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Indigenous Community in Russia’s Far East Battles Gold Mining Giant to Preserve Traditional Way of Life

WorldRussiaIndigenous Community in Russia’s Far East Battles Gold Mining Giant to Preserve Traditional Way of Life

Tyanya, Sakha (Yakutia), Russia — In a remote corner of Russia’s Far East, an Indigenous community is making a desperate plea to preserve their ancestral way of life against the encroachment of a major gold-mining corporation.

The residents of Tyanya, an Evenk village in the southeastern Olyokminsky district of Sakha (Yakutia), have publicly called on President Vladimir Putin and regional leader Aysen Nikolayev to intervene and halt the development of a new mine by Nordgold, a company owned by Russian magnate Alexei Mordashov.

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Tyanya, home to about 470 people, is facing significant environmental threats from Nordgold’s mining activities, which have already led to deforestation, water pollution, and the contamination of moss eaten by reindeer.

These impacts threaten the traditional livelihoods of the Evenk people, who rely on fishing, hunting, and reindeer herding.

An open letter signed by 164 village residents highlights these concerns and appeals for the preservation of their land to maintain their cultural heritage.

“We, both young and old, wish to continue our traditional way of life and pass these skills on to future generations of our people.

And this is only possible if we conserve nature,” the letter states, emphasizing the existential stakes for the community.

The Environmental Toll of Gold Mining

The environmental damage caused by Nordgold’s operations is extensive. Since opening its first mine, Tabornyi, near Tyanya in 2007, the company has expanded to two additional mines, Gross and Tokko, which collectively produce over 20 tons of gold annually.

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Now, Nordgold plans to develop a fourth mine, Vrezannoe, further endangering the local ecosystem.

Gold extraction by open-pit mining, the method used by Nordgold, is known for its severe environmental impacts. “Gold extraction by open-pit mining can pollute territories located tens and even hundreds of kilometers away.

It is the cheapest and most dangerous for the environment,” said Ilya Shumanov of Arctida, an NGO specializing in environmental analysis of the Russian Arctic.

Despite requirements for extraction companies to submit environmental impact reports, activists argue that these documents often underreport the true extent of the damage.

“We shouldn’t solely look at numbers and reports … but also at how residents are actually suffering,” Shumanov added.

A Legacy of Struggle

The Evenk people, historically nomadic and native to North Asia, have faced a series of hardships over the past century, including forced sedentarization, collectivization, and Russification under Soviet rule.

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Today, fewer than 70,000 ethnic Evenks remain worldwide, with over half living in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Many Evenks, like those in Tyanya, strive to sustain traditional practices despite modern pressures.

“These people live off fishing, hunting, and reindeer herding in its traditional form, aided by only a few modern technologies like snowmobiles.

Their lifestyle is very similar to that led by previous generations,” explained Stefania Kulaeva, a human rights activist and expert at the Brussels-based Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC) Memorial.

“This difficult life in extreme climatic conditions is certainly deserving of respect and support, especially given its importance for preserving the planet.”

The community’s resilience is notable, given the challenges of their remote location.

Tyanya is approximately 280 kilometers from the nearest town, with no paved roads or internet access, allowing residents to maintain their secluded traditional lifestyle. However, Nordgold’s continued expansion threatens this way of life.

A Community’s Cry for Help

The villagers’ appeal to Putin and Nikolayev may seem quixotic given Russia’s broader geopolitical issues, including the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Still, for the residents of Tyanya, the stakes could not be higher. “Calling for Putin’s help, this letter might look naive amid the invasion of Ukraine, but this is a cry of despair… these people simply have no other option,” said Sargylana Kondakova, co-founder of the Free Yakutia Foundation, an Indigenous rights movement.

Kondakova emphasized that the community’s demands are not about financial compensation. “They don’t want money or anything of the sort; they simply want this predatory plundering of their land to end,” she said.

Despite their limited chances of success, the villagers believe it is essential to fight for their survival.

Concealing the Reality

While Nordgold claims to support local communities through social and financial programs, there is skepticism about the sincerity and effectiveness of these efforts.

Ekaterina Zibrova, a specialist in diversity, equity, and inclusion at The Wits Center for Diversity Studies in Johannesburg, pointed out discrepancies in Nordgold’s reporting.

“They write very specific things about their social support work in Burkina Faso and Guinea and show very concrete numbers. … What do they write about [mines in] Russia? Just that theyoffered monetary support to low-income families, she noted.

Zibrova argues that this lack of transparency is indicative of broader issues in Siberia and the Russian North, regions historically shrouded in secrecy.

“The world can look into what is happening in Guinea because it is far more open and more accessible than the north of Siberia — no one knows what kind of people live there, and no one, of course, has heard of Evenks,” she said.

A Divided Community

The fight against Nordgold is not universally supported within Tyanya. Some residents see potential benefits in the form of employment and economic opportunities.

“From my grandmother and relatives in Yakutia, I have heard that we [locals] should work for these companies to achieve career goals, that this is a good opportunity for us,” said a former employee of Nordgold’s parent structure Severgroup, who requested anonymity.

This divide within the community complicates the struggle against the mining giant. While some advocate for resistance, others believe collaboration could yield personal and communal gains.

A Legacy of Resistance

Tyanya’s history of opposition to extraction companies is well-known in Sakha. The community’s resistance was once led by Arsentiy Nikolaev, a local leader and deputy in Sakha’s parliament.

In 2020, Nikolaev was placed under house arrest on charges of bribery and extortion, which many locals believe were fabricated by Nordgold in retaliation for his activism.

Nikolaev died in November 2021 at the age of 63, an event many attribute to the stress of his house arrest.

“This community is quite well-known in Sakha for its protests. Everyone in the republic knows how they fought, everyone knows that their leader was arrested on fabricated charges,” said Kondakova.

After Nikolaev’s death, his daughter Viktoria Nikolaeva took over as the community leader, though her name was absent from the recent letter to Putin.

The Struggle Continues

Despite Nordgold’s initial reaction to the open letter, which labeled signatories as “foreign agents” and “extremists,” the company has since amended its statement following widespread condemnation, including from a regional deputy of the ruling United Russia party.

The Evenk community’s battle against Nordgold underscores the broader tensions between Indigenous rights and resource extraction in Russia.

As global attention increasingly turns to environmental and Indigenous issues, the outcome of Tyanya’s struggle could have significant implications for other communities facing similar threats.

The residents of Tyanya, though few in number, stand as a symbol of resilience and determination.

Their fight is a testament to the enduring spirit of the Evenk people and their commitment to preserving their cultural heritage and the natural world that sustains them.

 

This article was created using automation technology and was thoroughly edited and fact-checked by one of our editorial staff members

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