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Russia: Coal smog settles over Siberia

Kazas is one of six towns that make up Chauvashinsky National Village in Kemerovo Oblast, in south-west Siberia. The small-numbered indigenous Shor and Teluts make up the population of Kazas. There are only about 13,000 Shors in Russia, of which Kemerovo Oblast is home to the vast majority. They are mainly farmers and beekeepers but still practice traditional hunting, fishing and cedar nut harvesting

The economy of Kemerovo Oblast is based on the coal and smelting industries, which has affected and continues to affect the way of life of the local indigenous Shors and Teleut. The history of the coal industry in Kemerovo Oblast dates back several hundred years. The region now produces about 100 million tonnes of coal annually (60 per cent of all the coal in Russia) and over one hundred coal-producing companies now operate in the region.

The environmental situation in Kemerovo Oblast is bleak according to all experts (including the government’s supervisory authorities). The region’s economy is focused on raw-material production. Heavy industry is at the core of the regional economy and is the main factor that has a negative impact on the environment. The Novokuznetsk city is among the most polluted in the country, according to an evaluation by the Russian Federation Ministry of Natural Resources. The evaluation describes river water in areas of industrial activity as “polluted” or “heavily polluted”.

Mining activities have resulted in the destruction of the Shors’ lands and natural resources; the rivers are polluted and forests and wildlife destroyed. The indigenous population have received no compensation for the destroyed lands or for the impacts on their traditional way of life. One village, Kurya, was totally destroyed in the 1950s and all its population (primarily Shors) displaced to the town of Novokuznetsk, without compensation.

A description of the scale of the coal mining industry’s impact on the indigenous communities can be found in a letter from a Shor man, Veniamin Boriskin, sent to the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) in February 2012, seeking help. He wrote about the problems of a small village called Kazas, situated in Myskovsky town district of Kemerovo Oblast: 

“For decades, the Sibirginsky, Mezhdurechensky and Krasnogorsky strip mines around the village have been extracting coal. Over this time, our forests have been destroyed, the Kazass River has been killed....The mines ignore the people of Kazas and continue to tear our land to pieces....Once abundant, the river has grown shallow and silted like a stream....When they pump the water from the mines it flows on top of the ice and freezes. And this happens every day. Through the winter, the ice grows so thick that water has to be taken like from a well, with a bucket on a rope....Only a few people have stayed in the village. Once a large settlement of 50 houses with large families, it has now died out.”

Since 1994, the Chairman of Chuvashinsky Selsovet, Egor Bekrenev (the former President of Kemerovo Oblast Indigenous Peoples’ Association), has been trying to make the coal companies operating in the territory of Chuvashinsky Selsovet pay compensation for their exploitation of the mineral resources, to be used for the social and economic development of Shor communities. However, no agreement has been reached.

In addition, most of the taxes from mineral resource extraction in Russia are paid either to the Federal or Regional budget. Consequently, the municipality only receives an utterly insignificant share of the overall tax payments, in particular, those from coal mining companies.

Despite all this, the government's environmental authorities consider that the river water complies with health standards. However, the villagers emphasize that the water in the river is sometimes cleaner than at other times, and they think samples should be taken when the water is dirty and not the other way around, as the government authorities do. The village does not have a school a health centre, a post office or a shop.

The people of Kazas have written many complaints to numerous regional departments but the situation has not improved, and the authorities merely reply that sacrifices have to be made for the sake of regional economic development.

Kemerovo Oblast Administration signs annual cooperation agreements with the coal companies, which include specific clauses relating to measures for maintaining and developing the territories of traditional natural resource use for the small-numbered indigenous peoples of Kemerovo Oblast. However, according to many of the Oblast’s indigenous residents, nobody knows where this money goes.

The extremely complicated environmental situation around the village of Kazas, which has a negative impact on the traditional livelihoods of indigenous communities in the region, is generally quite typical of Kemerovo Oblast.

The environmental situation in Kemerovo Oblast is generally one of the most depressing. Any person new to the region arriving in Novokuznetsk will immediately notice the enormous black haze of polluted atmosphere hanging over the city. The Shors live in the epicenter of this hell – gradually dying from disease. And, in the meantime, the “coal barons” continue to make billions of dollars selling “black gold”.

For more information on how natural resource extraction is adversely affecting minorities and indigenous communities around the world, read MRG's report State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012.

Dmitry Berezhkov is Vice-President of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON).

Photo by bicyclemark shows coal industry in Kemerovo Oblast

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Date: 27/06/2012


Russian Federation


State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Natural resources
Land Rights

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Name: Dmitry Berezhkov

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