Mining in the Kola Peninsula. Photo: Atle Staalesen

Drops of blood on gray crystal

In a Russian Klondike, a platinum deposit is being prepared for development without asking permission from the indigenous people
November 18, 2020

By Tatiana Britskaya

 

The mineral eudialyte on the Kola Peninsula is called “Saami blood”. The pinkish-red crystals are found on the western slopes of the Khibiny Mountains. Under ultraviolet light, they begin to glow red, as if drops of blood have appeared on the gray stones. According to legend, these stones grew where the Saami people and their reindeer, driven from their ancestral lands by strangers, shed their blood.

A highway through the cemetery

The acclaimed scholar Alexander Fersman, whose discoveries in mineralogy changed life at the foot of the Khibiny, named these stones scattered in the tundra kalyamai saamskoy krovy, drops of Saami blood. In the neighboring cities that grew up there, Apatity and Kirovsk, you enter through the Ekostrovsky Strait. The bridge to the cape that has been thrown over the narrows of Lake Imandra  reaches a place that was an island before human intervention. Mogilny, the cemetery, is what the dam builders, who were afraid of working there, called this island. The island has been the Saami ancient burial ground of the Ecostrovsky village for many centuries. The road was built along it.

Apatity is a naukograd, a science city, a city that owes not only its name, but also the very birth of apatite-nepheline ore. As long as there are reserves in Kirovsk, the place where the ore that is transported to Apatite factories for enrichment originates, the city lives on. They built the city, like Kirovsk, for the needs of the plant. It seems that we long ago forgot how to build cities where people want to live. Now, we build towns where industry needs them and we bring people there and leave them with their only choice being to integrate into the giant mechanism or die.

Kirovsk, which was originally known as Khibinogorsk, stands on the bones of the specialist settlers who built the combine and the city in the snow and tundra. Kirovsk is gloomy and cold and its Stalin era apartments still stand unshakably at the foot of the mountains. Apatity is a different city because it looks alive and young. But it is also built on destroyed villages.

Ecostrovsky Pogost is a Saami settlement that was first mentioned in writing in 1574.

For 400 years the Saami lived on the banks of the Imandra. There, they fished,  hunted the forest animals and paid tributes to the Russian Tsars in Kola and to the Danish kings in Vardo. In the time of Tsar Peter, a hundred men were conscripted into the army from the village. The village was almost emptied of men but the place survived. They carried mail on the backs of reindeer along the road from Kola to Kandalaksha and by water on the Karbas. When the geologists came, the Saami became guides. And almost no one, if we are glorifying the pioneers of the Arctic, will remember that there would be no Apatite without the Ecostrovsky Saami. The first batch of ore was taken from the Rasvumchorr plateau on reindeer sleds by Zosima Kuimov, a resident of the village in 1926.

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Reindeer on Russian tundra. Photo: Atle Staalesen

 

And then the road was paved through the Ekostrovsky Strait. The village was officially abolished, its inhabitants moved closer to the “iron road”. And when the end came, going to the island for burial was called “going for water” and the road to the heavenly tundra crossed the dam. But it was also noted that because a person’s life meant nothing under the tread of industrialization, so their death did not mean anything either.

An attempt to deceive the North

The industrialization of the North has always been seen as an attempt to play with nature. A person cannot live and build cities on the ice but the Russians did anyway. But now the once big cities beyond the Arctic Circle have become unprofitable. People do not want to live here and eventually leave. Over the last 20 years, the population of the Murmansk region has decreased from 1.2 million to 740 thousand and the population of Apatity from 88 thousand to 54.

The industrialization of the Arctic originally attracted masses of the population in stages to the sparsely populated Far North including those who were transported against their will. At first, workers were needed in the quarries, mines, factories and production facilities. But then the ore began to run out and the factories began to decay. Nikel, Afrikanda, Kovdor, these were once career towns but now are more or less closed and the people remaining have become beggars.

“We have 80 years of ore left. After that,  the plant is likely to close,” says Olga Shcherbakova, editor-in-chief of a local independent newspaper.

- And what will happen to the city?

“It simply won’t be here anymore” she replied calmly.

We are in the Kukisvumchorr region at the foot of a mountain that cannot be seen in the fog. Olya grew up here and started working at the plant where her father used to work. She knows everything about the city. She knows how it was born and knows how it will die.

The crisis in the polar cities is not a problem for any of the regions particularly. The entire Russian Arctic is in decline. The country simply cannot afford it. But there are economics and there are politics. And for several years now, the pundits have been going on about how the Arctic agenda is a priority for the development of Russia. They say a new wave of industrialization of the Arctic will bring new hope. Or it is but a second round of lies designed to deceive the North. In one of his books with the idiotic title “Compromises”,  the famous author Sergei Dovlut mentioned with both irony and sadness that “The communists conquered the tundra!”. This is what it says. I was sure that Dovlut himself had come up with this absurd name until I found a copy of the book in my parents’ library. Our new progressive thinkers believe we are going to conquer the tundra again.

100 grams of platinum per ton

In June, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev instructed the Federal Agency for Subsoil Use (ROSNEDRA) to speed up work on renewing the license for the use of mineral resources in the Fedorov tundra, 80 km from Apatity.

It is the largest platinum deposit in the world. However, these are also places of worship for the Saami people.

The Pansko-Fedorov tundra was explored in the 80s. Their reserves are estimated at 300 tons of palladium and 70 tons of platinum. This is a chain of rocky hills in the very center of the Kola Peninsula. The salmon-rich Ponoi and Varzuga rivers are fed by the water of the Panskie tundra. It was there that in the early 2000s, the Canadian company Barrick Gold, a world leader in gold mining, was going to build two mines, an enrichment plant, an auto and railroad branch and a workers’ settlement. Cooperation with Norilsk Nickel was also considered. The enrichment work was supposed to be carried out at the Severonikel combine, another Nornickel company in neighboring Monchegorsk. The licensee was expected to produce 150 thousand tons of concentrate with an average content of platinoids up to 100 grams per ton starting in 2010. This is a rich ore.

The plans were originally hampered by the 2008 crisis. The Canadians promised to return to the project but something went wrong. RosNedra suspended the license in 2016 and at the beginning of 2020, the company holding the license was sold.

The new owner, according to Andre Chibis, the Governor of the Murmansk Region, is a consortium from the state run technology corporation Rostec and a private partner. The RBC has named people close to the Chelyabinsk Pipe-Rolling Plant as the partners and in particular Oleg Seleznev. The participation of Rostec and their “private partners” is also mentioned in the response given by the Ministry of Economic Development of the Murmansk Region to the Director of the Saami Heritage and Development Fund, Andrei Danilov and the documentation has been made available to Novaya Gazeta. Rostec itself however has not as of yet responded to Novaya’s inquiry about the Fedorov tundra.

According to data in the SPARK “Credit risk assessment” database, the joint-owners of the JSC are still two Cypriot offshore companies, which does not really fit with the words of the Vice-Governor Olga Kuznetsova who was quoted as saying “the investor’s application has been checked for signs that Fedorov Resources JSC is under the control of foreign investors.” Fedorov’s tundra is a subsoil of “federal significance”. According to the current legislation, participation of foreign capital investment in any development there is illegal.

“The number of employees is one person”

If you still believe governor Chibis, the consortium is ready to invest 60 billion rubles (€660 million) in the development of the field. This is what the governor said at a meeting of the State Commission on the Arctic. Another 6 billion would be for the creation of infrastructure provided by the federal center. The project is supported by the Far East Development Fund. Press releases promise again that there will be two quarries and a mining and processing plant to be built. And there will be 2000 jobs. This entire mega-project is tied to the already familiar license holder “Fedorovo Resource”  JSC, which is registered in Apatity. The average number of employees of the JSC, which controls the world’s largest stock of platinum, is more than modest. It consists of one person. Obviously, this person is Federova’s general director Alexander Tsikin, who was appointed the CEO of the company in April. The company’s phones though are also silent.

There is an office building on Lenin Street in Apatity where you can find everything from a notary to a travel agency. On the 4th floor of this building, you can find a piece of paper glued to an inconspicuous door with the inscription: “Fedorovo Resource”. But apart from the piece of paper, there is nothing there. The door is closed tightly, there are no signs of life behind it and certainly no traces of platinum investment.

And if the company does not exist, it is completely incomprehensible who is responsible for compliance or non-compliance with the norms of international law. And in this case, the law specifically states that before starting the development of any organization on the lands of indigenous peoples, free, informed and voluntary written consent must be obtained from them. This principle is also enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And Russia has ratified it.

According to the declaration, negotiations with indigenous peoples must be carried out before any work begins. But in this case, no one came or even spoke of coming to the Kola Saami but yet, governor Chibis has already announced that production will begin in 2027. True, the Ministry of Economic Development has clarified that there are no exact dates as none of the technical projects have passed state examination. Nevertheless, 2027 is the date named on the “preliminary implementation schedule”.

And just as a reminder, if the Saami don’t like the project, no “implementation” is possible.

Such has been the situation in neighboring Norway, Sweden and Finland. The Rovaniemi-Kirkenes railway project is stalled because the Saami said no. Perhaps it is needed for business but the Saami people historically live in these countries as well as Russia.

And the Saami are not ready to risk their pastures, ancestral lands or lifestyle for any outsider’s benefit. The Saami parliaments are blocking the project and without their agreement, no construction is impossible.

They say we are responsible for our native lands

Russia is the only country of the four where there is no Saami parliament. They simply have never recognised it. For many years, Russian officials instead maintained a kind of advisory structure that would be loyal to themselves but whose decisions would not affect anything. And this happened but the Saami remained. This is their ancestral land.

It is worth clarifying here that the Saami do not consider themselves “owners” of the land. They feel responsible for it. Protecting and managing ancestral lands is what the Saami and their families do. Their job is to make sure that no fish are bothered in the rivers, no animals are disturbed in the tundra and no evil people are allowed to step on it. Conscientious nature management is a fashionable way to talk about this today but this has always been the way of life of the northern peoples. The ancestral lands have never been given away for quarries or factories and the Saami have stood to the death for their lands. This is why the glowing crimson stones in the tundra are called “Saami blood”.

The Fedorov Tundra  Project could become the main exporter of platinum in the world in a short time and as such, is seen as the future of the region. Officials and investors are in a hurry because the Fedorovo Resources’ license expires in June 2021. But  the Fedorovo-Pan tundra also has sacred places and reindeer pastures. These places are also the Saami people’s cultural heritage.

And it is illegal to do business there without asking their permission.

No, we, of course, have allowed Moscow to rewrite the Constitution, we have allowed them to abandon the priority of international law and to place ourselves outside any European legal system. But the problem cannot be solved by just pretending that the Saami do not exist. The Saami Heritage and Development Fund has already demanded that Rostec begin its process of conscientious consultation with the local population. Murmansk officials have responded to the fund and have made their assurances that consultations with the indigenous people will happen… but this will be a little later and only when the project documentation appears. 

But above this in the same letter, they also said that the consortium was already in the process of implementing “a set of measures aimed at additional exploration and development of the Fedorov tundra deposit.” The letter also added that “The project participants could count on close cooperation with the Council of Representatives of the Indigenous Minorities of the North under the Government of the Murmansk Region.” 

What is this organ? Yes, there is the one that the office-holders created to replace the Saami parliament. It is not comme il faut for the authorities to build without the indigenous people’s consent altogether but by the book or not, giving them real power is simply not profitable. The decisions of the council are exclusively advisory in nature but the members of this body are appointees of the regional government. As an example, the First Regional Deputy Minister of Internal Policy has no obvious relationship to the Saami people but yet is on the council anyway.

“The pain of the earth is entering our souls”

Finnish-Saami artist Polina Fedorova, a participant at the Venice Biennale in 2022, said the platinum conflict could become a subject of international attention. A Saami pavilion will be organized at the exhibition and by that time, the Fedorova tundra might be capable of becoming one of the country’s main environmental hot spots.

Saami activist Andrei Danilov had this to say. 

“The indigenous peoples are being deprived of their lands, being deprived of their traditions and they are being killed as a people all for the sake of industry. And the people doing this are doing so without observing international norms and rules. I really hope that the companies will start conscientiously consulting before developing Saami lands. What is being done in Russia now is a pathetic attempt to save face. Art will help express our vision, our souls and openly declare our pain. We feel the pain of Mother Earth. This is whose pain is violating our souls.”

While promoting the “Russian Klondike” project, as the Fedorov tundra has already been christened, the deputies are also talking about developing the neighboring Lovozersky district, which the compact Saami population consider their rightful de jure territory. The developers are selling this as if it is about their efforts to bring help to the Saami people. But there are hardly any specialists who actually live in the district with the type of permissions needed to work in such a career. All the great hopes of the region, coupled with the promise of  “jobs for the local population”, usually turn into shift camps in practice. It is simply more profitable for the employer to import outside workers than to take responsibility for the maintenance of local specialists. So there is that.

This new development of the Arctic is a part of a long history of colonialism in the region. The capital only recognises the subsoil, there are no people living here.

The cost for the use of subsoil resources for the Arctic territories has been reduced this time around but so have taxes for residents. The newly created “priority development area” in Murmansk includes large investors.

Prime Minister Mishustin has also guaranteed that the Fedorov tundra will receive federal funds. He said this during his recent visit to Murmansk. Big money is at stake. But big money is also against the lives of the less than two thousand remaining Saami people. 

The snow is already sweeping through Apatity. It is so thick that one cannot see the small monument to the inhabitants of the Ecostrovsky Pogost. This is the only monument on Kola land dedicated to the indigenous people expelled from their ancestral homes. They were driven away because the country was conquering the Arctic. This progress has never brought the country either happiness or prosperity. But a hundred years later, we are going in for a second round without ever having learned to negotiate.

 

Translated by Adam Goodman


This story was orginally published in Russian by the Novaya Gazeta. It is translated and republished as part of a cross-border media initiative 

 

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