How to stop drilling holes through indigenous rights in the Russian Arctic

Liobov Sulayandziga discusses the issues between indigenous people of the Russian Arctic and extractive industries. She looks at the authentic communities in four Arctic regions: Komi Republic, Sakhalin, Sakha Republic and Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Area She concludes that indigenous opinions are often ignored in areas where resource extraction is prioritized. The communities receive significant opposition from the companies, whose power is far more extensive. In the context of the Russian North, agreements involving oil and gas companies downplay the uneven landscape in which indigenous rights are largely ignored.

The indigenous peoples live on lands rich in natural resources, and their livelihoods are inseparable from local lands. In fact, the existence of these communities depends on the surrounding environment. Yet, they live at the margins of power and under conditions of severe disadvantages, facing obstacles like land deprivation, reduced access to resources, poverty, and repression.

Russia, Arctic indigenous population | GRID-Arendal
Image 1. Population distribution in Arctic Russia. By Philippe Rekacewicz, Vital Arctic Graphics, 2004.

Recently, indigenous rights have become core elements in both state policy and corporate sector in the Arctic countries. However, the indigenous empowerment occurred with one notable exception – Russia.

The problem can be solved by advancing benefit-sharing arrangements between the industries and communities. They are designed to mitigate the negative impacts of resource projects. However, this seems to be problematic in the Russian context. The idea of benefit-sharing has is based on willingness to balance conflicts. As the Russian state budget heavily depends on oil and gas exports, regional development tends to expand towards new industrial activities. Such priorities give little space for human-protection matters.

While indigenous communities often feel that no amount of compensation can replace the loss, the state does not give them the right to veto industrial activities. These communities are then left only with an option to accept compensatory payments. While Russia proclaims the “coexistence of industry and indigenous communities”, natives are losing power on all fronts. They lose prior to and during the project and are often left with significant damages once it concludes.

In attempts to protect themselves, the communities address corporations directly instead of asserting their rights on the political level. As a result, the communities’ rights are easily manipulated by companies. This eventually leads to ignorance while stifling indigenous opinions.

Benefit-sharing is surely an alluring prospect but a hard one to achieve. In the absence of a sound regulatory framework to ensure indigenous rights, benefit-sharing agreements will merely act as short-term measures incapable of preventing the eventual destruction of indigenous communities. The way to solve this problem would be by reviving rights-based conversations in Russia. However, the fundamental turn in the state’s attitude does not seem to be coming any soon.

Original source: Sulyandziga, L. (2019). Indigenous peoples and extractive industry encounters: Benefit-sharing agreements in Russian Arctic. Polar Science, 21, 68-74.


Front photo: Aleksandr Romanov

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