No other country exports more coal to central Europe than Russia. Russia has only recently turned into a hard coal exporter. But the pace at which it has done so is frightening. Within ten years, the country has become the third largest exporter worldwide and currently comes sixth in coal production. The big European importers rely heavily on Russian coal. For example, 40 percent of the coal burned in Germany is mined in Russia.
However, very little is known about the Russian part of the supply chain. Even the energy companies seem to be having only foggy ideas, which can be deduced by the fact that they are asking their greenwashing- instrument – the Bettercoal Initiative – to investigate Russian coal producers, according to the German NGO Urgewald. Unlike in the oil and gas industries, Russia’s coal producers are private enterprises. Companies include Kuzbassrazrezugol, Siberian Business Union, Mechel, Siberian Coal Energy Company (SUEK), Energougol, and Razrez Bungrsky-Severny. Almost all export coal destined for central Europe is mined in a region called Kuzbass (short for Kuznetskij Basin) in southern Siberia. There, between the cities of Kemerovo and Novokuznetsk, the coal bearing seams extend to 26,000 square kilometres – the size of Belgium. Large parts of the landscape have already been sacrificed for the ever-growing opencast mines. The Russian NGO Ecodefense has shown that the mines and trade routes frequently extinguish villages as the mining companies like to use existing infrastructure like electricity, roads, and rail tracks. The coal industry is deadly here.
93.8 percent of the area’s drinking water is polluted. Cancer rates have gone up, as have the rates of lung diseases. In Russian opencast mines, the coal is separated from the ground with explosives. The dust rises into the air and is carried in the wind to nearby villages. Because of all this, people in the Kuzbass region have a life expectancy of three to four years below the Russian average.
Resistance – Villagers against secret police
Resistance is difficult but growing nonetheless. Communities are starting to come together to organise against this destruction. Small groups have already taken to blocking coal-related infrastructure; but resistance is harshly criminalised. Two villagers who sat down in front of the main gate of the mine next to their village, thus blocking it for hours, were found guilty in a recent court case. The mining company claimed for huge compensation. One of the few legal ways of protesting is the one-person demonstration. Villagers would stand in front of the local administration in the town of Myski holding self-printed signs. For example, the Shor Anatolij Majtakov chose the slogan “No to the opencast mines. Let’s preserve nature for our children!”. Anatolij died just months later.
Whoever lives near coal mining is severely impacted, and often indigenous local people are hit hardest. The Siberian Shor people, for example, have been dispossessed and displaced of their territory for many years. Today, Chuvashka is the only remaining village where the Shor people live by themselves. In addition, they can no longer pursue their traditional trades; they cannot fish, and they cannot find food in the forests. “We Shor people believe that there is a soul living in each plant and each mountain. Mining has killed them all”, says Valentina Bekrinova, resident of Chuvashka. Similarly, the remaining Teleut people – no more than 2,000 – cannot resist any longer.
However, there have been several successes of anti-coal protests in Kuzbass recently. For example, a court in the town of Belovo stated, that “coal mining is not a governmental need” in early 2018, after Ecodefense and a team of human rights’ lawyers, ‘Team 29’, pursued the case against a new mine. Thanks to the court case and the efforts of the NGO, the coal company Stroypozhservice lost the permission for the mine it had been planning since 2016. Never before has a mining permit been revoked by a court in the Russian Federation. Secondly, Stroypozhservice is no longer allowed to forcibly take people’s property.
Evidently, corporations and politicians consider the protesters too powerful already. Since the beginning of 2012, Ecodefense is effectively criminalised under the new Russian Foreign Agent laws. This law prohibits NGOs from accepting foreign donations. Alexandra Korolewa, their director, fled from Russia in 2019 following prosecution and was granted political asylum in Germany.
Most Russian coal is transported to the seaports in the far east from where it is shipped to countries like Japan and South Korea. In several pacific port towns, protests have recently been stirring. The coal is lying in heaps directly next to people’s homes, thus spreading its poisonous dust right into their apartments. Coal destined for central Europe leaves Russia via the Baltic sea. Among the most important ports are Murmansk, the Latvian Riga, and Ust-Luga near St. Petersburg, a highly automated high-throughput place geared towards coal exports. From here the coal is shipped predominantly to Stettin, Rostock, Hamburg, and the ARA ports: Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam. In short, Russian coal corporations do not care about local people. Neither does the state. The people of Kuzbass are left alone. However, pressure might build up if the problems become visible to a larger number of people, in Russia and abroad, Russian activists hope. And that is where anti-coal actions along the supply chain come in. We must draw everyone’s attention to the murderous effects of mining in Kuzbass so that no one can look away. Least of all the Russian coal companies.
“I’m losing my mother tongue”
My name is Valentina Bekrinova. I am a Shor person, as most people are in the village of Chuvashka. For 25 years I worked as a schoolteacher in the nearby town. I wanted to return to the countryside in 1996 when I got a house in Chuvashka. I wanted to return to my native land. I had no idea that the mining would happen. I wish I hadn’t moved here. There is no way out now. All my savings went on buying double glazed windows.
In front of the house is the Sibirginsky mine. On the other side of the house there 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 coats everything. The explosions in the mines are so loud and they shake the whole house. Upstairs there is a crack in the wall which I had to get fixed. My whole house is sinking on its foundations and the glass in the greenhouse is full of cracks.
The mining companies never pay for this sort of problem. Most of them belong to the Governor of our region, Aman Tuleyev, and his sons. If the coal mining companies have their way, Chuvashka will be destroyed. There are eight other Shor villages that they want to destroy as well. I’m tired. Fighting the coal company as well as looking after my house at my age is difficult.
This is the first year that there are no berries on the fruit bushes. The soil quality is now really bad, with all of the coal dust. When I try to grow tomatoes outside they don’t flourish, they go yellow or rot. I used to collect plants from the forest but the coal mines are making the plants of the forest unhealthy. In Shor culture we eat a lot of meat, in the past this mainly came from hunting animals like wild ducks. We used to eat deer, rabbits and bear from the forest. These animals are gone. We used to fish in the river. Now, there are no fish anymore. We Shor people respected nature, we took what it could provide and protected it. There is no respect anymore, everything is destroyed.
“We Shor people respected nature,
we took what it could provide and protected it.
There is no respect any more,
everything is destroyed.”
Valentina Bekrinova, resident of Chuvashka village
The water situation is obscene. Our water comes from a pipe, but it is undrinkable and smells like rotting eggs. Before the mining started, we drank the water from the river Mrassu but it has been polluted by the Sibirginsky mine. Radioactivity from the coal industry is a problem. I filter my water although it should be boiled. The head of the Myski authority said they would bring drinking water in 2017, but it hasn’t arrived. I want the mining companies to supply us with drinking water, but no one brings any in.
Once, we Shor people had a self-administration. Our culture was changed by the Soviets. They brought gulags to this area and arrested people in faraway parts to fill them. They used the prison labour to start logging and mining here. These newcomers had a different culture, they brought with them cigarettes and strong alcohol. Shor culture was never like that before they came. My brother and father started to smoke and drink.
In the 1970s, the mining companies came. In 2013 we decided we had to fight for our rights. We have no escape door, there is nowhere else for us to go. In 2013-2015 we were organising pickets. We were worried that what was happening to us would spread to other villages, but we didn’t get support from out of these villages. You should support people, or it will become your problem, too. In 2015 they offered us money but neither rights nor land. The encroachment then started on other villages. Other people joined us.
From 2015 on the authorities threatened people in the movement against the mines. People lost their jobs and were struggling to feed their families, they were blacklisted and couldn’t get other jobs. We stopped protesting the mines until things had calmed down. The repression has been hard. The secret police came to the village, there were so many people here, Chuvashka was full of police.
The worst thing is that they have taken our land. Most Shor people can’t adapt to living in the city, I’m afraid that Shor people will soon become extinct. This is why the most important thing is the protection of our ecology, our rivers, our taiga for the protection of our nation. We cannot live without.
But that is what the Russians want: They are trying to liquidate the Shor people. The Russians came to colonise this part of the land. They have tried to assimilate us, our diet is influencing our immune systems and our health has been destroyed.
What is happening here is genocide. Since the mines have arrived my teeth have fallen out and my hair is thinning too. People in our community get sick more often, the cancer rate has grown, as has the occurrence of tuberculosis. The average life expectancy has been reduced to 60 years. The Shor are the children of nature but none of us want to have children now. I used to speak with my friends in Shor but now I have no one to speak to in Shor, and I would be afraid to. Shor is my mother tongue, but I am losing it with lack of use. I can’t remember all the words anymore. In our culture, we believe that the land, the soil, the plants, and the mountains all have souls.
Mining has destroyed all of this and so destroyed our culture.