Coal leaves its stamp everywhere in Chuvashka.
It can be seen the barren patches of land nearby where forests have been cleared for mines, and in the vast pyramids of waste that surround the village. It coats residents’ homes and gardens with dust. It leaves its traces in one’s hair and clothes, and a pungent taste in one’s mouth.
It has also left a less physical mark on this community of around 400 people, which lies in Russia’s coal heartland of Kuzbass in southern Siberia.
Coal divides the village: separating those who see mining as a reliable source of employment in a region where jobs are scarce, and those who are driven to resist the industry’s relentless expansion because of the heavy shadow it casts over their lives. Valentina Boriskina is among the latter.
A retired school teacher, Valentina lives alone on her meagre pension in a house with deep cracks lining the walls and ceilings from the daily explosions in the nearby Sibirginsky mine — which she has opposed for years. Lately, though, weariness has taken its toll.
“I’m tired. Fighting the coal company as well as looking after my house at my age is difficult,” she says. “We have no escape-door, there is nowhere else for us to go. I want to sell my house and leave this village but the mining company doesn’t want to buy it. Who else would?”
All who live in the vicinity of the mines are prey to their impact. The paradox, though, is that many locals’ livelihoods are dependent on mines that are causing them such harm.
Photo by Sally Low
“The forests have souls”
Valentina is a member of the indigenous Shor group, a shamanist and animist people whose Turkic ancestors migrated to Siberia from Central Asia, and who were famed as black smiths throughout Imperial Russia. Their beliefs and survival are intimately tied to the nature around them. It’s estimated that in seven years the Shor population of the region has declined by almost 50 percent, as their ancestral lands and villages have been ravaged by mining.
Chuvashka is the last Shor village in the district. Many fear its will be the next to be erased by mining.
“If the mining companies have their way, Chuvashka will be destroyed,” Valentina says.
“Eight other Shor villages have already disappeared… 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.”
Bucking a global trend: Russian coal expansion
While much of the world is turning away from coal and global production is in sharp decline, Russia’s production increased by 3 per cent in 2016 compared to the previous year. It is now the world’s third largest coal exporter.
This growth was foreshadowed in January 2012, when Russia’s then Prime Minister (now President) Vladimir Putin announced subsidies for the coal sector amounting to around €7–8 billion. “We must be able both to maintain and to significantly extend our presence in the market,” he stated.
Since the bulk of Russia’s coal deposits lie in Kuzbass — otherwise known as the Kuznetzk Coal Basin — the region is the epicentre of the industry’s expansion.
Kuzbass provides 59 per cent of Russia’s total coal output and in 2017 coal production there rose by 6.2 per cent on the year before. Much of the coal produced in Kuzbass is destined for export — and Europe, despite its increasing reliance on renewable energy, remains the prime market.
But coal mining’s unremitting advance in Kuzbass has caused appalling damage: to the climate, to the area’s forests, as well as to its people.
In one interview after another, people spoke to us of how the forests they once relied on for plants and hunting have been destroyed by mining. This is corroborated by satellite images, which show that huge expanses of forest have vanished to make way for mines — with more forests earmarked for destruction as new mining licenses have been issued. For the climate, this is a double whammy: with emissions released into the atmosphere from burning coal, as well as felling of trees.
People also spoke to us of an increase in illnesses and health problems in the wake of coal mining’s expansion. This too is backed up by hard evidence, with official statistics showing an increase in cancers, tuberculosis, cardiovascular diseases and decreasing life expectancy in the region.
The combined effect was graphically described to us by one Kuzbass resident.
Living here was like being in the fable of the frog and the boiling pot, he said: if it’s thrown in boiling water it jumps straight out, but if the temperature is increased incrementally, the frog is oblivious to the fact that it’s slowly being boiled to death until it’s too late. Many in Kuzbass have chosen to resist such a fate.
Resistance and oppression
Yana Tannagacheva is a charismatic Shor activist and mother of two. In November 2016, she spoke powerfully about mining’s impact on her people before the UnitedNations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). She has continued to raise awareness of the Shors’ plight since.
“It is difficult. It takes a lot of time. But this is our life and we do it for our children and for a better future,” she says.
Yana recounted that when the nearby village of Kazas — where she grew up — was finally destroyed in 2012 to make way for a coal mine, it not only displaced an entire community, but destroyed the Shors’ sacred mountain, Karagay Lyash. Today people can no longer visit the cemetery where their dead are buried because of armed checkpoints.
In September 2017 the UN’s CERD issued a series of recommendations regarding the Shors’ treatment, including that “the State party [should] take effective measures to restore fully the rights of Shor people, in close consultation with Shor representatives and bodies.”
Yana says that when a UN representative visited Kuzbass they were followed and stopped from seeing the remnants of Kazas.
“There is repression here against us for raising our voices against mining. Everyone is being intimidated, but the worst things have already happened to local people. In Kazas they had their homes burnt down,” she says.
Since returning from Kuzbass, we stayed in touch with Yana.
Two weeks ago, we received the disturbing news that the threats against her had taken a darker turn, with her children being targeted.
They were followed on their way to school and to their music lessons. As a result, she and her family have left Kuzbass and are seeking asylum in an EU country.
“When the coal men started to focus their intimidation on our children, we decided to flee our homeland. It’s very difficult for our family. Police keep on visiting them looking for us… Now we want to go public with our story and continue to help our people," she said.
While we were in Kuzbass we had a tiny glimpse of what Yana and others have faced for years. First we were followed, then the person running the accommodation where we stayed was warned that if we didn’t leave, the authorities would close down their hostel. Finally my colleague, the photographer and the translator I was travelling with were briefly taken to a police station.
For Viacheslav Krechetov, such menacing behaviour is the norm.
He is a journalist and film-maker who lives in Myski (the district Chuvashka is in) with his family. While he is not Shor, he spends much of his time campaigning for their rights, and has worked alongside the Russian NGO Ecodefense, who have been active in the area.
“It’s not pleasant to be shadowed like this. To go about your business and have people follow you around,” he says. “Lots of people have been bribed not to fight the coal mines, but in reality we are all suffering because of coal mining. This has been a long struggle, but we are stronger than the coal companies. Of course it is a huge pressure on all of us, but I have ethics and I’m following God’s principles to protect the environment.”
It’s not just those who extract coal in Kuzbass and sell it who are responsible for its impact, but those who buy and consume it. This includes many countries across the European Union: 76 per cent of Russia’s total coal exports come from the region, and more than half of it is bound for the EU.
While coal use is falling across Member States, coal from southern Kuzbass still provides electricity which lights and heats homes, powers transport, and helps drive economies across the continent.
According to 2016 Siberian Customs Administration, 11 of the top 22 destinations for Kuzbass coal are in the EU, with the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany among the prime markets. Even the United States and Indonesia import coal from Kuzbass, while South Korea, Turkey and Japan are the largest importers.
The solution does not lie in trying to somehow sanitise the conditions under which coal in the region is produced, but in ending our reliance on it altogether as soon as possible.
Alexander Myzhakov is Shor and lives in Chuvashka. He was forced to work as a miner for many years because of the dearth of alternative jobs — despite mining destroying the first village he lived in. His message to those consuming energy produced by coal from the region is simple:
“Use alternative energy sources. I understand that energy is needed but there must be other ways than opencast mining… the costs of exploiting it are too high and it’s destroying people’s means of subsistence.”
“If the mining companies would listen I would tell them that the mines need to be closed down. The owners of the companies need to stop chasing the rouble and protect nature and people, not destroy it by taking all the resources. There is no deficit of coal, but there is a huge deficit of untouched nature, ecology and clean water,” he says.
Daria Andreeva is the Campaign and Communications Assistant at Fern. She is the co-author, with Anne Harris of Coal Action Network (CAN) of Slow Death in Siberia — How Europe’s coal dependency is devastating Russia’s forests and indigenous Shor people.