The Social Cost of Climate Change in Russia

Spotlight Activity: The Social Cost of Climate Change in Russia

In recognition of indigenous identities and the challenges that threaten their ways of life, International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was celebrated earlier this month (August 9).   

In Russia, there are 40 officially recognized small indigenous people, with a total number ranging between 240, 000 – 260,000 individuals in Russia’s Far East and Far North Regions and Siberia (International World Group for Indigenous Affairs). 

These communities are defined in Russia as being less than 50 thousand people, living in their traditional territory, preserving the traditional way of life and ethnic and cultural identity. Climate change, as well as the direct impact of extractive industries, jeopardize all four points that preserve the indigenous identity of small nations.

According to statistics provided by Russian participants in the framework of the Day of Indigenous Peoples held in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2016, natural resources extraction takes place in the territories of small indigenous communities of Russia at rates of about 90% of forests, 100% of diamonds, 90% of oil and gas resources Russian Social-Ecological Union: Friends of the Earth Russia (2016). (Small Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. http://rusecounion.ru/marrakesh_2). 

Extraction rates of natural resources for economic purposes and the preservation of natural and cultural values and the survival of the local population are at odds with each other at various points of development, which could be taking place at urban centers far from the location of the indigenous communities. 

Ahead of the Paris Agreement, indigenous communities had hopes that the agreement would provide additional and more robust mechanisms for protection of social-environmental concerns. However, instead there was a noticeable drain in published information and reporting on the advancement and/or consequences (good or bad) of climate change and related activities on indigenous communities following 2016. Additionally, two years prior, the Russian government restricted the travel of several delegates to the UN’s World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, preventing them from sharing their perspectives at the event (Greenpeace Russia, 2014. The Absent Russians at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. http://www.greenpeace.org/russia/en/news/23-09-2014_Russia_WCIP/)

Observed Impacts of Climate Change on Indigenous Ways of life:

Climate change impacts indigenous communities because lifestyles and identities, as defined above, rely on traditional knowledge of natural variations of weather events and behavior of animals on which their livelihoods are associated.

Mobility

Increasing predictability of ice freezing and thawing in this region was recorded as a challenge for the indigenous peoples of this area as it has increased the mortality rate of their livestock – reindeer. For example, due to warming in Siberia, relatively rapid changes in snow cover can trap weak, young and/or pregnant deer (Crate, S., 2013. Climate Change and Human Mobility in Indigenous Communities of the Russian North. Arctic Research Consortium of the United States https://www.arcus.org/witness-the-arctic/2013/2/article/19958). The ice formation that has historically enabled transit for Yukagir hunters from remote settlements does not stay frozen for as long as it had in the past, leading to more frequent accidents and injuries due to unstable ice cover (Russian Social-Ecological Union: Friends of the Earth Russia (2016). Small Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. http://rusecounion.ru/marrakesh_2).

Land and Natural Resources Rights 

One of the main struggles for indigenous peoples in Russia relates to land and natural resource rights. “The law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) from 2001 is the only federal law affording some form of recognition of indigenous peoples’ land tenure. However, the federal government has never confirmed any of the several hundred Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) created by regional and local administrations, in cooperation with indigenous communities, despite repeated calls from UN treaty bodies, indigenous organizations and human rights experts to do so. Thus, the regionally- and locally-established TTNU has no guaranteed legal status and can be dismantled at any time. (International World Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) https://www.iwgia.org/en/russia)”

A regulatory change passed in 2017, for the Pacific Region of Russia that created  additional barriers for indigenous fisher people: requiring them to complete an application, accept permit fees, adhere to the time and place of fishing assigned by authorities and other restrictions; however, legal principles detail that indigenous persons have the right to fish without special permits (International World Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) https://www.iwgia.org/en/russia).

Biodiversity

The composition of commercial fish and animal species has been variable in addition to increased competition between domesticated and wild species due to changes in ecosystems that continue to stress biodiversity. Migration patterns have been observed to change or cease to exist in some indigenous places, such as the arctic fox which used to be a source of fur for peoples to exchange for money. Wild deer, including the world’s largest reindeer herd, graze more intensely on land at higher elevations and less impacted by industrialization and increasing temperatures (Sinyakov, D. 2009. Why the World’s Largest Reindeer Herd Is Shrinking. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/largest-reindeer-herd-loses-400000-amid-increasing-temperatures-531275). Due to the unusual weather, mosquitoes and other insects were reported to have disappeared, resulting in reductions in the fish that feed on these insects (Russian Social-Ecological Union: Friends of the Earth Russia (2016). Small Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. http://rusecounion.ru/marrakesh_2).

Permafrost

Thawing permafrost has a number of negative consequences including the release of methane, which is 23 times stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Additionally, the thawing of burial places of animals and people are increasingly frequent. For example, the surfacing of mammoth bones began to attract so-called black paleontologists, people illegally extracting the remains and other natural fossils for commercial gain, resulting in a new “Gold Rush” for mammoth tusks (Roth, A. 2019. Permafrost Thaw Sparks Fear of ‘Gold Rush’ for Mammoth Ivory”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/14/permafrost-thaw-sparks-fear-of-mammoth-ivory-gold-rush-in-russia). Traditionally, the collection of mammoth bones was prohibited within the indigenous population as mammoths represented the sleeping spirits of the underworld, and collecting these bones meant opening the way for evil spirits. For many elders, this occurrence of surfacing mammoth bones is very symbolic, especially in the context of a changing environment and worsening living conditions. The process of extracting such bones also pose its own environmental concerns and damage (Roth, A. 2019. Permafrost Thaw Sparks Fear of ‘Gold Rush’ for Mammoth Ivory”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/14/permafrost-thaw-sparks-fear-of-mammoth-ivory-gold-rush-in-russia

Health Concerns

The reappearance of diseases and viruses due to the thawing and/or erosion of burial places of animals and humans who had died of illnesses, against which for modern populations are not immune to, continues to be a hazard. Such hazards continue to include smallpox and anthrax, which saw an outbreak among reindeer livestock in 2016 in Yamal contracted by re-emerged animals that had been buried in the past. As a result of the outbreak, hundreds of livestock were destroyed, and hundreds of people were displaced (Staalesen, A., 2018. Mass Vaccination Against Anthrax Continues on Yamal Tundra. The Barents Observer. https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2018/03/mass-vaccination-against-anthrax-continues-yamal-tundra ).

Damage to Infrastructure

Frozen permafrost leads to the destruction of the supports of buildings and the need for additional displacement of the local population (Russian Social-Ecological Union: Friends of the Earth Russia (2016). Small Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. http://rusecounion.ru/marrakesh_2).  Floods and other natural disasters continue to threaten the basic components of indigenous communities and the regions in which they live (Radio Svoboda. Russia: the number of flood victims in the Irkutsk Region Increased to 20. https://ru.krymr.com/a/news-zhertvy-navodnenia-v-irkutskoj-oblasti/30035201.html).

Loss of Traditional Way of Life

Infrastructure for the extraction of fossil fuels has previously threatened the traditional way of life and the state of environmental health. Pipes laid by oil and gas companies block the migration routes of wild deer and smoke of mining and smelting companies pollutes the air. Natural landscapes in mining areas are disturbed and polluted beyond recognition (Russian Social-Ecological Union: Friends of the Earth Russia (2016). Small Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. http://rusecounion.ru/marrakesh_2).

Status: Falling Behind

When momentum was building for the support of indigenous Russian communities ahead of the UN’s World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, the government failed to support its representatives. Additionally, the lack of evidence that planning since the Paris Agreement and related Russian studies that followed will lead to greater reverence and protections for indigenous peoples, their ways of life and the ecosystems with which they interact are not seen to be equally (or partially) valued compared to the nation’s agenda to increase natural resource extraction from the remote and rich areas that indigenous peoples occupy. 

Take Action

Dear Director of the Center for Assistance to Indigenous Minorities of the North (TsSKMNS) Rodion Sulyanjiga (email):

Advocating the agendas of indigenous communities of Russia is a huge challenge. However, improved environmental management and mechanisms to achieve Paris Agreement ambitions greatly depends on indigenous persons’ perspectives, human and environmental relationships. 

Updated reporting and collection of hard info on these communities is greatly needed, not only to report on how national activities and climate change affect them but also to further advocate for their greater participation and involvement in decision making. Outlining projects to be coordinated with the communities to improve their resilience through social service programs and addressing the vulnerability of these groups is greatly needed.

Learn More:

Crate, S., 2013. Climate Change and Human Mobility in Indigenous Communities of the Russian North. Arctic Research Consortium of the United States https://www.arcus.org/witness-the-arctic/2013/2/article/19958). 

Greenpeace Russia, 2014. The Absent Russians at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. http://www.greenpeace.org/russia/en/news/23-09-2014_Russia_WCIP/

Radio Svoboda. Russia: the number of flood victims in the Irkutsk Region Increased to 20. https://ru.krymr.com/a/news-zhertvy-navodnenia-v-irkutskoj-oblasti/30035201.html

Roth, A. 2019. Permafrost Thaw Sparks Fear of ‘Gold Rush’ for Mammoth Ivory”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/14/permafrost-thaw-sparks-fear-of-mammoth-ivory-gold-rush-in-russia)

Russian Social-Ecological Union: Friends of the Earth Russia (2016). Small Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. http://rusecounion.ru/marrakesh_2

Staalesen, A., 2018. Mass Vaccination Against Anthrax Continues on Yamal Tundra. The Barents Observer. https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2018/03/mass-vaccination-against-anthrax-continues-yamal-tundra 

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