International Policy Digest

World News /30 Sep 2020
09.30.20

Balancing Competing Interests Between Mining Companies and Indigenous Peoples

Today, the world is understandably transfixed with the coronavirus pandemic.

This, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, has spotlighted minority group rights worldwide. The pressure to address climate change also continues to grow.

But there is another, far less publicized issue that has also exacerbated economic inequality: threats to Indigenous communities all over the globe.

Until now, the diversity and heritage concerns of Indigenous peoples have not been accorded anywhere near the same respect, in part, because they are more diffuse and sometimes harder to measure.

Mining companies, however, seem to be making laudable efforts to tackle such problems. Russia’s metals and mining giant Nornickel for one appears to be taking proactive and ambitious measures to tangibly improve the lives of Indigenous peoples living on the land where Nornickel has established itself. In September, the company signed a cooperation agreement with the associations representing the Indigenous peoples of the Taimyr Peninsula, a remote Arctic land dubbed “the last Frontier of Russia,” offering a five-year support programme worth 2 billion roubles (over €22 million at the current exchange rate).

The sustainability memorandum also seeks to protect Indigenous communities in the Russian north and preserve their traditional way of life.

This big move to illustrate Nornickel’s commitment to engaging with Indigenous communities comes after a catastrophic late-May fuel diesel spill in Norilsk compelled a few Indigenous groups to launch a campaign to boycott the company’s products. Shortly after the spill, another global miner, Rio Tinto, faced outrage after it destroyed a 46,000-year-old Indigenous heritage site in Western Australia, forcing its CEO to apologize and resign.

Nornickel’s new support programme serves as a “template” for the wider mining industry and includes a wide range of initiatives aimed at protecting and supporting the natural habitat and traditional activities of Indigenous peoples. The money will be used to build new homes, hospitals, and schools, in addition to financing infrastructural and cultural projects.

Nornickel plant. (Marina Lystseva/TASS)

The initiative could not be timelier, as it comes with increasing demands for more transparency in how mining companies deal with Indigenous peoples on issues such as environmental damage and the exploitation of natural resources.

Recently, another mining giant, BHP Billiton, was accused of destroying at least 40 significant Aboriginal sites belonging to the Banjima people in the central Pilbara region of Western Australia as part of its A$4.5 billion expansion plans.

Anglo American, another of the world’s biggest mining companies, recently submitted nearly 300 applications to dig for gold and other minerals inside Indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon.

Mining companies are increasingly facing new pressures and, accordingly, the need to set new objectives, including environmental protection and supporting Indigenous communities. Nornickel’s initiative was drawn up not unilaterally but on the basis of 100 interviews and numerous polls of Indigenous communities.

The creation of seasonal jobs in tourism and other industries, reindeer husbandry, fishing, and hunting were identified as priorities for financial support. The company’s 40 new initiatives also include workshops for reindeer and fish processing, new refrigeration units, the construction of ethical fur processing workshops, and subsidies for helicopter transportation.

Andrey Grachev, Nornickel’s Vice President for Federal and Regional Programmes, said the programme is aimed at “stimulating the economic activity of the Indigenous peoples and facilitating the use of renewable resources – the basis of their traditional lifestyle.”

Grigory Ledkov, President of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North in Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, added that the agreement “can serve as an example for other companies, as it emphasizes the importance of preserving the habitat of Indigenous people and protecting [their] values and traditions.”

“This agreement will help us find new joint approaches to sustainable living and working in the North, as well as resolve other pressing issues facing local communities,” he said.

The need to work closely with Indigenous populations recently took an even greater sense of urgency after the NGO, Global Witness, reported the highest number of land and environmental defenders murdered on record in a single year, with 212 people killed in 2019 for peacefully defending their homes and standing up to the destruction of natural environments.

With 50 defenders killed, mining was, sadly, the deadliest sector globally in 2019.

Global Witness’ Rachel Cox said: “Mining has been consistently among the biggest drivers of attacks against land and environmental defenders.”

Amongst these killings was the murder of Datu Kaylo Bontolan, who opposed illegal mining in the Philippines. A Manobo leader, he was one of many indigenous people killed in 2019 for asserting their rights to self-determination and protecting their ancestral lands from those looking to exploit their natural resources.

Under increased crackdowns and surveillance during COVID-19 lockdowns, protecting Indigenous environmental activists is all the more vital for rebuilding a safer and greener planet.

Currently, no sector is immune to human rights violations. Even Disney is under fire for filming its latest blockbuster, Mulan, in Xinjiang, where China has detained more than 1 million people, mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs, in re-education camps.

The issue of protecting Indigenous environmentalist activists, in particular, has also come on the EU’s agenda, with the European Parliament recently calling on the European Commission to propose rules for companies to “prevent EU financial entities or banks from being linked to deforestation, forest degradation or degradation of natural ecosystems, which often causes Indigenous residents to be subjected to human rights violations.”

Members of the European Parliament have nominated Chief Raoni, the charismatic leader of Brazil’s Indigenous group, the Kayapo people, for the 2019 Sakharov human rights prize.

Chief Raoni has crusaded to save his homeland – the Amazon rainforest – for four decades and is described as a living symbol of the tribes’ “fight for life” – a fight to protect their unique culture.

The “profit first” mentality definitely has its downsides and the world is paying the price.

The onus is now on investors, activists, and governments to come up with new ways to balance competing interests.

When Rio Tinto destroyed a 46,000-year-old Indigenous heritage site, the world’s anger took the company by surprise. Indigenous groups, Australian politicians, and, crucially, investors were furious.

As a result, all mining companies found themselves in a precarious position and now have no choice but to protect their reputations by becoming more sustainable and environmentally friendly, and by engaging and protecting Indigenous communities.

Nornickel believes that it is working towards that end. Long before the new agreement was signed, the company provided a wide breadth of social and economic support for Indigenous populations in the Taimyr Peninsula, including funding for air transportation, building materials and diesel fuel, and cultural events and celebrations.

The world’s largest producer of palladium and high-grade nickel, Nornickel allocated over €3 million to helping Indigenous people between 2018 and 2020, in what it considers a “long history of close cooperation” with organizations representing the interests of Indigenous communities in the regions of its operations. This latest step in its commitment to helping Indigenous peoples, Nornickel is setting an example to others by “ensuring transparency in decision-making,” said its VP Grachev, and making sure that “joint projects are implemented in the most efficient manner possible.”