leaders of the island of Sakhalin in the far east of Russia have joined
forces as a new wave of oil and gas development on the island is
encroaching on their traditional lands.
On March 25-26, representatives of the Nivkh, Orok, Evenk, and Nanai
peoples of Sakhalin held a congress in the town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
Roughly 3,000 indigenous people make up about 0.5 percent of the
island’s total population.
Despite their small numbers, the Sakhalin aborigines are standing up
to multinational energy companies that are developing oil and gas
deposits on the island.
"The congress was very successful," said Pavel Sulyandzyga,
vice-president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the
North (RAIPON), an organization representing some 30 indigenous peoples
in Russia. "Its main achievement is that it brought all of the local
indigenous leaders together. Only by joint efforts can we effectively
defend our interests."
The indigenous congress created a council which will represent the
island’s indigenous population in negotiations with the oil companies
and Russian government authorities. The council will advocate for an
ethnographic study to assess the cultural impact of the oil and gas
projects on indigenous peoples. This independent study would also
evaluate the appropriate financial compensation that should be given to
indigenous peoples for any damage resulting from the projects.
Sakhalin’s indigenous leaders also pressed for companies engaged in
developing the island’s natural resources to contribute to an
Indigenous Development Fund that would serve to improve the economic
and social conditions of the four indigenous groups on the island. Some
oil company representatives were present at the congress.
Large-scale integrated oil and gas production started on Sakhalin in
mid-1990s when the Russian government signed agreements with a host of
energy giants such as Exxon, Shell, British Petroleum, and Russia’s
Rosneft. Now, the second stage of development is due to take place with
the construction of additional oilrigs, pipelines, processing plants,
and transportation terminals.
Sakhalin Energy, in which Shell is a majority shareholder, has
committed to bring its investment up to $10 billion on the island over
the next five years in order to extend the currently seasonal oil and
gas production year-round, according to the Sakhalin Energy website.
Sakhalin aborigines claim that the oil and gas projects are
threatening their traditional lifestyle through deforestation,
pollution, and by endangering the species that are central to their
livelihoods. Many indigenous islanders still sustain themselves through
reindeer herding and salt- and fresh-water fishing.
Some harmful impacts of oil and gas projects have already been
recorded. These include the massive herring die-off near Shell’s
offshore drilling platforms and a sharp decrease of saffron cod in
northeastern Sakhalin due to the waste dumped into the waters,
according to Pacific Environment, a California-based non-governmental
organization involved in community advocacy efforts on the island.
More damage is anticipated. The new Shell pipeline is being
constructed over a sacred Nivkh burial ground. The noise from the
construction has impacted the caribou population and driven herders
away from their traditional grazing grounds, reports Pacific
Environment. In addition, the new pipeline will be crossing salmon
The new Shell drilling platform and the pipeline connecting it to
the shore is due to be constructed near the key feeding area of the
endangered western pacific gray whale.
Shell recently announced
its intention to move the pipeline some 20 kilometers south, away from
the feeding grounds. However, Friends of the Earth, a London-based
environmental NGO, says the move will do little to salvage the gray
whale population unless the platform is moved as well.
Earlier this year, a handful of indigenous and environmental
activists mounted protests by blocking the roads to a number of oil
production facilities. The indigenous congress in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk
demonstrated a further resolve of the indigenous population to stand up
for its rights.
"I am hopeful that we will reach an agreement with the oil
companies. There are many obstacles," Sulyandzyga said. "The companies
may be disappointed by the congress’s choice of the council
members—they might have hoped for individuals more loyal to them.
However, as they saw during the congress, our choice is legitimate and
we are confident that the indigenous interests will be properly
Nevertheless, the indigenous community is determined to resume
protests should the negotiations fail to show satisfactory progress by
June 1, according to the communiqué released by RAIPON in summary of
"We hope that the unity and momentum created by the congress will
continue to serve indigenous interests even beyond the current issue of
oil development," said Sulyandzyga.
Oil company representatives were contacted several times but were unavailable for comment.
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.