Indigenous rights in the Russian Arctic: self-determining communities or stakeholders?

Indigenous communities in the Russian Arctic and sub-Arctic are grappling with the rapid expansion of extractive industries, notably the increased activity of oil and gas companies. Hydrocarbon extraction threatens to disrupt cultural practices and traditional livelihoods, such as reindeer herding and fishing. It also harms the natural environmental and human health. Given that the Russian state budget depends heavily on revenue from oil and gas exports, industrial development almost certainly will continue in the region.

Concerned for their cultural and economic survival, indigenous community leaders across Russia have searched for ways to mitigate damage from industrial development. One might expect that they would invoke indigenous rights to self-determination, territorial control, and cultural practice to advocate for their claims in the political arena. However, the use of rights language is rare in the region—and perhaps this is not surprising. Russia’s indigenous communities, known as the“small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East”, were isolated from the evolving global conversation on human rights during the Soviet period. In the post-Soviet period, given their residence in remote regions of great ecological significance, Russian indigenous communities are more likely to encounter environmentalists than human rights activists. Awareness of international conventions such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Russian Arctic appears low or non-existent.

Flickr/Diego/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Some Rights Reserved).

Indigenous communities in the Russian Arctic and sub-Arctic are grappling with the rapid expansion of extractive industries, notably the increased activity of oil and gas companies.

Instead, in recent years the target of indigenous mobilization in Russia more often has been the corporation, not the state, and the language used is not of rights, but benefits. State and company representatives propose corporate responsibility and socioeconomic partnerships, including resource transfer through grants and gifts, as a path to enabling the coexistence of industry and indigenous communities. As a result, indigenous demands for recognition and protection in the Russian Arctic have largely occurred within the framework of “benefit-sharing agreements”—negotiations to determine whether and how local people are able to gain advantages from the resources extracted on their traditional territories.

Benefit-sharing is an appealing framework. In Russia’s illiberal context, activists may gain more traction by invoking the need for economic benefits rather than political rights—and resource transfer may feel more immediately relevant to citizens as well. Yet shifting the target of indigenous mobilization to oil and gas companies has had the effect of moving away from a language of citizens or communities, who have rights, to embracing the status of “stakeholders”, who have interests. Under benefit-sharing, norms of corporate social responsibility and stakeholder obligation, which may vary significantly from company to company, take on outsized importance.

"Not all benefit sharing arrangements are created equal."

Not all benefit sharing arrangements are created equal. In Russia today, we see a range of emerging models. In some cases, benefit-sharing means transferring in-kind resources—from firewood and road maintenance to schools and ice hockey arenas. Often companies bestow benefits without community engagement, echoing the top-down welfare provision for indigenous communities by the Soviet state. Benefits offered in this paternalistic fashion—as gifts to preempt community mobilization or without regard to long-term economic sustainability—undeniably improve the quality of life in some communities in the short run, but carry longer term risks of disengagement and dependency. In other cases, indigenous communities have played a more active role in determining the nature and distribution of benefits. For example, Sakhalin Energy’s Sakhalin Indigenous Minorities Development Plan (SIMDP), started in 2006, involved indigenous participation at all stages, including the design phase. Under the plan, elected indigenous leaders help to determine how benefits are distributed and assist in overseeing a grievance procedure. Thus, benefit-sharing in this case enhances both the resources transferred and the decision making authority of communities. Benefit-sharing that allows for greater participation by indigenous people in Russia may have the effect of creating pockets of liberalized space for communities to act autonomously.

More equitable benefit sharing is not a natural outgrowth of corporate generosity, however. In the Sakhalin case, SIMDP was developed only after years of social mobilization by indigenous and environmental activists. In a campaign known as the Green Wave, indigenous activists blocked roads to draw attention to the damage to their territories inflicted by oil companies.  Indigenous communities were supported by environmental activists who protested at the headquarters of institutions financing industrial development on Sakhalin.  

Does it matter if indigenous empowerment is pursued under the framework of corporate social responsibility rather than democracy? The shift from self-determining community to stakeholder raises many issues. What forms of benefit-sharing are likely to empower indigenous communities, allowing them to participate in decision-making over how resources are used? Can the transfer of benefits from oil and gas extraction be used to ensure sustainable economic development or cultural survival? Up to this point, paternalistic benefit sharing has dominated in Russia. It has proven hard for indigenous communities to hold corporations accountable. Pressure from international financial institutions and multinational companies’ commitments to global conventions may be leveraged to ensure more robust forms of benefit sharing. This works best when backed up by social movements, local and global, as we see in the Sakhalin case.

Ultimately, a rights conversation still may be essential to achieve equitable benefit-sharing. An unintended consequence of benefit-sharing is that it ties the future of indigenous communities closely to the activity that ultimately threatens their survival. Many indigenous communities in Russia do not have the right to effectively control their territories and cannot block industrial activity. Focusing on the “benefits” of development elides of the question of whether indigenous communities consent to development in the first place. In the absence of indigenous rights, communities that shift their demands from the state to the corporation may trade in one form of power imbalance for another.

For Russian indigenous groups, the worst case scenario is that benefit-sharing from rapid oil and gas development without an adequate recognition of indigenous rights to land, self-government, and cultural survival will act merely as a palliative remedy. Economic benefits may ease the pain of dislocation from industry, yet they do little to prevent the eventual destruction of indigenous communities that are already reeling from the economic collapse and state withdrawal of the 1990s. One way to prevent this outcome is to re-engage with the language of rights in Russia, even as communities simultaneously pursue the benefits of development on their traditional territories.