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Representing over 90% of the indigenous population in the Russian North, the organisations signed with Nornickel a “comprehensive” support package totalling RUB2bn ($25.42m) over five years. The programme will run until 2024 and includes a range of initiatives aimed at the support of the traditional activities of indigenous peoples as well as environmental protection. The package will also be used to fund housing, medicine, infrastructure, tourism, and educational and cultural projects.

Projects that will benefit from funding have been defined with input from local indigenous communities and will be developed in cooperation with indigenous peoples, local governments, and corporations.

Nornickel said the programme was developed following an ethnographic expedition carried out in the Peninsula this summer. The study involved over 100 interviews and various polls of indigenous communities, which identified priority areas for support, including the creation of seasonal jobs in tourism and other industries, reindeer husbandry, fishing, and hunting. Initiatives already on the roadmap include constructing workshops for reindeer and fish process, purchasing refrigeration units, targeted training for professions in demand at Nornickel, and publishing textbooks in indigenous languages.

Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation president Grigory Ledkov welcomed Nornickel’s support, saying: “This agreement can serve as an example for other companies, as it emphasizes the importance of preserving the habitat of indigenous people and protecting our values and traditions.

“The full-scale ethnographic expedition to hear the opinions of indigenous populations has already become a huge step in the right direction and will serve as a model for future projects of this kind. The results of this expedition will help to make to develop initiatives which will be of paramount importance for indigenous populations.”

The agreement has been signed by Nornickel vice president for federal and regional programmes Andrey Grachev, Regional Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Krasnoyarsk Territory president Artur Gayulskuy, Association of Indigenous Minorities of Taimyr, Krasnoyarsk Territory chair Grigory Dyukarev, as well as Ledkov.

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However, Nornickel has been subject to criticism for its activities in the region, including for the Norilsk oil spill earlier this year. In May, a fuel storage tank at Norilsk-Taimyr Energy’s Thermal Power Plant No.2 – owned by Nornickel – failed, and flooded local rivers with more than 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil. The incident was declared a national emergency and is the second-largest oil spill in modern Russian history. Officials have warned that it will take years to clean up the oil spill and the full extent of environmental damage is not yet known.

Earlier this month, Aboriginal Forum, which describes itself as a network of independent experts, activists, leaders and organisations of Russian indigenous peoples, wrote a letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk requesting that his company does not purchase nickel or other materials for its batteries from Nornickel until the company conducts a full and independent assessment of the environmental damage of mining for nickel and other metals in Russia’s Taymyr Peninsula and Murmansk Oblast. Aboriginal Forum said an assessment should include damage caused by the Norilsk oil spill, as well as consider the damage Nornickel’s activities have done to the traditional economic activities of indigenous peoples.

The letter followed Musk’s appeal for mining companies to address Tesla’s need for large quantities of nickel to produce batteries. The Saami Council – representing the Saami indigenous peoples across Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden – has backed the Aboriginal Forum’s campaign.

Further tarnishing Nornickel’s reputation is a report in The Moscow Times, which identified Nornickel as accounting for more than half of the sulphur dioxide emissions in Russia, with the company generating two million tons of the gas per year – which is double the sulphur dioxide emissions of the entire United States in 2018. According to Greenpeace, factories in the city of Norilsk are the world’s largest stationary source of man-made sulphur dioxide.

Nornickel’s pledge to support the Taimyr Pensinsula’s indigenous peoples may prove too little too late for communities that feel they have been consistently overlooked and had their local environments tarnished in pursuit of corporate profit.