the Łutsël K’é’ Dene First Nation. Pat Kane
Pethei Peninsula, near the community of Łutsël K’é’ in the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve. Pat Kane

“To protect that heart of our homeland from industrial activities, this is what we used,” said Mr. Nitah, who served as his people’s chief negotiator with the Canadian government.

The park opened in 2019. Its name, Thaidene Nëné, means “Land of the Ancestors.”

Collaboration among conservationists, Indigenous nations and governments holds a key to protecting biodiversity, according to research.

Without local support, creating protected areas can be useless. They often fail to conserve animals and plants, becoming so-called “paper parks.”

Researchers have found that biodiversity protection often works best when local communities have a stake.

On islands in Papua New Guinea, for example, where fish is a staple, stocks had dwindled in recent decades. Fishers ventured farther from shore and spent more time at sea, but came back with smaller catches. So they partnered with local and international nonprofit groups to try something new. They changed their nets to let smaller fish escape. They reduced their use of a poison that brings fish to the surface. Most critically, they closed some waters to fishing altogether.

Meksen Darius, the head of one of the clans using these measures, said people were open to the idea because they hoped it would improve their livelihoods.

It did.

“The volume, the kinds of species of fish and other marine life, they’ve multiplied,” Mr. Darius, a retired lawyer, said.

Recent research from around the world shows that marine protected areas increase fish stocks, ultimately allowing fishing communities to catch more fish on the edges of the reserves.

An outrigger canoe off Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Georg Berg/Alamy
Workers packaged xate, a palm leaf, in Uaxactún, Guatemala. The export program is part of a sustainability effort to encourage communities to harvest responsibly. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

To Iliana Monterroso, an environmental scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Lima, Peru, what matters is that people who live in areas of high biodiversity have a right to manage those areas. She pointed to the example of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, a territory of two million hectares in Guatemala, where local communities have managed the forest for 30 years.

Under temporary contracts with the national government, they began harvesting limited quantities of timber and allspice, selling ornamental palms and running tourism agencies. They had an investment to protect. “The forest became the source of livelihood,” Dr. Monterroso said. “They were able to gain tangible benefits.”

Jaguars, spider monkeys and 535 species of butterflies thrive there. So does the white-lipped peccary, a shy pig that tends to disappear quickly when there’s hunting pressure. Community-managed forests have fewer forest fires, and there is almost zero rate of deforestation, according to researchers.

Erwin Maas is among the hundreds of Guatemalans who live there, too. He and his neighbors run a community-owned business in the village of Uaxactún. Mahogany is plentiful, but they can take only so much. Often, it’s one or two trees per hectare per year, Mr. Maas said. Seed-producing trees are left alone.

“Our goal is to sustain ourselves with a small amount and always take care of the forest,” he said.


Indigenous Leaders and Goldman Prize Recipients Send Open Letter Demanding BlackRock Act on Deforestation and Human Rights

BlackRock has yet to produce concrete policy addressing land rights, deforestation, and human rights abuses in its portfolios

Today, over 80 renowned Indigenous and frontline activists from around the world issued a public letter criticizing BlackRock’s role in violating the land rights and human rights of Indigenous peoples and other traditional communities. The signatories, including several recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, point to BlackRock’s continued large-scale investments in fossil fuel and deforestation-linked companies that violate human rights, and demand that the asset manager cease these investments.

Eloy Terena, Legal Coordinator of the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB), and one of the letter’s signers said: “BlackRock’s investments have an impact on our lives and our communities, and the company’s leadership, therefore, has a responsibility for our future. If the Amazon is destroyed, the future of the entire planet is at risk.”

Last week, BlackRock released a memo on “natural capital”, a memo on human rights impacts, and updated engagement priorities. In these memos BlackRock encouraged the companies it invests in to adopt “no deforestation” policies, to account for biodiversity in their operations, and to obtain the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples “for initiatives that affect their rights.”

Despite the urgency of these issues, BlackRock did not lay out any clear accountability mechanisms to assure that its “engagement” results in concrete improvements for communities, ecosystems, and the planet in these new memos. But this new acknowledgment is a step in the right direction that comes after years of campaigning by Indigenous leaders and civil society organizations demanding that BlackRock take responsibility for its role in deforestation and human and Indigenous rights violations.

Sonia Guajajara, Executive Coordinator of the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB), said, “Despite its latest announcement on ‘natural capital,’ BlackRock does not have a concrete policy in place to handle investments that impact Indigenous peoples and our territories. BlackRock has not pledged to pressure companies to end deforestation in the Amazon. Our challenge to BlackRock is clear: safeguard Indigenous peoples’ rights and eliminate deforestation and human rights violations from its portfolios.”

Today’s letter outlines the urgent need for action, stating: “While BlackRock makes pledges to ask portfolio companies to cut emissions in the future, our forests are being razed, our land is being stolen, and our people are being killed, today.”

Despite BlackRock’s January commitment to achieve net-zero by 2050, the asset manager has, according to the letter, done “little to ensure [its] investments respect human rights, land rights, and the self-determination of Indigenous and local communities.” BlackRock remains one of the largest investors in the two biggest drivers of the climate crisis: fossil fuels and industrial agricultural commodities linked to deforestation, such as palm oil, soy, cattle, pulp, and paper. These industries regularly violate the rights of Indigenous and local communities. BlackRock has no policies in place that address deforestation, human rights, or land rights.

The signers of today’s letter hail from some of the world’s most sensitive biomes, including the Amazon and the rainforests of Indonesia and West Africa. They write that it is not just their land, homes, and cultures that are at stake, but their lives.

Goldman Prize recipient Alfred Brownell, Liberian human rights and environmental lawyer, who was forced to flee his country after threats to his life, said: “I am quite surprised that Mr. Fink and BlackRock have not yet responded to my 2019 letter. The agribusiness companies BlackRock finances in Liberia’s Upper Guinea Forest are not only destroying the precious habitat of endangered pygmy hippos and chimpanzees, they are dispossessing my people of their land and the right to choose their own model of development. Instead of adding value to community-driven enterprises that coexist with nature, BlackRock’s investments are obliterating shrines and burial grounds and wiping out centuries of history, culture, religion, customs, and values that indigenous communities hold sacred, further impoverishing indigenous communities.”

In April 2019, Brownell publicly charged BlackRock with financing palm oil companies destroying the lands, livelihoods, and cultural sites of Liberian communities. A month later, Indigenous leaders from the Amazon, including Mr. Terena, confronted CEO Larry Fink at BlackRock’s annual general meeting in New York for the firm’s support of companies complicit in widespread forest fires.

“Communities around the world are facing an epidemic of violence, murder, and criminalization at the hands of extractive industries. In 2019, more than four land and environmental defenders were murdered each week for protecting their traditional lands. Frontline communities and activists are often the first responders to the destructive – and deadly – impacts of the climate crisis as they confront companies that destroy forests, pollute water sources, and drive species into extinction,” the letter states.


Deb Haaland Becomes First Native American Cabinet Secretary

The Senate confirmed Ms. Haaland to lead the Interior Department. She’ll be charged with essentially reversing the agency’s course over the past four years.

WASHINGTON — Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico made history on Monday when the Senate confirmed her as President Biden’s secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency.

Ms. Haaland in 2018 became one of the first two Native American women elected to the House. But her new position is particularly redolent of history because the department she now leads has spent much of its history abusing or neglecting America’s Indigenous people.

Beyond the Interior Department’s responsibility for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Native people, it oversees about 500 million acres of public land, federal waters off the United States coastline, a huge system of dams and reservoirs across the Western United States and the protection of thousands of endangered species.

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” she wrote on Twitter before the vote. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”

Republican opposition to her confirmation centered on Ms. Haaland’s history of fighting against oil and gas exploration, and the deliberations around her nomination highlighted her emerging role in the public debates on climate change, energy policy and racial equity. She was confirmed on a 51-40 vote. Only four Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — voted for Ms. Haaland’s confirmation.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said supporting her confirmation “would be voting to raise gas prices for families who are already struggling, to raise fuel and heating bills for seniors on a fixed income, to take the tough times we’ve been going through and make them even tougher.”

The new interior secretary will be charged with essentially reversing the agency’s mission over the past four years. The Interior Department, led by David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, played a central role in the Trump administration’s systematic rollback of environmental regulations and the opening up of the nation’s lands and waters to drilling and mining.

Ms. Haaland is expected to quickly halt new drilling, reinstate wildlife conservation rules, rapidly expand wind and solar power on public lands and waters, and place the Interior Department at the center of Mr. Biden’s climate agenda.

At the same time, Ms. Haaland will quite likely assume a central role in realizing Mr. Biden’s promise to make racial equity a theme in his administration. Ms. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo who identifies herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican, will assume control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, where she can address the needs of a population that has suffered from abuse and dislocation at the hands of the United States government for generations, and that has been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus.

Ms. Haaland with members of her family and others after her she was  sworn in as a member of Congress in 2019.
Ms. Haaland with members of her family and others after her she was sworn in as a member of Congress in 2019. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

“You’ve heard the Earth referred to as Mother Earth,” Ms. Haaland said at her Senate confirmation hearing. “It’s difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land. And I feel every Indigenous person in the country understands that.”

Lynn Scarlett, who served as deputy interior secretary under George W. Bush and is now a senior official at the Nature Conservancy, warned, “It’s an enormous job, an enormously complex job.”

“The Interior Department has a footprint in all 50 states,” she said. “Its policies touch each and every American.”

As the agency takes on a newly muscular role in addressing climate change, she added, the department “will have to deal with new strategies for managing more intense wildfires on public land and chronic drought in the West. It’s hard to overstate the challenges with water.”

Among the first and most contentious items on Ms. Haaland’s to-do list will be enacting Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to ban new permits for oil and gas projects on public lands.

Already, the White House has placed a short-term halt on issuing new oil and gas leases on public lands, which has drawn fierce attacks from Republicans and the oil and gas industry.

Ms. Haaland’s ability to implement that ban successfully could have major consequences both for the climate and for the Biden administration. According to one study by Interior Department scientists, the emissions associated with fossil fuel drilling on public lands account for about a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gases. But the policy will most likely be enacted at a time when gasoline prices are projected to soar — spurring almost-certain political blowback from Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

For the drilling ban to survive legal challenges, experts say, Ms. Haaland will have to move with care.

“They may attempt a total ban, but that would be more vulnerable to a court challenge,” said Marcella Burke, an energy policy lawyer and former Interior Department official. “Or there’s the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach.”

That approach would make oil drilling less feasible by creating such stringent regulations and cleanup rules that exploration would not be worth the cost.

“Each step will be challenged in the courts, but it’s like diversifying your portfolio,” Ms. Burke said. “It lowers the risk that one single ban will be thrown out in courts.”

Complicating Ms. Haaland’s efforts to formulate new land management policies will be a logistical hurdle: the planned relocation of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency within the Interior Department that oversees oil and gas drilling policies. The bureau is expected to move back to Washington from Grand Junction, Colo., where it was moved by the Trump administration.

“You need to move that back to D.C. and build it back,” said Joel Clement, a former Interior Department expert in climate change policy who resigned from the agency in protest of the Trump administration policies. “The staff, the budget — all these people who were supposed to work with Congress on these policies were pushed out West, or they left,” he said. “They are hugely demoralized.”

Ms. Haaland is also expected to revisit the Trump administration’s rollback of habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act. Under the Trump rules, it became easier to remove a species from the endangered list, and for the first time, regulators were allowed to conduct economic assessments — for instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat — when deciding whether a species warrants protection.

Such rules led to an exodus of staff, particularly from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Clement said.

“There’s a rebuilding that needs to happen there,” he said.

The Interior Department also must submit a detailed new plan by June 2022 that lays out how the federal government will manage the vast outer continental shelf off the American coastline, an area rich in marine wilderness and undersea oil and gas resources.

Given Mr. Biden’s pledge to ban new drilling, the new offshore management plan will quite likely reimpose Obama-era policies that barred oil exploration on the entire East and West Coasts of the United States — while possibly going further, by limiting drilling off the coasts of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. But writing the legal, economic and scientific justifications will be difficult.

“They have to get started and really get cracking,” said Jacqueline Savitz, a vice president of Oceana, an environmental group.

As the department moves against offshore drilling, it is expected to help ramp up offshore wind farms. Last week, the agency took a major step toward approving the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, near Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a project that had been in the works for years.

“This administration is in a position to make large-scale offshore wind a reality for the first time,” Ms. Savitz said. “But the transition in the ocean from offshore fossil fuels to wind farms needs to happen in the next four years, so it’s in place before the next administration.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kleptocracy By Nature?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Forest Chase At Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No one complained about anything,” Krasikov said.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tip Of The Iceberg’

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

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

Igor Shpilenok
Igor Shpilenok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Indigenous Defenders Movement in Russia: A Briefing for Funders

1. Russia’s Indigenous Peoples

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Indigenous Rights Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Challenges for Indigenous Defenders

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

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

Let’s examine a few of them here.

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

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

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

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

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

3. Regional Advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. How Funders Can Engage

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical questions excluded 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pavel Sulyandziga hopes external pressure from global customers will help.

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

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

“Sustainability matters” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support program 

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

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

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

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

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

“This is the Russian reality,” Sulyandziga added.

Financial institutions 

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

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

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

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

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

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