Tallinn, March 28 – The Pomors, a small but distinctive Russian-speaking community that has lived for centuries on the shore of the White Sea, is invoking UN declarations on the rights of traditional fishermen to press Moscow to extend to them the treatment the Russian Constitution and Russian law mandate for the numerically small peoples of the North.
In an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev, 75 Pomors cited United Nations declarations on the rights of traditional fishing communities to continue to have access to the land, water, and bio-resources they have long exploited to demand that Moscow do the same for them (www.za-nauku.ru//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1576&Itemid=36).
Their invocation of UN declarations on traditional fishing communities represents an intriguing effort by the Pomors to escape the trap they have long found themselves in, a trap that had lead many outside observers and at least some members of the community itself to assume that they had little hope of surviving for much longer.
On the one hand, the Pomors very much consider themselves a distinctive nationality because of their lifestyle, one based on traditional fishing in the White Sea. When they have been given a chance to declare themselves – in the 1926 and 2002 censuses – they have identified as Pomors rather than Russians. In the latter enumeration, more than 6500 of them chose to do so.
But on the other, because they are Russian speakers and because they practice Russian Orthodoxy, Russian ethnographers are seldom willing to acknowledge that the Pomors are anything more than a sub-ethnos of the Russian nation and Russian officials are unwilling to treat them like one of the numerically small peoples of the North.
In their appeal, which was posted on several Internet portals, the Pomors call for “the immediate adoption of measures for overcoming and preventing the violation of the rights of Pomors” and the meeting of “international norms concerning the rights of the indigenous residences of the shore areas of the White Sea to land, water, and access to bio-resources.”
The appeal begins by citing the finding of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization last year that “in many cases, deficiencies in legislation are a cause of problems connected with the right to food” and that often during agrarian reforms, “the rights of an indigenous population and/or minority are quite often ignored.”
The entire indigenous population of the Russian North is “practically completely dependent on the environment,” but despite what it has done with regard to other groups, “the government of the Russian Federation in fact ignores the rights of the indigenous residents of the White Sea shore to land, water and access to bio-resources.”
In violation of the Russian Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Russian powers that be “refuse to recognize and legally confirm the rights of the Pomors concerning their land, territory and resources of traditional use of the surrounding environment.”
“If for the indigenous numerically small peoples of the North, [Russian] law calls for the recognition of a particular kind of fishing as a means of maintaining a traditional way of life,” the appeal says, “for the Pomors of the White Sea,” the authorities treat fishing entirely differently, viewing it as recreation rather than the basis of the community’s way of life.
Despite the UN requirements, the Russian Federation has not adopted legislation on coastal fishing, and that lack has allowed officials to sell off fishing rights in the White Sea coastal region to outsiders for terms up to ten years, something that has profited some business people but that threatens the survival of the Pomors as a distinctive community.
Having cited the provisions of the Russian Constitution and international law as foundations for reversing this practice, the authors of the appeal detail the specific ways in which the Russian ministry of natural development and other Russian officials have acted in violation of the rights of the Pomor fishermen.
And they conclude by citing the observation of one Russian commentator who noted that “instead of strengthening the fishing collectives, the government is destroying them, taking away the resources [this community had had], and not allowing [the Pomors] to develop a fishing fleet” or even survive as a group.
Whether the Russian government will pay any attention to this appeal is unknown, but two others groups certainly will: other sub-ethnic communities within the Russian Federation whose rights are routinely ignored and spokesmen for traditional fishing groups abroad who will see the Pomors as potentially useful allies.