Saturday, May 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: In Russia’s North, Firms Get Richer while Peoples Get Poorer, Activists Tell UN

Paul Goble

Baku, May 4 – Russian companies are enriching themselves through the exploitation of the natural resources of Russia’s North, but the peoples on whose territories these firms are working are becoming ever poorer, often as the result of the approach these very firms have taken to them, a leading activist of Russia’s northern peoples has told the United Nations.
Speaking to a UN session on “Indigenous Peoples and the Private Sector” on April 24, Pavel Sulyandziga, the vice president of the Association of the Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North, said members of his group have been struggling against this phenomenon since the late 1980s (, May 3).
Throughout the world, he pointed out, “we see the relationship that industrial companies have with indigenous peoples. The peoples on whose lands they are extracting resources live ever worse and worse while the companies working and devouring their territories are living better and becoming richer.”
Companies assume that they can do anything they like in the pursuit of immediate profit, destroying the traditional ecology on which the indigenous population depends or even moving “an entire people” as they currently propose to do in the course of the planned construction of the Evenk hydroelectric station.
Many of the firms involved conduct what they and the Russian government call “a policy of ‘contract relations’” with the indigenous population. But “such contracts should not be called contracts,” Sulyandziga said, because the local people are not able to get the government to enforce them, “the companies do whatever they like on the territories of the indigenous peoples.”
The attitude of the companies, the Northern peoples activist said, is summed up in the frequent assertions by the companies that “’we pay taxes and other fees to the state so that we do not owe your anything and so don’t interfere with us.”
(One especially ugly aspect of the behavior of the big firms like Gazprom, the activist said, is that they treat different regions differently, behaving in a good way in a few places so that they can suggest they are good “corporate citizens” but then hiding behind that Potemkin village in order to exploit other areas all the more.)
Sulyandziga said he and other people who work in this area have been trying for many years to get the Russian government to intervene, but the government, concerned more with corporate profits than with the lives of the small nationalities of the North, has so far done almost nothing to help.
A second speaker at the UN meeting from the Russian Federation was Yan Dordin, the director of the Batani International Development Fund, which he described as “the only organization which gives micro loans to the communities of indigenous peoples” there and which attempts to enlist the help of corporations there.
Such an institution represents a serious effort to address a serious problem, but Dordin’s comments suggest that it faces a serious uphill battle. On the one hand, he pointed out, most of the largest Russian firms, like Rosneft, have refused to provide any money to the fund, arguing that they are already “doing enough.”
And on the other, the main contributors to it are foreign firms, whose leaders Dordin said “know more about international processes and international law in the area of the rights of indigenous peoples and who recognize these rights” but who are finding themselves squeezed out in many places by the joint actions of the Russian government and Russian companies.
Despite these pessimistic assessments of conditions on the ground in Russia’s North, there is one very important and potentially positive consequence of the speeches of Sulyandziga and Dordin: They took place in a UN forum and thus are more likely to attract international attention than would be the case if they had said the same things in their homelands.

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