Arctic indigenous peoples sound the alarm on climate change

While Russia dreams of using ‘the advantages of climate change’ for Arctic development and exploitation of natural resources, indigenous peoples of Russia’s Far North are sounding the alarm. Climate change, increased industrialization and mineral exploitation pose an existential threat, says Michael Scollon at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. As of 2021 Russia will be chairman of the intergovernmental Arctic Council and is likely going to promote its new Arctic Strategy in the global arena. But critics fear that protection of the Arctic environment is not yet a top priority for Russia.

rendier arctic russia wikipedia Thinning reindeer herds and fish stocks, drying lakes, and forest fires are linked to climate change and are an existential threat to the livelihood of indigenous peoples. Photo Wikipedia.  

The indigenous peoples of Russia's Far North are sounding the alarm as climate change encroaches on their traditional lifestyle. But the message from the ‘guardians of the Arctic’ isn't reaching Moscow, which sees gold and other economic benefits in the melting of the ice.

The record warming of Russia's Arctic, Siberian, and Far East territories poses an existential threat to the indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods have been intrinsically wedded to the climate for centuries.

Ominous signs have already emerged from the thaw: thinning reindeer herds and fish stocks, drying lakes, and forest fires. And with the Kremlin's long-term strategy to take advantage of newly opened waters and develop the resource-rich tundra come new dangers.

Herders and fishermen find themselves competing with large enterprises for untainted water and space for reindeer on the move. The arrival of construction workers has raised fears of the spread of the coronavirus. And industrial accidents have led to increased worries about large-scale efforts to extract minerals, elements, and offshore natural gas and oil reserves and ship them year-round along the Arctic coast.

Arctic exploitation

‘Over the next 15 years, many aboriginal peoples living in the Arctic region will face serious challenges to their ethnic survival as a result of climate change, its influence on their traditional natural-resource use on the one hand and the ever-expanding access to hydrocarbons and other deposits and the new economic boom in the Arctic initiated by this strategy on the other,’ the Aborigen Forum, an alliance of independent experts, activists, and indigenous leaders, warned upon approval in October of Russia's updated development plans for the Arctic zone.

Russia’s Arctic Strategy

In October president Putin has adopted the new Strategy for developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security through 2035. The political significance of the Arctic in Russia has grown since the end of the 2000s. Although Moscow intends to improve the region’s ecological balance and living conditions, the interests of the energy sector and the military will likely get priority over the improvement of environmental protections.

Main goals

  • To end population decline in the Arctic region by 2030. Every year about 18.000 of the approximately 2,4 million residents of the Arctic leave. One of the biggest problems for the population and the local economy is the lack of (adequate) infrastructure.
  • Expansion of Russia’s military presence in the Far North because melting of the eternal ice can create territorial vulnerabilities. In the new strategy a growing conflict potential in the Arctic is mentioned. Russia wants to protect its oil and gas terminals.
  • Moscow also sees threats to its internal security. This means more pressure on Russian civil society organisations working on environmental issues in the Arctic and defending the rights of indigenous people.
  • Russia tries to strengthen its position as a maritime power. The Northern Sea Route can guarantee access to the Atlantic and the Pacific in the longer term.
  • Moscow’s climate policy remains ambivalent. According to the strategy Russia intends to protect the Arctic environment by upgrading sensitive infrastructure to cope with climate change and designating new nature reserves. But meanwhile the Kremlin avoids connecting global warming to carbon emission and intends to further expand production and export of oil and gas.
  • Although the strategy focuses on national security, international cooperation is also mentioned and here foreign investment plays a central role. Moscow is especially interested in technologies for the energy sector which fall under Western sanctions. It proposes that Western firms could take part in infrastructure projects and help to solve environmental problems.                                                            -Source: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. German Institute for International and Security Affairs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The strategy, extended to the year 2035, notes that temperatures in the region are warming at least twice as fast as the global average and makes capitalizing on that reality a top priority. It calls for the Arctic to account for more than a quarter of the country's crude oil production by that time, up from the current 17 percent. The production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is to rise tenfold over current levels, and a growing army of icebreakers and new ports and terminals will pave the way for global shipping along the Northern Sea Route to more than quadruple.

‘Russia's Arctic looks very huge, but more and more commercial projects are coming,’ said Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the independent Center For The Support Of Indigenous Peoples Of The North (CSIPN). Speaking by telephone from Moscow, he added the laying of new pipelines and efforts to mine coal, gold, and diamonds to the list of industrial encroachment on lands that indigenous peoples rely upon.

russische vloot wachtdienst nova zembla 2015 min defensie rusThe new regional missile brigade at Novaya Zemblya, 2016. Photo Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. 

Governmental influence on NGO’s

‘Of course, we are not opposed to economic development,’ Sulyandziga stressed, saying that indigenous peoples themselves require resources to develop. But what is badly needed, he added, are ‘very strong relations between indigenous peoples and the private sector.’

Establishing such a bridge has proven to be a challenge, according to Sulyandziga.

CSIPN itself was ordered by a Moscow court in 2019 to disband due to alleged violations of Russia's NGO law. The shutdown, which CSIPN is challenging in court, followed the Russian authorities' blacklisting of the NGO as a ‘foreign agent’ in 2015, a label that was removed after the organization subsequently renounced foreign funding.

Another organization Sulyandziga worked for, the Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), was briefly shut down before it was restructured and allowed to reopen in 2013.

The organization continues under the leadership of a parliament deputy, Grigory Ledkov, but Sulyandziga lamented its transformation into a ‘completely governmental NGO’ as a blow to the indigenous peoples' efforts to achieve self-governance and protect their own rights.

‘Our capacity is very limited, because the Russian power vertical is at all levels, not just the political level but at the business level, and they need such comfortable organizations such as RAIPON to support any initiative,’ Sulyandziga said.

That is not to say RAIPON is not active, just that it is quasi-independent.

This year the organization has worked to highlight the decreasing numbers of reindeer in the Taimyr nature reserve in north-central Siberia, noting the disturbances to natural habitats caused by increased industrialization and mineral exploitation.

In April, it acknowledged the threat the coronavirus pandemic posed to indigenous peoples living in remote and often inaccessible places. Over the next few months multiple regions that are home to populations of indigenous peoples, the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug, Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, and Murmansk Oblast, posted some of the country's highest numbers of coronavirus infections.

And following a massive oil spill in May outside the mining city of Norilsk that entered local rivers and threatened to contaminate the Kara Sea, RAIPON's Ledkov stressed the serious harm that such accidents could inflict on the local ecology and residents.

However, in each case, RAIPON also positively highlighted the government's response, raising questions about whether the voices of the peoples it represents were being heard.

Russia officially recognizes its indigenous groups not as indigenous at all, but as ‘numerically small peoples,’ a classification that highlights the difficulties of 270,000 people collectively belonging to 46 such groups getting their voices heard in the capital.

The Sami, Nenets, Nganasan, Yenets, Dolgan, and Evenks are among the indigenous groups listed in a RAIPON-compiled registry that Ledkov has argued is intended to protect their rights and which will make them eligible to receive state support. But under a recent decree the registered groups' relations with the Russian state will also be paid special attention by the Federal Security Service (FSB), a move that is purportedly aimed to help fight extremism but that critics argue is really intended to control indigenous activists.

ambarnaja rivier vervuildThe Ambarnaya river runs red after catastophic accident in Russian Arctic in May 2020. Photo: Greenpeace.

Threat to a traditional way of life

Florian Stammler, a research professor for Arctic anthropology at the Arctic Center at the University of Lapland in Finland, has spent much of his career working in Russia.

He said that it is the indigenous peoples' interaction with the natural environment ‘that feeds people, that keeps people warm, that keeps people sheltered, and that gives people their income.’

Not only indigenous peoples are affected by the warming climate of Russia's Arctic, Stammler explained. The difference, he said, is that with the indigenous peoples their livelihood is not connected to the environment just for sustaining basic needs, but ‘culturally specific needs such as emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being, and everything that is connected to it.’

This is especially true of the nomadic population of the Arctic, he said, ‘and it is safe to say that of all Arctic countries, Russia is the country where nomadism has survived best, which is kind of funny because the Soviet Union had an official ideology of transferring people to a sedentary life.’

With limited options for Russia's indigenous peoples to steer their own course, pressure from business and government, and the harsh realities of climate change, their ways of traditional life again face immense hurdles.

Sulyandziga acknowledged that it is a difficult time for CSIPN, whose appeal against its dissolution is soon due to reach the Supreme Court. But he said the embattled NGO is maintaining visibility and relations with outside organizations through online workshops, seminars, and other activities.

politicians meet with organisation indegenous people of the northMagomedsalam Magomedov and Dmitry Kobylkin of Presidential Administration meet with members of Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), april 2014. Photo: 

Chairmanship of the Arctic Council

Meanwhile, Russia is preparing to present its Arctic policies on a global scale when it takes over the two-year chairmanship of the intergovernmental Arctic Council in 2021. Senior Russian official Nikolai Korchunov has listed environmental protection, sustainable development, and the ‘human element’, inhabitants of the Arctic including indigenous peoples, as its top priorities.

Sulyandziga is skeptical, saying that, while he sees positives in Russia promoting those priorities, ‘we do understand how it works in reality.’

‘The Arctic is the last platform for Russia to keep good relations in terms of international cooperation and trying to keep the Arctic a very peaceful territory of dialogue,’ he said. ‘But again, nobody can influence Russia in terms of their own dreams of Arctic development based on the exploitation of natural resources.’


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