“I Won’t Have Any Life Without This Land”: On Public Interests on the Eve of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Uatu has died. The river is our mother, our father. And now she is dead.” We have lost this river. It will never return.” These were the words spoken by a woman from the Krenak tribe in southeastern Brazil about the Rio Doce, into which tens of millions of cubic meters of toxic waste were unleased after a dam collapse in 2015. Following a global campaign to support the victims, a group action against the dam’s owner, the industrial giant BHP, will start soon in Great Britain. Damages are estimated at $6.3 billion.

They killed the lake, they killed the river,” said Dolgan and Nganasan fisherman suffering from the discharge of toxic waste into the Pyasina River on the Taymyr Peninsula. “For Taymyr, this will probably be like… Like Chernobyl.” Norilsk Nickel is disputing the amount of damages caused by this environmental catastrophe.

They started to blow up our sacred mountain, Lysaya gora. They say the explosions here were more terrifying than nuclear war, like in Hiroshima. Mushroom clouds sprouted after the explosion. They were yellow, black, there was so much smoke,” said one resident of the Shor village Kazas, which was destroyed by a coal pit in Kemerovo Oblast. The question of just compensation for the Shor people has been debated by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but has yet to be resolved.

They killed,” “Chernobyl,” “Hiroshima” – this is how indigenous residents from different ends of the Earth describe the destruction of their ancestral lands and, along with that, their traditional ways, languages, and cultures. The authorities are contributing to this catastrophe – the difference is just in degree of obviousness.

In July, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro vetoed provisions of a law guaranteeing additional aid to the country’s indigenous population during the coronavirus epidemic, stating that these measures (drinking water, information on coronavirus, greater internet access, and so forth) were “against the public interest” and “unconstitutional,” since they require expenses from the federal government without sources of revenue to cover them. This is not Bolsanaro’s first stunt against indigenous peoples, who have been left defenseless in the pandemic: His priorities – reviewing approaches to demarcating reservations, assimilating indigenous peoples, and giving mining companies and agribusiness broad access to their lands – were made clear during his campaign.

It’s hard to know what’s worse: Bolsanaro’s open right-wing populism or the legislative hypocrisy we are seeing in Russia. After recent voting, Article 114 of the Russian Constitution was amended to read that the government “will take measures to reduce the adverse impact of business and other activities on the environment and to preserve the country’s unique natural and biological diversity….” At the same time, laws are being adopted and debated that would allow for changes to the borders of national parks and to land designations (cf. amendments made to the law “On the Protection of Lake Baikal” that allow for clearcutting to expand and modernize the Baikal-Amur and Tran-Siberian railways and cancel an obligatory environmental impact assessment for this modernization, and planned amendments to the law on specially protected natural areas).

But even without new amendments expanding business opportunities, the activities of mining and manufacturing companies are having a pernicious impact on the situation of indigenous peoples: Their traditional areas of residence and nature use are being destroyed in a way that mirrors the “genocide, ethnocide, and ecocide” that the indigenous peoples of Brazil are accusing Bolsanaro of. In fact, these same words can often be heard from members of Russia’s indigenous peoples. The response of the authorities in many countries is the same: They use “the public interest” and “state needs” to justify land seizure, since it serves as a source of taxes and revenue. But how can the damage caused in the here and now not just to the Earth, but to humankind in general from the disappearance of peoples, languages, and cultures be justified as “in the public interest?”

It might be hard for city residents to understand that for many indigenous peoples, ancestral lands serve not just as a place to live, but also as the foundation of their identity and well-being. The Earth is part of their worldview and spirituality, and indigenous peoples can easily lose their identities, languages, and cultures when separated from their lands and their ability to follow a traditional way of life. This is why the collective right of indigenous peoples to land, territory, and other resources is fundamental in nature and is enshrined in the core human rights documents on this topic – the UN Declaration on the Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO Convention 169.

On the eve of August 9 – International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – it is appropriate to recall that the Russian Federation has not ratified ILO Convention 169 (1993) and abstained from adopting the UN Declaration in 2007: The sticking point was articles about the self-determination of indigenous peoples, their self-government, their right to land and other resources, and their right to restitution. As Mikhail Todyshev, an indigenous rights expert who helped develop the Declaration, wrote, the Russian delegation stated at the time that the article on the right to land “contravenes current Russian law. In addition, Russia could not support adoption because of the large number of disputed questions regarding relationships between indigenous peoples and businesses operating within their area of residence. Setting special land rights for indigenous peoples could complicate the search for compromises in resolving these problems.”

These questions are still unresolved: the federal law “On Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Russian Federation” only enshrines the right to free use of lands; the absence of a concrete mechanism for applying the federal law “On Territories of Traditional Nature Use of Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation” creates a wide field for the authorities to behave in an arbitrary manner.

How coal mining turned out for the Shor, Teleut, and Khakas people in South Siberia is the subject of a new report by ADC Memorial.”

“We fed ourselves off the taiga starting in the spring. But now that’s all been destroyed and we have been left with this moonscape, where there’s nothing for your eye to fasten onto. Only holes, rocks, lifeless landscapes,” said a Shor man from Kemerovo Oblast.

The Khakas, who number over 50,000 people, are not on the list of “small indigenous” peoples and therefore do not qualify for special protection – their privately-owned holdings are being seized for “state needs.” As a resident of one of the Khakas villages recounted:

I was one of the first owners to learn that our lands would be seized for the coal companies. My meadow fell right within the territory that the mine wanted to take. I lost in the district court, but the oblast court issued a partial decision in my favor. This means that part of my land still has to go to the mine, but the rest stays with me. I didn’t appeal anywhere else after that. Even though I won’t have any life without this land, I also don’t have to strength or means to go on fighting. I’ve become accustomed to working all the time, so losing this land is like death for me.”

The presence of indigenous peoples on the territories of coal mining operations and the need for special support measures for these peoples are not mentioned in the Development Program for the Russian Coal Industry. The draft strategy for Kemerovo Oblast’s socioeconomic development “Kuzbass – 2035” says nothing about the Shors or Teleuts, even though representatives of these peoples submitted amendments to this document in 2018. After listening to a speech by the official Russian representative to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF, July 14, 2020), indigenous representatives prepared their own statement, which says that “The indigenous peoples of Siberia and the goals of sustainable development are like two parallel worlds that don’t intersect. Moreover, Russia’s current policy is clearly geared towards violating our rights to land, territories, and natural resources. Because of corruption and the policies pursued, our traditional lands and waters are being transferred to the state and private businesses. At the same time, indigenous peoples’ access to traditional food is being limited, leading to a rise in the number of poor and hungry in our environment, making our peoples feel like pariahs on their native lands.”

The indigenous peoples of Russia and the world need our solidarity so that, as then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in 2005, “they enjoy the development, peace and security, and human rights that too many have been denied for too long.”

Olga Abramenko – expert of the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda

Photo by Vyacheslav Krechetov

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