A year ago, a fuel storage tank at Norilsk-Taimyr Energy’s No.3 Thermal Power Plant broke down, inundating rivers in northern Russia with up to 17,500 tonnes of diesel. Indigenous representatives from the Russian Far North recently visited the Swiss capital to demand action from the responsible company’s Swiss subsidiary and the banks that invest there.
This content was published on June 17, 2021 – 09:00
Gennady Schtschukin, a representative of the Dolgan people, and Andrey Danilov, a delegate of the Sami people from the Kola Peninsula in Russia, appeared at an event organized in Bern by the Society for Threatened Peoples to discuss the fallout from the second plus great oil spill in modern Russian history. They called on Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), the owner of the power plant whose subsidiary is headquartered in the Swiss canton of Zug, to work more closely with their communities to improve the situation.
Nornickel and Swiss banks
Nornickel is the world’s largest producer of refined nickel and palladium with sales of $ 14 billion (CHF12.5 billion). The metals it produces are essential to the growth of the automotive electric industry. The largest Swiss banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, are among the ten largest investors in Nornickel, according to the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples.
In a March 21 letter to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Nornickel admitted there were “legacy issues” and took “full responsibility” for the diesel spill. He claims to have recovered over 90% of the leaked fuel.
In the same letter, the multinational mentions having paid direct compensation in the amount of 174 million rubles (2.2 million Swiss francs) to 699 people whose livelihoods depend on fishing on Lake Pyasino and the river. Pyasina. It also reports cooperation agreements signed with three indigenous associations.
As of April 2021, Switzerland’s largest bank UBS held Nornickel stocks and bonds worth $ 45 million, according to data compiled by Profundo, a Dutch research group. Credit Suisse has equity of $ 27 million in stocks and bonds. It also issued $ 268 million in loans.
While in Switzerland, Danilov and met representatives of Credit Suisse and UBS with the help of the Bernese branch of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP). But they encountered closed doors at the subsidiary of Nornickel Metal Trade Overseas AG in Zug, a low-tax Swiss canton popular with commodity traders.
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SWI swissinfo.ch spoke to them about the responsibility of governments and transnational corporations towards small indigenous communities, the Russian presidency of the Arctic Council and the unfolding of last year’s disaster.
SWI swissinfo.ch: Why did you come to Switzerland?
Andrei Danilov: The reason for our visit was the company Norilsk Nickel. Specifically, the company’s failure to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and its violation of environmental standards in Russia. Our goal was to make the international community aware that the company does not respect the rights of indigenous peoples.
We therefore came to inform the partners (of Norilsk Nickel) in Switzerland ourselves, but they refused to meet with us.
SWI swissinfo.ch: How serious was the accident at Norilsk Nickel?
Gennady Schtschukin: Even President Vladimir Putin spoke personally and took the issue to the federal level. But they hid [the catastrophe] for two days. After that, they had to organize the decontamination of the affected areas and take measures to prevent the fuel from going any further. Of course, they managed to get most of it out [from the environment], but much of it landed at the bottom of the river. And it’s very difficult to get out of there.
SWI swissinfo.ch: What led to the disaster? Dilapidated infrastructure and equipment?
Gennady Schtschukin: Everything revolves around old technologies inherited from the Soviet Union. They are still in use. Everything is mined out of the ground in terms of minerals, and that happens until the old machine starts to collapse. On May 29, 2020, this boiler burst. I am not an environmental engineer, but I can say that after cleaning and restoring the affected areas there were no more fish. This means that the cleaning job was not done well.
It is quite possible that Norilsk Nickel simply does not have the right technology. In this case, part of the responsibility lies with governments. And we are not just talking about sanctions, we are talking about special programs to protect indigenous communities and the consequences must be funded by the state. Because otherwise, we will simply not have a livelihood. We will not have fish; we will not have meat. We will not be able to survive in arctic conditions.
SWI swissinfo.ch: What is life like in Russia’s Far North and what is the potential for dialogue with the government and the companies operating there?
Andrey Danilov: Russia’s two-year presidency of the Arctic Council begins now. There are many documents and regulations including the Arctic Development Strategy until 2035, but they do not even mention indigenous peoples and their interests! These documents mention companies, but nothing at all about people.
Companies and other entities that get money and tax breaks for “development” in the region end up siphoning off resources from the Arctic and don’t even think about entering into a dialogue with indigenous peoples. The documents say they “may” have a dialogue but do not force anyone to do anything.
In Soviet times, attention was paid to indigenous peoples because they were politically important to the whole country. It was necessary to say: “Look how our state protects the small communities of the North, nobody can go there and do what he wants without an agreement with the population and the local authorities”. And now everything is given to companies.
SWI swissinfo.ch: Do you think that your coming to Switzerland will have an effect?
Gennady Schtschukin: I’m sure. Our partners [at the Society for Threatened Peoples] have taken us under their wing and are ensuring our safety. They will turn to some local businesses that invest in implemented projects [in our regions]. In general, they will address issues related to the situation of indigenous peoples [of the Russian Far North]. So I think there will be a result!