Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Moscow’s Drive for Oil Pushing Peoples of the North toward ‘Edge of Extinction,’ Sakirko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 11 – Moscow’s drive to extract more oil and gas is leading not only to massive spills and the despoiling of the environment especially in the Russian North but to the destruction of the land on which the numerically small peoples of the North depend and consequently pushing them toward extinction, Elena Sakirko says.

            The assistant head of energy programs at Greenpeace Russia says that the only hopeful sign is that some of the members of these communities are beginning to resist, although most are being kept quiet as a result of joint acts of intimidation by the oil and gas companies in collusion with the Russian government (

            Sakirko points out that Russia is the world’s leading in oil spills but just how many they are is generally something the companies and the authorities are able to hide. But it is estimated that 97 percent of these spills happen because aging pipes are not replaced in a timely manner and because the companies can avoid responsibility for the damage the spills do.

            The situation is worsened, the ecological activist continues, because Russian companies don’t extract all the oil they could from existing fields by using modern technologies but simply close those fields down and move on to others, leaving the old fields to rust out and leak oil into the surrounding ground and water.

            Russian companies have more than enough profits to pay for ensuring that aging pipelines are replaced and modern technologies are used to extract all the oil that can be instead of as now allowing large numbers of spills large and small to take place each year and leaving an estimated 30 percent of extractable oil in old fields.

            Unfortunately, they are under no pressure from either their managements which are trying to make as large a profit as possible in as short a time as possible or the government which still seems to prefer extensive rather than intensive development regardless of what that means for the environment or the population, Sakirko continues.

            But increasingly they face organized opposition from local people who can see how what the oil companies and Moscow are doing affects their way of life and even lives, she says. She points to the findings of a recent survey in the Komi Republic showing the growth of opposition to the oil companies (

                Oil spills, the Komis say, have worsened the quality of drinking water, reduced the stock of fish in rivers and otherwise disrupted the traditional economic activities of their nation. And they point out that none of the promised “benefits” of development – better roads and higher incomes – have come to members of their community.

            Ninety-five percent of the residents of the districts where the survey was carried out, Sakirko says, live in housing that is not connected to natural gas, “and a large part of them lack Internet connectivity.” In addition, they do not have adequate hospitals or day care for their children.

            In many ways, she suggests, the situation among the Komis may be less bad than elsewhere in the Russian North because of the work of the Committee to Save the Pechora that has functioned for more than 25 years and that has forced the oil companies to be somewhat more careful in their dealings with the population.

            In the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District, there have been real problems because Surgutneftegaz has moved not only into areas where the local indigenous people live and work but into supposedly protected national parks and preserves, actions that have sparked controversy over the fate of the Numto Park and its lakes.

            Local residents, Sakirko says, “began to send letters to the ministry of natural resources and to the [local] administration with request not to change the zoning of the park.” They did so after the company organized hearings supposedly for that purpose but in fact simply to provide cover for what they had already succeeded in having officials do.

            Residents came to the hearings and “a large segment” spoke against what the company was doing, an action that was “the first time that such hearings took place with such social condemnation.” But residents soon discovered the company’s ruse and complained for generally to various Russian academic institutions.

            Initially, there was no coverage of all this, Sakirko says; but then the company violated what is for the animist residents a local holy lake and its shaman – and that triggered demands that did receive coverage that the oil company not be allowed to destroy the lake.  The company countered by promising to build an Orthodox church for the local population.

            These protests by the population highlighted a serious problem: “there does not exist a legal mechanism when [the local people most immediately affected] can say ‘no’” to the oil companies. Moreover, they have few defenses against the joint actions of the companies and local administrations who arrest on trumped up charges those who stand up to the companies.

            The Numto Park case and that of its shaman have attracted media attention in Moscow and the West, Sakirko notes; but she points out that in this enormous region, “there are many cases about which no one writes or reads.” And that pattern which works to the benefit of the companies and the Russian state is driving the local populations to despair.

            In fact, she says, there are no situations when representatives of the indigenous peoples commit crimes which as a rule they are forced to commit as a result of the presence of the oil companies,” the last and often most violent form of protest of communities which are now on the edge of extinction.

            Many beyond this region, Sakirko says, are indifferent to the passing of these nations. But as a result, “our world will become more homogenized;” and everyone everywhere will be the loser.

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