Slow Death in Siberia

Anne Harris reports on how the UK's coal dependency is devastating the lives of indigenous Shor people.

May 17, 2018 · 9 min read
Valentina Boriskina. Photo by Slava Stepanov

Forest People’s organisation Fern and Coal Action Network have just released Slow Death in Siberia. The report looks at how Europe’s coal dependency is devastating Russia’s forests and indigenous Shor people.

Slow Death in Siberia illustrates a dark stain of coal dust from the Kuzbass region of Russia to our European homes and businesses where the electricity is consumed. A stain which incorporates the breathlessness of the Shor people, the choking rivers, the displaced wildlife and the poisoned land all along the vast rail and sea trail which links us to the Shor and Teleut land.

Valentina Boriskina, is a native Shor and former school teacher, who lives alone on her pension in Chuvashka. She is one of the last Shor speakers in the village. Her grown-up children live 25 kilometres away, where they work in underground mines, since other jobs are so scarce. In front of Valentina’s house is the Sibirginsky mine. At the side is a waste tip from another mine.

“Our village is surrounded by coal mining, and the dust which blows from the mines and waste heaps coat everything,” explains Valentina.

Before mining, much of the Kuzbass was covered in taiga. The taiga here was a low density forest, and populated with cedar trees, birches, Siberian pines and larches. Wolverines, foxes, lynx, sable, brown bears, red deer and roe deer all ran wild, and the area was biologically diverse. It had been blessed with wetlands, streams and wide slow-moving rivers.

Valentina continues, “I used to collect plants from the taiga, including Kolba, a wild onion with nutrients which keeps us healthy in winter. Now I buy them at the market. We used to eat deer, rabbits and bear from the forest. These animals are no longer here. I don’t want to go into the forest any more because it is so impoverished.”

Governments and businesses in Europe want us to believe that coal is sourced in ways which are benign but the truth is exactly the opposite. While the UK Government claims to be protecting the climate by stopping burning coal several years from now, people on the ground in the Kuzbass and other mining regions suffer. Faster action needs to be taken immediately.

“The water is the worst. It comes from a pipe, but it is undrinkable and smells like rotten eggs. Before the mining started we drank the water from the river Mras-Su but it’s been polluted. The head of the Myski authority said they would bring drinking water in 2017, but it hasn’t arrived. The mines also have a big impact on our health. My teeth have fallen out and my hair is thinning too.

If the mining companies have their way, Chuvashka will be destroyed. Eight other Shor villages have already disappeared.”

Drax power station, the UK’s largest coal power station is one of the end consumers of the coal. Currently Drax burns coal in three of its six units, for the other three consume biomass from forests in the Southern USA. RWE’s South Wales power station Aberhaw and Uniper’s Ratcliffe-on-Soar power stations are also burning coal from the Kuzbass. As Slow Death in Siberia shows, burning coal also contributes to forest destruction when it lies underneath ecosystems like the taiga as it does in the Russian Kuzbass.

When the report’s authors visited the Kuzbass they were struck by the attachment to the taiga, and the heartbreak its destruction caused.  

“The Shors are children of nature, completely in tune with the land. We believe that the forests, rivers, mountains, plants and soil all have souls. But mining has destroyed all of this and so destroyed our culture. It feels like these souls have turned their backs on me,” describes Valentina.

The indigenous people and their sustainable way of life has been ridiculed and now they are forced to work in the very coal mines which are destroying their villages and have poisoned the rivers.

“Our culture was [also] changed by the Soviets. In the Soviet times we were regarded as uneducated, illiterate, without language and incapable. They brought gulags to this area and [transported] people they had arrested far away to fill them.

The administration said that the last Shor school book was eaten by a cow, that is how much they care about teaching in our language. My people used to dress very richly with large ornate jewels and pearls. But even by my parents’ generation people had stopped wearing these things. I haven’t got any of these things as my family had to sell them when times got hard.”

The impact of mining is extensive. According to Russian environmental group Ecodefense, for each tonne of coal produced, six hectares of land are disturbed. The mines are intentionally placed close to concentrations of people, so that facilities like roads, water, electricity and crucially labour are cheaper. Across the Kuzbass the story is similar to that in Valentina’s village.

Valentina explains that incomers have changed the area, “Although our village is predominantly Shor, most people don’t speak the language. We used to get official documents in the Shor language. There were schools which taught in Shor, but these have closed. The administration said that the last Shor school book was eaten by a cow, that is how much they care about teaching in our language. Since 1990 we have had the law to protect minority peoples, but it is merely a public statement. The only law which actually works is the law of power.”

People in the Kuzbass have been coming together to demonstrate against the encroachment of the mines. This included Valentina participating in solo demonstrations. Because protests of more than one person are outlawed in Russia they protest alone, on rotation.

“We have no escape-door, there is nowhere else for us to go. I’m tired. Fighting the coal company as well as looking after my house at my age is difficult. Life in Chuvashka, especially in winter is hard. We burn coal from the mines on our stoves, but keeping the fire going requires a lot of work and I’m not young any more. I have scratches up my arms from the work, and from chopping wood. In winter I will also have to clear the snow so I can get out of my house. I want to sell my house and leave this village but the mining company doesn’t want to buy it. Who else would?”

We need to respect the human rights of all who live in the vicinity of coal mines to be respected by mining companies and the governments supporting them. This means putting an end to the destruction of forests for coal taking place in Kuzbass and around the world, and a worldwide ban on new coal power stations and a commitment to phase out existing installations as soon as possible. This will improve our chances of keeping global temperature rises well below two degrees Celsius.

Coal Action Network support communities in the UK, Russia, Colombia and the USA to fight the opencast coal mines which power the UK’s remaining coal power stations. At present they are very active working to prevent a new opencast coal mine starting in County Durham. The UK claims to be a world leader because it is phasing-out coal in 2025. But for the people, like Valentina, living at the frontline of fossil fuel extraction, this date is too far away.

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