Partnership with Indigenous Peoples - Key to Sustainable Development

Speach held at the Circumpolar Conference on Sustainable Development,
12-14 May, 1998, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

Sergey N. Kharyuchi
President of the Association of the Indigenous Peoples
of the North, Siberia and the Far East
of the Russian Federation

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Friends:

On the brink of the 21st century mankind has realised that a development of civilisation, based on the concept of nature exploitation, has come to an end. The unbalanced, non-sustainable, often barbarian use of natural resources costs too much for the society. Water and air are polluted, forests - the lungs of the planet - are put to logging. The climate is changing under the influence of man-made factors, the radiation level increases, many species of plants and animals are endangered. Mineral deposits are being over-exploited.

In the end of our century all thinking people realise that if such processes continue, the next generations will inherit a planet unsuitable for normal life.

The alternative way of development of human society has been named sustainable development. It is based on the necessity of a universal consciousness that we have to live by utilising limited resources, which we borrow from nature. Basic strategic principles of the concept of sustainable development were declared at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This declaration points out trends in the economy and policy changes, aimed at stabilisation of nature-society interaction. It is not accidental that two years after the Earth Summit in Rio-de-Janeiro the UN declared a Decade of the Indigenous Peoples of the World.

Unique cultures, techniques and methods of traditional land and nature use have not merely historical or ethnological interest. They are a practical assets for all of mankind. Cultures of indigenous peoples are based on unity and close relationship of man and nature; they incorporate principles of rational utilisation of the resources and a non-damaging attitude to the environment, the fundamental principles of the concept of sustainable development. Traditional land use in every region of the planet is based on exceptional knowledge of the nature obtained due to multi-century experiences of indigenous peoples. It roots in the principle of sustainable use of renewable biological resources, which is the basic idea in the concept of sustainable development.

It is evident, that loss of mentality and experiences of the indigenous peoples practised during millennia, might become an unrecoverable detriment for mankind at the modern stage. They must be protected and passed on to the representatives of other nationalities for joint action aimed at nature conservation on our common planet and search of a new balanced way of development of civilisation.

Naturally, partnership of indigenous peoples and immigrant settlers must ground on parity principles, equal participation of the parties in problem solution and decision making on environmental, political and economic problems, concerning their joint actions towards a sustainable development in the regions.

This way of dealing with problems of culture preservation, protection of unique communities and environment in the regions of traditional land use is the most effective, and at the same time the most democratic one. In contrast to laws defending specific rights of the indigenous peoples - adopted by the governments which do not always take into consideration the real needs of the indigenous peoples - parity agreements define the whole spectrum of necessary political, economic and other issues. At the same time they create tools for joint work of the government and indigenous minorities (in binary Commissions, where both parties are represented in equal proportions) for solving environmental problems and mining of mineral resources in areas of indigenous subsistence. Joint work and equal participation in decision-making processes is both effective and instructive, promotes mutual understanding and even prevents conflicts.

Examples of parity approach towards a sustainable development of indigenous areas in the North can be found in the Agreements between Inuit and the Tribal Union of Gvichy and Her Royal Majesty Queen of United Kingdom (i.e. Canadian government). These agreements considered in detail by both parties define territories under the jurisdiction, rights of indigenous people, permanent residents of non-indigenous population on the territory, rights of regional and federal governments on land and mineral resources, methods of nature use, and parity mechanism for control and management.

We do not know in detail the history preceding the settlement of these agreements, however we could imagine that there were many decades of conflicts and a long period of joint work of the Government and indigenous organisations aimed at preservation of indigenous life style, regulation of their claims to the government on the basis of bilateral parity agreement and thus, setting up conditions for sustainable development of regions, where the indigenous population lives.

Experience of Canada and of the other Northern countries on creating necessary prerequisites for sustainable development of the regions based on parity approach is very useful for Russia nowadays. Today in the period of reformation indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Russian Far East should prepare a stable, non-conflicting system of their relations with the government and non-indigenous population, aimed at preservation of their culture, life style, traditional economy, economical self-reliance and protection of the natural environment. Parity, in our opinion, is the most perspective way and can ensure a wise compromise with the state. Such way is possible only in one case - when both parties pursue common goal to ensure sustainable development of the regions, where indigenous peoples live.

Now the entire huge region of the European North, Siberia and the Russian Far East is in an unstable state, and the situation of the indigenous peoples can be called critical. This situation has been evolving in decades and is now at its critical point. The development of this region in the 20th century is still determined by intensive mining of non-renewable natural resources (gas, oil, ores, etc.), and by forest logging as well as immigration of foreign population. It is worth noting that indigenous peoples number now as little as 2% of the total population in the North, Siberia and the Russian Far East. During many years the state has had only one main target: to increase exploitation. There were and still are no existing long-term plans of sustainable development of these regions. In most cases all plans were based on exploitation of two or three types of resources with maximum profitability resulting in deterioration of the environment and overall aggravation of the economic and social situation of the indigenous peoples, although this fact has not been properly evaluated or analysed.

Participation of the indigenous peoples and consideration of their interests in the management processes has been purely nominal, and the development of traditional land use or of their own cultures has not been practically supported. Until the end of 1980s aborigines did not have national public organisations able to express and defend their interests.

As a result of such a policy the early 1990s evidenced the worst state of legal enforcement of the indigenous peoples' rights. The existence of the least numerous indigenous nations is threatened. The population of the Entsy counts only 209 persons, the Oroks 190 persons, and the Ket 1113 persons. The average life expectancy of indigenous people is almost 20 years less than that of the entire country. For the last 6 years the birth rate among this group of population decreased by 34%. Tuberculosis and alcohol addiction are rising. All these facts evidence the deterioration of quality of life among indigenous peoples in most regions of the Russian Federation.

The natural environment is being destroyed in the lands of traditional use and economy of the indigenous peoples. In the north of Western Siberia 110,000 of reindeer pastures have been completely lost as a result of negligent industrial activity. In Siberia total 200 of river habitats for valuable fish species were destroyed. Annually almost 1,000 tons of sturgeon fish die due to water pollution. A similar situation is noted in other regions of the North, Siberia and Russian Far East.

Evidently, the economy of these regions needs to be transformed according to a model of sustainable development. Such a transition cannot be done within one or two years, it is a long process which should deal with a variety of compromises between different groups of people, enterprises and regional administrations. It should involve changes in economy and a fundamental transformation of human psychology in relation to the utilisation of nature. The role of the indigenous population of the North is significant in this process. It is much greater than its proportion of the regional population. Indigenous peoples historically are bearers of a caring attitude towards nature.

Governmental institutions must realise that an indigenous population exercising its exclusive rights for land and resources, could both preserve unique ethnoses and carry on an opportunity for the conservation of nature to future generations of different nationalities.

At the same time indigenous people are to understand that these specific rights evolve an exceptional responsibility for them and society in general. It is not a secret that there occurred several instances in Russia where specific rights were utilised in a too frivolous and somehow even criminal way by individual members of the indigenous society. For example, in the administrative region of Murmansk, tribal hunting grounds of the Saami, Komi and Nenets people were leased to foreign companies, in legal and economic ignorance of the indigenous authority. There exist so-called "national" enterprises as well, where indigenous representatives are used by semi-criminal elements as fiction participants for implying tax-free status and making profitable deals. Such activities of our "representatives" undoubtedly may discredit the entire movement of indigenous peoples of the North.

In Russia, the process of advocating exceptional rights of indigenous peoples of the North and mechanism of their realisation is now in the initial stage. The common purposes and tasks are not articulated yet and actual tools for their implementation are not found. Experiences of interrelations and interactions of various indigenous organisations with administrative bodies in Russia's regions are not synthesised or compared with those from other countries. Federal and regional concepts of these interactions and interrelations are not elaborated.

At present several forms and levels of interaction of indigenous peoples with the state and other groups of the population are partially determined. At the Federal level, several exclusive rights are guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation (article 64) in general terms, which are included in several laws: On Underground Resources; On Environmental Protection; On Strictly Protected Nature Areas; and into a number of R.F. President's Decrees and R.F. Government Orders. However, the enforcement of these legal acts is rather insignificant. For solving legal problems aborigines should appeal to the court or sue the case in trial on the common grounds. The lack of legal expertise, remoteness of indigenous petitioners from the administrative centres, shortage of time and means for lengthy trial processes, where large state enterprises, private companies or administrative bodies are opposing individuals, make legal processes for indigenous people practically unfeasible.

At the same time the legislative work aimed at recognition of exclusive rights in subjects of the Russian Federation has been activated. Regional authorities are more active than Federal bodies, as they are closer to needs of peoples in the specific regions. However, the realisation of these rights by the indigenous peoples, although to a lesser extent, is still very limited.

Legal representatives on behalf of indigenous peoples could be individuals, associations of indigenous peoples (NGOs), communities (indigenous unions and associations, dealing with traditional economy), national enterprises, in some cases, agricultural enterprises with communal property, transformed from kolkhozes and sovkhozes, where production is based on traditional land use (reindeer herding, fur animals trapping/farming, hunting etc.), and professional unions (Union of Reindeer Herders, Union of Sea Animal Hunters).

Activities of professional unions, enterprises and communities are generally aimed at conservation of traditional ways of economy. Issues of developing national self-government are not their main concern. Associations dealing with various indigenous peoples' issues cannot directly influence economic activity. Evidently, in this situation even with mutual assistance of all interested parties, it is extremely difficult to determine where parity partnership between indigenous peoples and administrative bodies could serve a sustainable development of the regions. Moreover, the lack of determined common targets and tasks may lead to various conflicts.

To solve the problem of an effective parity partnership between indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and Russian Far East, the government and other social groups, we assume it is necessary:

  1. to elaborate a basic concept for every region under consideration of Russian and international expertise, as well as local conditions.

  2. to develop and adopt a principal law in each region, which will clearly define limits for territories of traditional land use, determine rights for these territories on behalf of indigenous organisations, unequivocally define the rights of indigenous people on natural resources in these territories, including mineral resources, guarantee exclusive rights of the indigenous population and regulating their relationships with other groups of the population, as well as establish systems of self-government and control on these territories.

  3. to create in each region, where indigenous peoples live, independent foundations which could accumulate funds for the solution of problems of indigenous peoples and specify investment policy.

  4. to establish special commissions (Assembly) of representatives of indigenous peoples and the administration at Governor's Office of each region, able to veto and agree on disputable issues that deal with all projects implemented on the territories of traditional land use.

In conclusion, it is necessary to dwell on another aspect of parity co-operation of indigenous peoples for sustainable development: The voluntary co-operation of international and Russian national public organisations. Such co-operation is necessary and useful, especially for grassroots organisations of indigenous peoples in our country. Thanks to this co-operation indigenous people of the Russian North receive financial support, and make acquaintance with the life of indigenous peoples of other circumpolar regions.

Joint projects are of high significance, and in particular topical projects on nature protection and information, implemented on the territory of Russia together with Russian specialists. We would like to express our gratitude to the International NGO Sacred Earth Network. Its Director Bill Pfeiffer together with Pavel Suliandziga, the President of regional organisation of indigenous peoples in Primorskiy Kray (now the Vice-president of RAIPON), worked on launching a campaign to stop illegal logging in the Ussuri taiga that ended up in success. RAIPON is also grateful to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for its activity on establishing new protected areas in Russia. Our personal thanks to Viktor Nikiforov, the Arctic Programme Co-ordinator in the WWF Russia office. We would like to express our special thanks and gratitude to the governments of Canada for the Institutional Building project, of Denmark for Danish-Greenlandic Initiative, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat for charity aid and technical assistance to our organisation. We would like to thank the government of Sweden for launching financial support to seminars on sharing Saami Parliament expertise. Our sincere gratitude to the government of Iceland for the project on replacement of traditional energy sources for environmentally safe energy in the national village of Lorino in Chukotka.

We hope that joint efforts of all mindful people of different nationalities both in Russia and abroad will create a basis for sustainable development of our planet - the Earth.

Thank you for your attention.

Update 22-12-2000