briefly noted - 16.3

The Invasion of Siberia

If Siberia holds a popular reputation as frozen wasteland and place of imprisonment, it is also treated trove of raw materials. After its conquest between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Siberia provided first the tsars, and then the Soviet Union, with oil, gas, gold, and diamonds, as well as many other valuable metals, timber, and furs. The Soviet Union's three largest earners of precious hard currency were oil, gas, and diamonds - all mainly from Siberia. In the last few years, oil production has plummeted and diamond and gold production has tapered off. By attracting foreign investor, Russia hopes to renew the exploitation of Siberia's natural wealth and improve the inflow of hard currency.

Foreign companies seem to be talking the hint. Martathon Oil, Phibro Energy, and Global Natural Resources of the United States, and Gulf Canada and Mitsui of Japan, to name just a few, have their eyes on major oil and gas projects in Western Siberia and of Sakhalin Island. Joint ventures involving United States and Japanese firms in petrochemical development in Western Siberia, Japanese-funded forestry operations and fishing in Far East, and South Korean forestry and natural-gas projects are in the initial stages of development.

Not only resource extraction companies fund the new economic and political climate attractive. As German, United States, Japanese, and other tourists visit remote Siberian lands to fish for salmon, taimen, and sturgeon, travel agencies in North America, Europe, and Japan advertise unsurpassed opportunities for biggame hunting. They hope the initial trickle of tourists will evolve into a rich flow of wealthy visitors.

Yet to whom do these resources belong? Siberia is not only a resource frontier but a homeland to over 30 indigenous peoples, numbering from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands. These peoples - Evenki, Nanay, Khakassy, yakuty, Yukagiry, and Eskimosy to name a few - have long seen the wealth of their homelands flow west to Moscow, with dire consequences for themselves and the environment.

Colonization and oppression have reduced the relative share of these peoples of 4 percent of the total population of Siberia. The smallest-numbered indigenous peoples of Siberia now have a life expectancy 16 to 18 years lower than the Russian average, largely due to alcholorelated accidents and violent deaths. The infant mortality rate is double the average, and the suicide rate is three to four times higher. Living space for the 85 percent of Siberian indigenous peoples who have settled in fixed areas is half that available to non-natives. In the center of the world's largest gas-producing region in Western Siberia, only 3 percent of native households receive gas, and only 0.1 percent have central heat.

Fossil-fuel exploitation has caused horrendous environmental degradation. In the homelands of the Khanty, Mansi, and Nentsy of northwest Siberia, "development" activities have already rendered three-fourths of the land unless for hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. As a result, cultural extinction, and even physical elimination, are very real threats for a number of peoples.

The indigenous peoples of Siberia now claim to be the rightful owners of Siberia's wealth, and they demand a say in its development. This includes the power to veto development that conflicts with activities critical to their cultural and physical survival.

While indigenous Siberians view the invasion by foreign companies with trepidation, they also see potential for improvement over the past monopoly of Moscow. Will these newcomers simply replicate the patterns of the Russian resource pirates of Yesterday? Or might indigenous groups gain a significant role in declining how and when to exploit the natural resources of their territories?

Indigenous Siberians are adopting a two-pronged approach to protecting their interests and homelands. Some are exploring the idea of creating national parks, reserves, or other designated areas to protect some land from resource exploitation. The Khanty of the Sosva River Basin, one of the few areas of oil bearing Western Siberia to escape degradation so far, are attempting to establish a "zone of life." The designated land would be set aside for traditional activities, with full protection from industrial encroachment. The Evenki of Transbaykalia, using new land-reform laws, have st up a number of "zones of priority nature use," reserved for subsistence hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding.

Siberian indigenous associations have also demanded that the Russian government adhere to the provisions of the International Labor Organization convention concerning indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries, which upholds native people's rights to control their economic, social and cultural development. The convention further requires state government to guarantee effective protection of native rights of ownership of lands and resources.

While pursuing controls and land use, indigenous Siberians are also demanding to the included in joint-venture negotiations that affect their homelands. They feel they should profit from the resource extraction that will occur. Aware of their limited power to affect negotiations between the federal government and foreign investors, they nevertheless hope to influence resource exploitation by making foreign investors aware of both their existence and their demands. At least one Canadian company (which for competitive reasons asked to remain unnamed) has responded by including indigenous Siberia representatives in its joint-venture negotiations.

Indigenous Siberians are also tapping into the experience of indigenous North Americans in dealing with fossil-fuel development, Last year, delegations of Khanty and Mansi from Western Siberia and Metis from Alberta, Canada, travelled to each other's homelands to talk about the Metis experiences with royalty negotiations, land and resource agreements, and native self-government.

The Islamization of Sudan

In June 1989, the military regime of Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan el-Beshir staged a coup that overthrew the elected Sudanese government. It also dissolved Sudan's constitution and parliament, outlawed political parties and trade unions, instituted an overnight curfew, and decreed that all women must wear traditional Islamic dress, lest they be publicly flogged.

Until Beshir's regime seized power, the Sudanese education system was independently run and autonomous. Many of the university students were not Muslims. Also, women held high rank in government, law, medicine, and education. Since the coup, Sudan has been violently transformed from one of the most progressive counties in Africa into what some consider to be the key to the spread of Muslim fundamentalism throughout much of the continent.

Backed by the National Islamic Front (NIF), the regime is attempting to convert southern Sudan to Islam and use it as a bridge for the nation to permeate neighboring Uganda, Kenya, and Syria, according to Adam Abdel Moula of New York's Lawyer's Committee on Human Rights. Sudan's population is roughly three-quarters Muslim, and one-tenth Christian. The remainder are animists, or followers of native African religions. In southern Sudan, most people practice traditional African religion or Christianity.

One of the regime's powerful mechanisms of control over the Sudanese people is the "Arabization" or "Islamization" of the entire education system. In November 1991, Beshir decreed that all classes at public universities be taught in Arabic. MOreover, al students must pass an Arabic language exam to enroll at the universities or to continue studies. Prior to this, most course had been taught in English.

This "deliberately excludes a significant portion of he southern Sudanese population from entering the university or continuing it once admitted," according to Leah Leatherbee and Hibaaq Osman from the Fund for Peace.

In addition to the students, many professors are not fluent enough to teach in Arabic, and there is a lack of Arabic textbooks available. Administrators have been dismissed as well and have been replaced by NIF members and supporters. "Professors are being dismissed or pensioned off for purely ideological reasons," Leatherbee and Osman charge. "Those in the academic community who refuse to practice self-censorship risk dismissal, imprionsment, or even torture." A 1991 provision of the Islamic Penal Code makes the reunciation of Islam punishable by death.

Restrictions on academic freedom have quickly affected education in Sudan's non-Muslim minority. At Sudan University of Science and Technology in 1992, only 11 South Sudanese were enrolled as full-time students out of as totals of 1,650. All students must take a weekly Islamic study class.

At the University of Khartourm, in the country's capital, the government moved to close down residence halls so opposition students couldn't gather there. Instead it proposed giving students the option of living on mosque grounds. Also, political associations were banned... these actions led to rising tensions between NIF and non-NIF students, which resulted in the closure of the university during the fall of 1991.

The university reopened in January 1992. In February, students who had not been able to take their year-end exams due to the closure were told they would be rescheduled in only two weeks. Thousands of students staged a boycott. "Some students were taken at gunpoint from their rooms at night to off-campus testing centers - some in military barracks and police stations," write Leatherbee and Osman. When the exams were finally held in March and April, security forces occupied the university.

Over 35 students in the past two years have been expelled from the University of Kartoum solely on political grounds. One such student, who requested anonymity, is now living in the United States. He was a vocal member of the student union, which opposed the NIF, and an organizer of the exam boycott. He says he was expelled for speaking out in favor of democracy. accused of apostasy, he told Cultural Survival Quarterly that he did not feel safe in Sudan. "If you're lucky, they'll put you in jail for two months," he says.

The Beshir regime's control of education also includes primary and secondary schools. Only two Sudanese schools can legally teach in English, Unity High School and the American School. Parents of students in the schools must sign a waiver giving up the right for their children to take the Sudan School Certificate Exam. This excludes them from continuing their education after high school anywhere in Sudan.

At the University of Juba in southern Sudan, the enrollment of students from the south dropped this year from 80 to 90 percent to about 25 percent, according to Leatherbee and Osman. In search of other educational opportunities students in Juda have attempted to escape to rebel Sudan People's LIberation Army areas or to neighboring countries. Since November 1991, 62 of these students have been arrested, according to Amnesty International. The Fund for Peace has confirmed reports that 30 to 40 additional students were shot to death for trying to escape Juba.

Circle of Resistance Against Gold Mining

"I don't feel progress should come to where we have to wonder if the water we all survive by may be deadly," protests Nadine Alvardo, from Fort Belknap reservation in the Little Rocky Mountains of central Montana. Home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine peoples, Fort Belknap is situated only a few miles northeast of a gold mine that Alvarado believes threatens the environment and her people.

Zortman-Landusky gold mine, a subsidiary of Pegausus Gold, Inc., is responsible for the mining. And if the company completes its next expansion, more than a billion gallons of cyanide solution could be released over the next few years into the main watershed that feeds Fort Belknap's aquifer.

Joe Azure, chairperson of Red Thunder, Inc., an organization that revives and practices traditional ceremonies, worries that not only the environment but the cultural survival of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine is at stake. For many years the lIttle Rocky Mountains have been a source of substance, water, and healing medicines for many Native Americans, as well as the location of traditional ceremonies. For example, in the "vision questing" ceremony, which requires quite and solitude, the participants fast and spend four days and nights alone in the mountains. With bulldozing, dynamite explosion, and bright lights that remain on throughout the night as miners continually work, a vision quest" is difficult, if not futile. "If these distractions are too extensive, the ...site will have to be abandoned," tribal elder and spiritual leader Virgil McConnell has testified.

The first gold rush in the Little Rocky Mountains started around 1864, continuing intermittently until the 1950s as high-grade ores were exhausted. The current gold rush began in the late 1970s with the advent of the cyanide heap leaching process, which makes it possible to profitably mine low-grade ore. But the process is also potentially dangerous to the environment. The insides of mountains are blasted out and taken to a "leach pad" - a valley lined with plastic and filled with blasted rock. A cayanide-water solution is sprayed over the heaps for several months. After extracting the gold filled solution, the heap is 'neutralized" and, theoretically, the land can be reclaimed.

Water samples taken last summer by Red Thunder showed elevated levels of leads on the reservation just below the mines. Red Thunder also discovered that water tests conducted by the Montana Department of State Lands showed elevated levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, manganese, and nitrates.

With Red Thunder first filed an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals about the most recent mining expansion, the Department of State Lands withheld the results of its tests. Moreover the Water Quality Bureau of Montana has yet to respond to Red Thunder's request to conduct further water tests.

"The difficulty in preventing Zortman from continual expansion is because of their piecemeal fashion of applying for permits," says Donald Marble, a lawyer who is volunteering his services to Red Thunder. Marble explains that environmental assessment of each individual expansion minimizes the cumulative environmental and social effects. The Bureau of Land Management has not sought a full environmental impact statement that would consider both past and present mining operations.

Red Thunder has filed a second appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, protesting the expansion permit for the leach pad. The appeal charges Zortman with violating the National Environmental Protection Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the National Historical Preservation Act.

Red Thunder and Azure feel that the Bureau of Land Management repeatedly failed to adequately inform people in Fort Belknap of the possible consequences from mining. The first briefing held at the reservation was not until March 1990, and it came at the request of Fort Belknap. Yet the American Religious Freedom Act requires the bureau to consult traditionalists about anything that might affect religious activities. Also, the National Environmental Protection Act obliges the bureau to fully explore the social-cultural impacts of mining to the Fort Belknap Community. The bureau has not yet fulfilled this mandate.

A major stumbling block for dealing with Zortman is the 1872 General Mining Law, which Azure calls a "giveaway of precious metals in public lands." Anyone can buy federal land with known hard-rock ore deposits, as long as the land is not part of a park or wilderness area. Created to encourage migration westward in the 1800s, the law makes no provision for environmental protection or reclamation.

Over the years, large mining firms have lobbied to block changes in the law, but an amendment is currently in the Senate to impose more stringent environmental restrictions. The measures would mandate that royalties from mining go to the federals government to fund reclamation and enable the federal government to prohibit mining completely.

Land Demarcation in Brazil

On May 25, 1992, after an impassioned and often venomous national debate, President Fernando Collor de Mello affirmed the demarcation of Yanomami lands in Brazil. This historic event, which officially recognized Yanomami rights to 23.2 million acres (1.1 percent of Brazil's territory), occurred 24 years after the first proposal to demarcate Yanomami lands. Nevertheless, the question remains: what is the future for Brazilian Indians - and not only the Yanomami - in their quest for secure land rights?

Brazil's 1988 constitution describes indigenous lands as those lands that indigenous peoples inhabit permanently, that are essential for conserving environmental resources deemed necessary for their welfare, and the conform with indigenous usages, customs, and traditions. The constitution grants Indians the right to use the land - with the exception of subsoil resources - although the State continues to own it. The constitution also calls for all Indian lands to be demarcated and affirmed by the government by 1993.

The Yanomami provide an example of the complex issues surrounding the demarcation of Indian lands. The year before the 1988 constitution took effect, tents to thousands of gold prospetors flooded Yanomani lands. This invasion left approximately 1,500 of the 10,000 Brazilian Yanomami dead. The survivors face a legacy of unfamiliar Western diseases and a pollution-fouled environment.

The international outcry that followed the invasion helped focus attention within Brazil on demarcation issues. Collar pledged to remove the prospectors from the land and signed a demarcation decree in November 1991. Soon afterwards, the Congress agreed to allocate the necessary $3 million of funding to physically demarcate the lands.

While these events are a definite step forward for the Yanomami, Davi Yanomami, a leader of his tribe, pleaded with the government not to forget the needs of other tribes, such as the Macuxi. The demarcation process has not yet begun in 112 of the 510 identified Indian areas in Brazil. It is incomplete in over half the remaining areas.

Moreover, though official affirmation is important in defending Indian land rights, it alone cannot ensure secure occupation. For example, so gold prospectors have continued to operate on Yanomami lands since the demarcation. The constancy of the threat is underscored by the director of the Union of Gold Prospectors of Roraima, who has said that "for as long as there are no jobs available to gold prospectors and a specific area is not set apart for their prospecting activities, they will not give up the riches of the Yanomami soil." The lands need to be continuously monitored and intruders expelled by the army and federal police.

Many advocates for indigenous rights, though pleased with the flurry of demarcation activity that occurred during the first half 1992, are concerned that the progress was motivated largely by political expediency in the months before world leaders covered on Rio for the June Earth Summit. An important tests of Brazil's commitment to Indian rights will be progress toward completely demarcating all Indian lands, as well as careful monitoring and enforcement of their boundaries.

Still, the Collar Administration is clearly more open to supporting Indian lands claims than previous administrations. "This is the best opportunity we have had for years, and we don't know what will happen in the future," says Anna Valeria Araujo Leito, a lawyer at the Nucles for Indigenous Rights.

Since the Brazilian government was clearly influenced by international pressure on behalf of the Yanomani, the views of industrialized countries may have a further impact upon resolving land claims and protecting the fragile forest lands that most Brazilian Indians inhabit. The UN has declared 1993 as the "Year of Indigenous People,' and the Brazilian government an do justice to the year through the forceful actions on behalf of Brazil's first peoples.

Ecuador March Yields Promises, But…

In April 1992, 2,000 Indians from Pastaza Province in the Ecuadorian Amazon marched 300 miles to press President Rodrigo Borja to legally recognize their territories and reform the National Constitution to protect the country's many nationalities and cultures. Coordinated by the "Organization of Indigenous People of Pastaza (OPIP)," the march came after almost three years of fruitless dialogue with the government. The Pastaza Indians were joined by over 10,000 people from all over Ecuador.

OPIP planned the march to try to halt the cultural and ecological devastation occurring in both the northern and southern Amazon regions of Ecuador. The country has the highest deforestation rate of any in South America. In Pastaza province, containing the largest remaining pristine forest in Ecuador, Indians are afraid that the government will continue to give in to pressure from transnational oil, timber, mining, and tourist industries to the detriment of their culture and the rainforest in which they live.

When the marchers reached Quito, they were met by President Borja. Under heavy military guard, he publicly agreed to recognize over 2.5 million of the 5 million acres occupied by the native people of Pastaza. He also promised to grant titles to 19 blocks of land by May.

After three weeks of camping in a park in Quito, the Indians returned to the Amazon with provisional land titles. Although the government is withholding the rights to underground resources, such as oil, the titles provide the Pastaza Indian people with a legal footing in preventing the rapid ecological destruction they witnessed in the Napo province to the north.

The government has promised to hold a special session of Congress to discuss the necessary constitution changes. However, the talks are being delayed by the Ecuadorian election.

Agreeable Words

"Minga is an indigenous word that means communal work. Since the end of May, Minga has meant an agreement between the Colombian government and indigenous people in Cauca. Indians have been forming Mingas to pull up and destroy poppy plants, and the government has promised to stop destroying the plants with glifosato [an herbicide] and to increase [the government's] presence in the area…

"Now that the Mingas have begun working, it is up to the government to stick to its end of the bargain. In mid-June indigenous representatives from Cauca travelled to Bogota to discuss development plans for the region. The indigenous leaders are asking the government to go beyond thinking only in terms of projects such as road, electricity, and water, and look for agricultural projects that will allow poppy crops to be substituted for corn, beans or coffee."

Blood on the Tracks

In May, Vernon Bellecourt splattered a pint of blood, which he said was his own, on a Christopher Colombus exhibit at the St. Paul, Minn., science museum. Bellecourt called the travelling exhibit "racist, slanted, and deceitful" and says he threw the blood as a symbol of all the Indian blood spilled by Europeans who came with Columbus or followed him there.

Hundreds of people asked the museum not to prosecute Bellecourt; many others cancelled membership or revoked pledges. Museum officials decided not to seek criminal charges. The blood-splattered sail on a replica of the Nina will remain part of the controversial exhibit, "First Encounters: Spanish Exploration of the Caribbean and United States, 1492-1570," but it is surrounded by a much larger exhibit, "Native Views." It is also now accompanied by videotape messages from local Native Americans, including Bellecourt.

Inhabited Land

In a landmark decision this past July, an Australian court declared that the indigenous Meriam People of the Murray Islands off the coast of Queensland are entitled to possession, occupation, use, and enjoyment of their homeland in the Torres Straits. The judgement ends a 10-year legal battle against the Queensland government by the Murray Island community that sought recognition of its native titles. When the British crown had made Australia a part of its empire, it declared it terra nullius - uninhabited. This single phrase wiped out indigenous land rights.

According to Henry Reynolds, writing in the Weekend Australian, "The High court has now determined that from the first moment of settlement the indigenous Australians had native title in the common law of the empire, even though those laws were ignored at the time and subsequently extinguished in many parts of the country. Terra nullius is dead, and with it conventional interpretations of history which served with interests well."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.