Digging in Deep:
Mining’s Impact on Russia ’s Indigenous Peoples in Siberia and the Far East

Misha Jones, Pacific Environmen, Vladivostok

As precious mineral prices have gone on the increase in recent years, Russia has started more and more to look like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Even coal is starting to look valuable again. So, international and national developers are increasingly encroaching on pristine land; in response, Russia’s Far Eastern and Siberian NGOs, including indigenous NGOs, monitor and try to mitigate the impact of past, current and future mining projects. From Kamchatka to Kemerovo , mines are on the move, and so are the people who stand to lose their traditional way of life because of them.

In Kamchatka Province , gold mining is a relatively new venture. Although its direct impact on indigenous peoples has, to date, been limited, gold mining’s potential impact on salmon— a key local natural resource and a staple of indigenous culture and economics— is tremendous. For instance, in the central part of the Kamchatka peninsula, the headwater regions of the Icha and Kirganik Rivers , one gold mine is operating and a copper-cobalt-nickel mine and a second gold are under construction. These mines threaten salmon habitat in rivers that drain west into the Sea of Okhotsk and east into the Pacific Ocean . The road systems being built to service these mines also pose a threat to aquatic and wildlife resources upon which regional indigenous peoples are dependent. A passion has arisen among developers and officials to mine additional mineral resources in these watersheds: today the region lies vulnerable to fallout from the choice of quick profit over sustainable progress.

In the case of central Kamchatka ’s mines, project managers did hold consultations with local communities, including indigenous communities, as part of the mandatory government environmental assessment (or "expertiza"). The emphasis at these meetings, however, was on job creation, local tax revenue opportunities and other claimed benefits; the mines’ technical aspects and potential threats were secondary considerations. As is too often the case, the promise of social benefits was a powerful enough argument to convince the public to support the projects: even the indigenous community was convinced. Now there is growing dissatisfaction with the one active mine as expected jobs and tax revenues fail to materialize. Recently the Kamchatkan indigenous community drafted a letter reproaching regional officials and company officers responsible for the management of the Aginskoe gold mine as well as the Shanuch copper, nickel and cobalt mines (which lie adjacent to a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bystrinskiy Nature Park). The letter calls on mining officers to establish a mechanism by which indigenous community representatives, accompanied by agency personnel and NGO representatives, can visit the mines, and by which a dialogue can begin on the establishment of access to information relating to mine operations.

Just to the north of Kamchatka , in the Koryak Autonomous Region (Koryakia), platinum and gold mines are already operating, with new gold mines planned for other areas in the region where local indigenous groups live. So far, there have been few direct benefits to the indigenous community from these mines. Of equal concern are the social tensions that have arisen in the communities near these mines which neither the mining management nor the Russian government is addressing.

Unlike Kamchatka , Magadan Province , to its northwest, has been a major center for the extraction of gold, silver and other metals and minerals for more than seventy years. Over this period, lands used by the region's indigenous peoples to pursue traditional activities – reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing – have been annexed for the purposes of resource extraction. These lands have suffered the ills of pollution and other fallout from the mining. The reduced land and natural resource base creates hardship for indigenous people who wish to maintain a traditional way of life.

The indigenous peoples in Magadan Province are feeling the impact of the Kubaka gold deposit in particular. This region’s population is predominantly indigenous: Even, Koryak, and Itelmen. Their traditional activities are hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding. Concerns held by local and international stakeholders include include the Kubaka mine operator’s management of excess water and its severe underestimation of local annual precipitation; tailings dam seepage; the potential for acid mine drainage; extensive settlement of the tailings dam; cyanide in seepage below an old tailings reservoir, and environmental accountability for that site; the operator’s lack of explicit reclamation and closure plans; and the operator’s failure to identify mechanisms to provide financial guarantees to assure performance of steps to which the operator has agreed. For an example of the mine operator being out of compliance with its own words, it agreed to give but never provided compensation for the damage it caused to reindeer pastures. Sadly, Magadan Province is practically the only place where indigenous peoples have been able to maintain some semblance of a traditional lifestyle: and just one accident at the mine could spell disaster for this lifestyle. In another part of the province, the deteriorating tailings pond and facilities of the abandoned gold complex at Karamken, on a tributary to the Khasyn River, near a productive salmon fishery, threatens regional salmon resources— and so also indigenous peoples and other downstream residents surviving on that salmon.

Now there are plans for developing two open pit coal mines in the Olski Region, the landscape base for the watershed of the Lankovaya River (“river of coho salmon” in the indigenous Evenk tongue). The Lankovaya River 's key tributary, the Ola, is one of Magadan Province 's most productive salmon spawning rivers. Again, the opening of these mines will have a direct, irreversible impact on indigenous communities dependent upon the Lankovaya watershed’s salmon resources.

On top of these developments, the indigenous peoples of Magadan Province were victimized by an investment scheme set up to provide economic and social support in return for the community's consent to allow mining activities on part of their traditional lands. Loans were secured to fund the investment project, but through a series of disreputable manipulations the investment fund collapsed; the local indigenous people were left not the fund’s benefits, but its debts.

In the north of one of Russia ’s largest provinces on the Chinese border, Amur Province , gold mining— mainly placer gold mining— is reported to be displacing Evenk reindeer herders from their traditional pastures. Infrastructure developments, particularly roads, for the influx of people coming to work at the placer mining operations is suspected as the cause for a decline in wildlife numbers. Further west, in Siberia ’s Kemerovo Province , an internationally-funded copper mine project threatens a portion of the local indigenous Shors’ traditional lands. This mine is planned for the Shor National Park , and if developed, will annex traditional Shor hunting areas.

These are just a few prominent examples of mining impacts on indigenous peoples in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Indeed, the issue of indigenous land rights under the onslaught of mining developments is poorly understood. A comprehensive review of the relationship between mining projects and Russia ’s indigenous peoples has not yet been compiled; these examples are surely only the edge of a very large open pit!


About the Author:

Misha Jones works out of the Vladivostok office of Pacific Environment, a US-based conservation organization which works to empower communities with tools and information to promote sustainable, transparent, and community-supported natural resource policies. Misha has worked to partner with indigenous communities since the early 1990s when Pacific Environment participated in a community development project organized by the Udege people in the Bikin River watershed in the Russian Far East . Learn more: http://www.pacificenvironment.org

Learn more about Pacific Environment’s current environmental/ indigenous NGO partnership project Environmental Rights in Magadan: Expanding Citizens' Use of Environmental Rights in Magadan District , Russia : http://www.pacificenvironment.org/russia/FRAEC