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.
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.
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.
In the Far East of Russia, the indigenous Udege people have for decades fought to protect their land with support from IWGIA. In July, their long struggle was finally rewarded as an area nearly four times the size of Yosemite National Park has been awarded World Heritage Status.
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.
More than 160 distinct peoples inhabit the territories of contemporary Russia. Forty of these peoples are officially recognised as the indigenous minority peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East. These are groups of less than 50,000 members, who are able to preserve some aspects of their traditional ways of life and continue to inhabit their territories across the northern and asian parts of the country.
Rodion Sulyandziga is an indigenous activist well-known internationally. In 2014 he was one of the lead organisers of the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and was prevented from leaving the country, sparking a diplomatic scandal in the UN. Today, he was scheduled to chair the “Aborigen Forum” seminar in Moscow. In the early hours of Sunday morning, police conducted a search of his apartment in Moscow, he was subsequently taken to the police department in Moscow’s Kon’kovo district, where he is being questioned.