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Russia: Sakhalin authorities and Exxon playing Divide and Conquer

The 4000 indigenous peoples living in the North of Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East are confronted with an attempt to roll back all progress achieved during their 2005 protests. Now, the regional government refuses to recognize their representatives and scraps the most important instrument for protecting indigenous rights in the planning of extractive industries operations. Meanwhile, the oil giant Exxon builds a new terminal, which many fear will severaly harm the enviroment and the indigenous peoples of Sakhalin.

The Island of Sakhalin just off the Pacific coast of Russia is one of the areas of Russia most affected by oil and gas development. In 2005, the indigenous peoples together with environmentalists held major protests to demand change in the corporate conduct. While Sakhalin Energy, the joint venture initially led by the Anglo-Dutch Shell corporation was the initial target of the protests, and the regional administration initially agreed to a settlement, the other large company, Exxon, never followed the example set by its competitor.

On 21 December 2013, the indigenous peoples of Sakhalin convened an extraordinary congress, where they held early elections to their principal representative body, the Council of Authorised Representatives of indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North of Sakhalin region. They also elected a new representative of Sakhalin’s indigenous peoples to the regional parliament. Both the old board chair and the regional administration refused to recognise the election result.

Indigenous peoples demanding recognition of their choices In March, the new Council jointly with the board of the Association of indigenous peoples of Sakhalin addressed an appeal, signed by chair Alexandra Nyavan, to Yuri Trutnev, Plenipotentiary of the president of the Russian Federation in the far Eastern Federal district and the Procurator General of the Russian Federation Yuri Chaika, denouncing continued severe violations of their rights..

In their appeal, they demand from the authorities the recognition of their new leadership and their representation to the federal parliament at the extraordinary congress, the revocation of permits for the construction of a temporary shipping terminal by the oil giant Exxon in Piltun bay, which was approved without the mandatory ethnological expert review, they also demand an investigation of the botched state ethnological expert review for the project. Further they denounce the regional government’s decision to allocate industrial fishing grounds (rybopromyslovye uchastki, RPU) on several rivers in the North of Sakhalin within indigenous peoples’ settlement areas and the government’s interference with the vote at last regular congress of Sakhalin’s indigenous peoples held in 2012. Finally, they demand the investigation of a recent incident, by with an indigenous-managed collective farm in the North of Sakhalin was captured and transferred into the hands of persons affiliated with the current governor of Sakhalin. History

History The origins of the history can be traced back to the struggle of the indigenous peoples of Sakhalin island nearly ten years ago against violations of their rights by the Sakhalin administration and companies developing the oil and gas fields of the island and the adjacent shelf. The administration and the company ignored the rights and demands of the indigenous peoples of Sakhalin, and indigenous peoples, together with environmentalists, responded with rallies and pickets.

As a result of this struggle, in 2006 the Regional Council of Authorised Representatives of Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of Sakhalin region was established, with Alexey Limanzo at its head, a respected and outspoken indigenous rights defender, who also had been leading the 2005 protests. The council eventually negotiated a partnership agreement with "Sakhalin energy”, the operator of the Sakhalin II gas project and the regional administration. The cooperation agreement established a community development and assistance plan for the indigenous small-numbered peoples of Sakhalin region, which still operates today. As part of the plan, a grievance mechanism was established along with various other measures to ensure transparency and accountability, something, which is exceptionally rare in contemporary Russia. Also, Sakhalin Energy has actively contributed to the development of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Unfortunately, other major companies operating on Sakhalin, such as Rosneft and Exxon Neftegaz Ltd never followed suit. Rather than negotiating a genuine partnership, they chose to occasionally support individual charitable activities, agreed with the regional administration.

Two years later, the regional administration succeed in having Alexey Limanzo removed as the Council’s Chairman. As RAIPON’s Vice President, he began to work at the Association’s main office in Moscow. Since 2010 he also heads the Union of obshchinas (communities of small indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia. Subsequently, the Council’s focus shifted away from defending indigenous peoples’ access to land and resources to organizing cultural events and failed to address indigenous grievances. This led to growing dissatisfaction. Prominent indigenous personalities began to public speak out for change. The popular Nivkh writer Vladimir Sangi who had been the first President of the Association of indigenous peoples of the North of the USSR, established back in 1990, and the first President of the indigenous association of Sakhalin region G.N. Pagin jointly appeared in regional media and spoke out in favour of the extraordinary Congress and denounced the numerous violations of indigenous peoples’ rights they had whitnessed. Sangi alledged that the indigenous peoples were on the brink of humanitarian disaster.

The Congress elected Alexei Limanzo to be the new representative of indigenous peoples to the regional Duma. Currently the government still refuses to accept its outcomes and both the old head of the Council, which is recognized by the administration, and the new leader, elected at the extraordinary Congress of 21 December 2013 operate in parallel.

Exxon exploiting division In parallel to these events, the State ecological expert review of the project of Exxon’s terminal in Piltun Bay was undertaken. A coalition of non-governmental organizations, led by Sakhalin Environmental Watch, conducted a civic ecological expertise of this project, which they fear will severely harm the environment and the indigenous peoples of Sakhalin. They document that the indigenous peoples were not consulted and that Exxon failed to carry out the required ethnological expert review. Taking into account the conclusions of the civic review presented , 17 January 2014, the authorities decided to prolong the State ecological expert review for another 2 months. "Sakhalin Environmental Watch" also notified Sakhalin’s Prosecutor General of Exxon’s failure to conduct an ethnological expert review. The Prosecutor however saw no cause for action.

On 01. February, .2014 Exxon held a meeting to which it had invited the old leadership, which had been voted out in December 2013. The minutes of the meeting read: "representatives of the Council and the representative of the indigenous small-numbered peoples to the Sakhalin regional Duma took note of the information provided. Objections to the planned operations have not been expressed" (Protocol provided "Sakhalin Environmental Watch").

Sakhalin scraps ethnological impact assessments Simultaneously the Sakhalin government published a draft measure on its web site, entitled "On the introduction of changes to the Statute of the administration of the Sakhalin area of 14. March 2007 ? 45-PA ‘On the approval of the Statute on the procedure for the conduct of ethnological expert reviews on the territories of traditional residence of indigenous peoples of the North of Sakhalin oblast’". site. This measure, which was quickly adopted, is a major blow to indigenous peoples affected by extractive industries. It specifies, that ethnological expert reviews need to be conducted only “in cases stipulated by the Russian Federal legislation”. The change effectively scraps the entire mechanism of ethnological expert reviews, since Russia’s current federal legislation does not prescribe them in any case whatsoever. The regulation mandating ethnological expert reviews on the territories of traditional residence of indigenous peoples of Sakhalin region was adopted in 2007 at the climax of progressive development. At present, the Sakhalin Government and the extractive companies are taking their revenge.

Tags: Land rights, Facts, Climate action


IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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