Staunton, April 16 – The Komi, one of the Russian Federation’s numerically small nations of the north, are demanding that that country’s oil giant, Lukoil, stop its destructive exploitation of oil reserves in the Izhemsk district of their republic – and, what may be even more significant, local officials are supporting the people rather than the corporation.
In a case of life imitating art, their moves recall Edward Topol’s Red Snow, a 1997 Russian émigré novel about a northern nationality challenging Soviet power – the Komi, whose nation numbers fewer than 300,000. Two weeks ago, 150 Komi held a meeting to protest Lukoil’s numerous violations of the law in its new development work in the republic.
In addition to outraged local citizens, the Bellona environmental defense organization reports, there were representatives of local and all-Russian environmental groups and the head of the local Izhemsky district of the Komi Republic. Lukoil representatives were invited but did not show up.
The Komi meeting came in response to Lukoil’s launch of additional construction without getting the necessary government approvals. According to Bellona, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back of local patience, with participants in the session complaining about the disappearance of clean water and much of the wild foods on which they rely.
This session, Bellona continued, was very different from “dozens even hundreds of such meetings in various regions” of the Russian Federation. It was calm and people did not demand financial compensation alone. Instead, they pressed for the protection of their right as a people to a clean environment.
The main thrust of this meeting can be summarized in the following way: “For 16 years, you [in Lukoil] have earned billions of rubles” and we the people have received nothing except a polluted swamp. “We the indigenous residents aren’t going to leave. Here are grandfathers and great-grandfathers lived, here are the graves of our fathers and grandmothers.”
“What trace will we leave after ourselves?” the speakers asked. If things with Lukoil go on as they are, that legacy will be a destroyed environment, sick children, and increasingly widespread alcoholism. “For this barbaric attitude to mother nature, we are already paying.” Those making a profit have come and will leave, but we the Komi will be left.
The district government took up the appeal of the Komis on April 11, and many of the local residents feared that their representatives would buckle under pressure from Lukoil. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the district government voted unanimously to support the call of the Komi meeting to stop Lukoil’s work, to bring those who had violated the law to justice, and to hold public hearings on what should be done next.
The district government also created a special commission to consider the complaints of the Komis about Lukoil’s violations of the law and proposed including representatives of environmental groups as well as residents and demanded that the commission have unrestricted access to Lukoil properties.
Nikolay Rochev, a deputy of the Izhemsk District Council said that “this is a political decision,” one that reflects not just the views of the population but that of “a representative government body, and that means that Lukoil must stop. The company can certainly appeal, but he said that the local government could withdraw its licensing allowing Lukoil to operate.
He said that the company must stop “acting like colonizers and treating us like Papuans. Here is where an indigenous people lives. We expect that that the company will work with us as partners with equal rights.”
This past Sunday, representatives of the 16 settlements which had taken part in the earlier meeting met with ten Lukoil representatives. The meeting lasted three hours, and the oilmen promised that everything would be put right. But the Komis are not sure of that and adopted unanimously another decision, 172 to 0.
It declared that “we, the Komi-Izhemtsy, are the indigenous people, and this is our land. We no longer want to put up with the thieving exploitation of our natural wealth and the ecological irresponsibility of Lukoil. We must be partners with equal rights in the carrying out of any projects on our lands.”
According to Bellona, “Lukoil and [the Komi] understand their dispute goes far beyond the borders of a single administrative district.” The company will try to reverse the decision of the local authorities “at any price,” and it may succeed in the short term. But what the Komis have done will certainly stimulate others to follow – and that could change the relationship between corporate power and the rights of the people across the Russian Federation.