In addition to being affected by open-pit coal mining, the Shors are impacted by gold mining companies that expropriate their land, pollute the environment and kill their flora and fauna. To make matters worse, the companies do not make financial contributions to the municipalities, nor do they comply with the processes of prior consultation. The traditional economy of the Shors, their way of life, their culture and their food are in danger.

By Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial Brussels (ADC)*.

Indigenous Debates, 30 November, 2021 – At least eight mines operate in the vicinity of Shor villages, on the Magyza, Balyksu, Bolshoy Nazas, Zaslonka, Orton, Fedorovka and Bazas rivers. These rivers are the only source of drinking water for the villages and for the communities’ traditional economies: raising livestock and hunting the wild animals of the Siberian taiga. Mining also contaminates fish, an irreplaceable food in the diet of the Shors, while wild fish-eating animals have migrated to remote areas that are inaccessible to hunters.

Included in the category of Indigenous Peoples’ Traditional Residence and Activity Territories, Shor villages must be protected by law against commercial exploitation and destruction of nature. In addition, Shor lands within the Russian region of Khakassia are included within “specially protected territories of traditional natural use”, where any activity that threatens natural resources is prohibited. However, despite legal protection, gold mining and the number of mining operators have increased over the last five years.

Artificial lake formed as a result of gold mining near the Balyksu River. In the background, the settlement of gold prospectors can be seen. Photo: Vyacheslav Krechetov

Pollution of rivers, tributaries and streams

Since gold is extracted from the upper reaches of rivers, water bodies located downstream are the most affected. Residents of Askizsky District report that the Khakassia Gold-Mining Cooperative has been discharging untreated contaminated water into the Balyksu River. In 2020, the water was found to exceed the permitted concentration of pollutants such as iron, copper, zinc and petroleum derivatives by five times.

In the Kemerovo region, the Novy Bazas gold mining company, whose licensed territories extend for 32 kilometres, polluted the Bazas and Orton rivers, as well as numerous tributaries and streams that supply water to the villages of Orton, Trekhrechye and Ilyinka. Water resources and several fish species have been severely affected. During the spring and summer of 2021, some residents of Trekhrechye were poisoned after consuming fish. Complaints filed by residents with the local government, supervisory bodies and the prosecutor’s office were ignored.

The main danger to the rivers is the artificial alteration of their watercourse. The miners use this technique to get as much gold as possible for the duration of the land licence. They change the direction of the stream artificially and extract the metal found in the original bed. However, when they finish the activity, they do not return the watercourse to its place. This causes rivers to lose depth and become polluted with petroleum derivatives, manganese and mercury, which accumulate in the areas affected by mining.

The main danger to rivers is the artificial alteration of their watercourse. The miners use this technique to get as much gold as possible for the duration of the land licence.

Also, changing the direction of a river’s course causes blockages during the snowmelt season, which means that villages are flooded in spring. During this process, the bottom flattens out and the water begins to have less oxygen as it is generated by cavities, rocks and other natural formations in the riverbed. When summer arrives, the river becomes warmer and is covered with blue-green algae, which affects the native flora and fauna.

Flooded quarries occupy large areas of land due to the removal of the rock mass. These quarries are deeper than the river level and therefore the surrounding water drains in that direction. As a result, numerous artificial lakes began to appear in places where forests and fields used to be. During spring, the water level in these lakes rises, causing floods that affect land flora and fauna.

A new bed. The washing machine pours gravel directly into the river. Photo: Vyacheslav Krechetov

Illegal logging, livestock and wildlife

During the exploration stage, prior to extraction, a huge number of ecosystems are also affected. In 2021, the shors of the villages of Orton, Ilyinka, Uchas and Trekhrechye located in the Kemerovo region had to deal with illegal geological explorations by Novy Bazas, which diminished agricultural land and polluted the area with construction materials. Similar violations of environmental laws were also recorded in the Askizsky District, where areas used for cattle grazing, hay gathering and berry and mushroom picking were affected by the activities of the Khakassia Gold-Mining Cooperative.

Mining also affects Siberian wildlife. Animal species such as the common grayling, capercaillie, elk and sable marten have almost completely disappeared from the forested areas surrounding Shor villages. Numerous mines are located along the migration routes of hoofed animals such as deer and elk. During the spring and autumn migrations, the noise from the mines and the disturbance of the environment stress the animals, and force them to look for new areas to live. Of course, fish cannot spawn in areas where gold is mined.

According to environmental protection laws, gold companies are responsible for environmental remediation of land affected by mining activity. However, despite promises made by the miners, this obligation is often not fulfilled. Although complaints have been made by the inhabitants and there are clear cases of environmental contamination, the licences of the mining companies operating in the vicinity of the Shor villages have never been revoked or suspended.

The ancestral meadows of the Ilyinka villagers were destroyed by the Novy Bazas mining company. Photo: Vyacheslav Krechetov

Uncontrolled licences and decisions without prior consent

The Shor community has been almost completely excluded from the decision-making process when determining whether or not to grant a mining licence on a territory where traditional activities are carried out. For example, the residents of the Shor village of Neozhidanny only found out that the land had been granted to gold mining cooperatives when heavy machinery was in the vicinity of their village and when industrial and clearing work began.

The agricultural lands of several members of the community were also destroyed. In addition, the only road, from the village to the cemetery and the hunting and gathering areas in the forest, was blocked by a checkpoint that can only be crossed by mining workers. While the authorities claim that a public hearing was held in the presence of local Shors, the villages claim that none of their members participated in or were aware of the activity.

An identical situation of violation of the principles of consent occurred in the Shor villages located in Kemerovo Oblast: Orton, Trekhrechye, Uchas, and Ilyinka. In recent years, at least three licenses for mining in the vicinity of Shor villages have been granted without any public hearings. The lack of prior consultation affects Shor people’s self-determination under international law.

The inhabitants of the village of Neozhidanny found out about the landing of a mining cooperative when heavy machinery was in the vicinity. Photo: Vyacheslav Krechetov

All loss for the Shors

Despite causing so much environmental and social damage in the territories traditionally occupied by the Shors, almost none of the mining companies are registered in the municipalities where they drill underground. This means that the taxes they pay do not contribute to local budgets. Thus, the Shors are surrounded by territories used for mining, but do not receive any benefits.

The traditional areas where the Shors of Khakassia and the Kemerovo region live do not have shops, schools, medical facilities or proper roads connecting the villages to the district centres. The unemployment rate in Shor territories is almost 40% higher than the average rate in the region. The only sources of income are agriculture and products related to traditional activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering. But there are fewer and fewer traditional economic activities due to environmental destruction.

It is difficult to hunt on the traditional lands of the Shors. Not only because of environmental degradation, but also because the mining companies prevent access to hunting areas or threaten to prevent entry to those who publicly protest against gold mining. Unfortunately, the companies have a lot of influence: a manager of the Pay-Cher-2 cooperative is a leaseholder of forest land and, at the same time, owner of a private hunting business that borders on land where the Shors hunt. This contradicts the Federal Wildlife Act, which enshrines the right of indigenous peoples to preferential use of wildlife in their traditional territories.

Outcrop of granite rocks (waste mountains) in Gora Kuylyum. Photo: Vyacheslav Krechetov

Challenges for the Shors

The fact that the Shors are in the category of “small indigenous peoples” means that they are under the special protection of Russian law and that the state should ensure their development and well-being. However, on the contrary, they are gradually losing their traditional lands, activities and income due to gold and coal mining. This represents a threat to their identity, their language, their culture and their very existence. Like other indigenous peoples living in the Russian Federation, the Shors have a high level of urbanisation, which is a direct consequence of mining and general state policy.

Therefore, it is important to disseminate information about violations of indigenous rights in order to ensure a prosperous life for those Shors who continue to live a traditional way of life. Recently, the efforts of activists and human rights defenders helped initiate a dialogue on alluvial gold mining. Thus, in October 2021, it was made public that the government of Khakassia was considering a moratorium on licensing gold mining companies.

*Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial Brussels (ADC) is an NGO working for the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups in the region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples.