Russia: Sakha protest mining rush in Siberia

Sakha (or Yakut) are one of the largest native ethnic groups of Siberia.  With a population of over 400,000, the Sakha are considered too numerous to fit within the official Russian category of “indigenous”.  This status is confined to groups numbering less than 50,000; maintaining a traditional way of life; inhabiting certain remote regions of Russia; and identifying themselves as a distinct ethnic community. 

The Sakha peoples’ position as “titular” nationality of an autonomous region (the Sakha Republic) brings the group closer to the classification of an “ethnic minority”.  Yet, like other indigenous groups, many Sakha people still maintain subsistence livelihoods such as horse and cattle husbandry, fishing and hunting.   Sakha have also echoed the aspirations brought forward by many indigenous groups, namely respect for collective rights to land and resources, recognition of cultural differences, and the acknowledgement of rights to self-determination.  Most importantly, like other indigenous groups, the Sakha have suffered from cultural and economic marginalization in relation to a dominant national population.  The Sakha have largely been excluded from the profits of the extractive companies operating on their territories and have also suffered disproportionately from ecological destruction due to resource extraction.

The Sakha Republic (previously known as Yakutia) is currently the largest territorial unit within Russia.  It makes up one fifth of the total Russian territory.  The region is sparsely populated with about one million inhabitants, 45% of whom are Sakha.  The Republic is of critical economic importance to the Russian Federation.  The region is rich in mineral wealth and natural resources and so has become a site of crucial contestations between industrial developers and indigenous and local communities living close to industrial activities.  Mining for rare metals (gold, silver, copper, tin), luxury stones (diamonds, amethyst, nephrite), and energy resources (oil, coal and natural gas), as well as timber working are the dominant industries.  

Approximately one-fourth of the diamonds sold worldwide come from Sakha mines.  The state-owned diamond mining conglomerate, ALROSA (“Almazii-Rossii-Sakhaor “Diamonds of Russia and Sakha”), operates in four districts of the Sakha Republic – Anabar, Lensk, Nyurba, and Mirny – all located in western Sakha.  Almost all of the Republic’s diamond deposits lie in the Nuyrba district. 

ALROSA claims that it has significantly contributed to the economy of the Sakha Republic by encouraging extensive state investment in infrastructure, providing funds for economic development, by building new schools and medical clinics and bringing money and jobs to the region. 

However, many local residents think that the diamond industry has benefitted the population unevenly and do not believe ALROSA’s assertions that it is a socially responsible company.  Very little revenue has trickled down to the local Sakha communities.  For example, in the Sakha dominated areas of the town of Nyurba, there is no plumbing, no water filtration systems, poorly maintained roads and a host of social problems like crime and alcoholism. 

Moreover, the Sakha and their smaller-numbered indigenous neighbors (Chukchi, Evenk, Even, and Yukagir) are the ones who have suffered from the disastrous ecological consequences of diamond-related development.  Diamond and gold mining operations, as well as hydroelectric engineering in the Sakha Republic, particularly in the Vilyuy region, have led to significant land degradation, water contamination, decrease in biological diversity, relocation of the local and indigenous communities, disturbance in their traditional economic activities, health problems associated with water pollution and degradation of natural environments.

A controversial mining project is currently underway in the village of Sinsk in the Khangalasskii district of the Sakha Republic.  Construction company ADK plans to develop a basalt mine close to Sinsk and the Sinyaya River, a tributary of the mighty Lena River.  The Sinyaya River serves as a source of drinking water for the villagers of Sinsk and is also an important spawning ground for several fish species.  Additionally, on the banks of the Sinyaya River there are ancient petroglyphs dating back from the Neolithic era that have for years attracted archeological expeditions. 

Local residents, the majority of whom are Sakha, believe that the new mining activities threaten their health and would harm the unique ecology and cultural heritage of the region.  They were additionally outraged because they were not informed or consulted about ADK’s development project, and no environmental assessment took place prior to the initial construction and excavation activities. 

Throughout 2011, ADK undertook a series of activities without acquiring proper permits – clearcutting, geological explorations, road extensions, and diversion of a tributary to the Sinyaya River.  As a result, Sinsk villagers carried out a series of protests and appeals to the President of the Republic and to the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office in 2011 and the beginning of 2012.  In March 2012, construction and excavation activities on the site were suspended in order for an archeological assessment to be conducted.  Only time will show whether such an assessment will be carried out and whether ADK will be granted permission to resume its work. 

Irina L Stoyanova

Photo: Diamond. Credit: stevendepolo

Related resources:

Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON)

• Arctic Network for the Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic

Arctic Network for the Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic: http://ansipra.npolar.no 
Situation of indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation: Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, James Anaya, 2010: http://unsr.jamesanaya.org/country-reports/situation-of-indigenous-peoples-in-the-russian-federation-2010 

Situation of indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation: Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, James Anaya, 2010

Read more about natural resources and minorities' and indigenous peoples' rights in MRG's report State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012.

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Date: 29/06/2012

Countries:

Russian Federation

Categories:

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Natural resources

Press Contact Information

Name: Irina L Stoyanova

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