Coal mining is destroying the forests of Siberia. Contamination of the taiga and rivers is harming the Shor people, who live from hunting, gathering and fishing. Anyone who stands up to the government and companies in defence of the right to nature suffers threats and harassment.
Indigenous peoples in Russia
Of the more than 180 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, 40 are officially recognised as indigenous. While the Russian constitution and national legislation set out the rights of “indigenous minority peoples of the North”, there is no such concept as “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” enshrined in legislation and thus, indigenous peoples are not recognised by Russian legislation as such. Russia has a multitude of regional, local, and interregional indigenous organisations, but the national umbrella organisation, RAIPON, operates under tight state control.
Russia has not endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, nor has it ratified ILO Convention 169. The country has inherited its membership of the major UN Covenants and Conventions from the Soviet Union: the ICCPR, ICESCR, ICERD, ICEDAW and ICRC. It also has ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) of the Council of Europe.
Indigenous peoples in Russia
There are more than 180 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, but only 40 are officially recognised as “indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East”. These groups consist of less than 50,000 members, and they perpetuate some aspects of their traditional ways of life and inhabiting the Northern and Asian parts of the country. Together, they number about 260,000 individuals, less than 0.2% of Russia’s population. Ethnic Russians account for 78%, and other peoples, such as the five million Tatars, are not officially considered indigenous peoples, and their self-identification varies.
The latest official population figures from the 2010 national census do not provide disaggregated data on the socio-economic status of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples are predominantly rural dwellers while Russia is, on the whole, a highly urbanised country.
Main challenges for Russia’s indigenous peoples
One of the main struggles for indigenous peoples in Russia relates to land and natural resource rights. In 2015, an important article in Russia's legislation in regard to this issue was revoked. The articles stipulated that in places of traditional residence and traditional activities of indigenous peoples, local authorities should decide on the “prior determination of locations for the placing of objects” on the basis of the results of meetings or referenda of the indigenous and local communities. This means that local authorities have now lost most of their legal leverage in terms of being able to protect indigenous lands from incursions by business enterprises and other resource users. In 2015 and 2016, this led to a number of cases of violations of indigenous peoples’ land tenure.
The law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) from 2001 is the only federal law affording some form of recognition of indigenous peoples’ land tenure. However, the federal government has never confirmed any of the several hundred Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) created by regional and local administrations, in cooperation with indigenous communities, despite repeated calls from UN treaty bodies, indigenous organisations and human rights experts to do so. Thus, the regionally- and locally-established TTNU has no guaranteed legal status and can be dismantled at any time.
In relation to this topic, one more regulatory change passed in 2017, making fishing applications for members of indigenous peoples much more difficult. The legal principles are that they have the right to fish without special permits, but especially in the Pacific region of Russia, where fishing is big business, special rules and regulations require indigenous peoples to go through a tedious application process first, accept the amount, time and place assigned by the authorities for fishing and accept a number of additional restricts.
Image of the Kazas community of the Indigenous Shor people in Kemerovo Oblast, which was displaced by the expansion of coal mines. Photo: Nelli Slupachik
Of over 190 ethnic groups inhabiting Russia, 40 are classified by Russian legislation as “small-numbered Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East” and thus recognised for their unique way of life and the need for an exclusive set of laws to protect it. As can be deduced from such a classification, these peoples, altogether numbering around 250,000 individuals, inhabit vast territories of the Russian Arctic and Siberia. Even in this area, known for its harsh climate, exceptional richness in natural resources and a very low population density, so-called small-numbered Indigenous Peoples constitute a minority and live surrounded by larger ethnic groups; although in some remote rural districts they do at times account for the majority of the population.
Indigenous Peoples are not recognised by Russian legislation as such; however, Article 69 of the current Constitution guarantees the rights of ‘Indigenous minority peoples’. The 1999 Federal Act “On Guarantees of the Rights of the Indigenous Minority Peoples of the Russian Federation” specifies that Indigenous minority peoples are groups of less than 50,000 members, perpetuating some aspects of their traditional ways of life and inhabiting the Northern and Asian parts of the country. According to this, other framework laws, which were enacted during the late Yeltsin era, guaranteed that Indigenous minority peoples have rights to consultation and participation in specific cases. There is, however, no such concept as ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’ enshrined in legislation. The last two decades have seen a steady erosion of this legal framework and a heavy re-centralisation of Russia, including the dismantling of several Indigenous autonomous territories.
Indigenous Peoples are not recognised by Russian legislation as such; however, Art. 67 of the current constitution guarantees the rights of “Indigenous Minority Peoples”, (literally: “Indigenous small-numbered peoples”). The 1999 Federal Law “On Guarantees of the Rights of the Indigenous Minority Peoples of the Russian Federation” specifies that Indigenous Minority Peoples are groups of less than 50,000 members, perpetuating some aspects of their traditional ways of life and who continue to live on their ancestral lands. According to this and two other framework laws that were enacted during the late Yeltsin era, Indigenous Minority Peoples have rights to consultation and participation in specific cases. There is, however, no such concept as “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” enshrined in legislation. The last two decades have seen a steady erosion of this legal framework and a heavy re-centralisation of Russia, including the abolition of several Indigenous autonomous territories.
Of the more than 160 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, 47 are officially recognised as “Indigenous Minority Peoples”. Of those, 40 inhabit or used to inhabit places in “the North, Siberia and the Far East”. The latter together number around 260,000, less than 0.2% of the total Russian population, of which ethnic Russians account for roughly 80%. One more group, the Izhma Komi or Izvatas, is seeking recognition, which continues to be denied, and at least one other, the Kerek, is already extinct. Seven more Indigenous Minority Peoples live in European Russia.
On 29 May an estimated 20,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked into the soil and natural water system near the city of Norilsk in northern Siberia after a fuel storage tank belonging to a daughter company of Russian nickel and copper giant Nornickel collapsed. A few days later, on 3 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the incident a federal scale disaster.
While much of the world has focused on the fires raging in the Amazon, the world’s largest forest–the Siberian Taiga in Russia–has been on fire for most of 2019.
Since January this year, more than 130,000 square kilometres of land and forest—an area the size of Greece—has been burned in Siberia, which is having detrimental effects on the lives and livelihood of the indigenous peoples who depend on the forest and have traditionally protected it.