I just read an interesting post by the Russian news agency TASS (in Russian) announcing proudly the launch of a new method for assessing damage to indigenous culture and livelihood during industrial development of the Arctic. Russian scholars in this field know that there has been long a discussion about how the only Russian law on the anthropological expert review (etnologicheskaia expertiza) in Sakha (Yakutia) does not duly consider damage to culture and instead has a clear focus on compensation of material damage to natural resources that indigenous people use, as Ivanova has shown (2016:1237).
Now it seems that the working group of scholars and parliament committee members that want to push ahead with a Russian-wide law on the etnologicheskaia expertiza want to focus on assessing impacts with a participatory method that bases on a mathematical model. However, from the one article that I found by one of the authors it remains unclear to me if there would be aspects considered such as loss of spiritual knowledge, language, values and other aspects where indigenous cultures differ from the dominant societies of the state they live in.
While this is certainly a timely discussion, I wondered from reading that news post how the new scientific method advertised there wants to reliably assess such damage using mathematical formula only? The text says that researchers from the Russian Economic University and Kuban University have developed a mathematical formula allowing to consider the interests of all stakeholders around investment projects in the Arctic. In the text, economics Professor Violetta Gassiy is quoted as advertising this new method as a good replacement, because the method according to which damage has been assessed so far considers 101 criteria and therewith would be “very complicated”. But I wonder, isn’t it dangerous to simplify impact on local and indigenous cultures according to a ‘one fits it all’ formula? Countless anthropological research has shown that cultures are hugely diverse and function in a very tightly integrated reciprocal relationship between people and their specific environments.
I don’t want to dump the method of our colleagues prematurely, but I want to raise awareness of the fact that just by considering what local people express as their immediate interest in an industrial project may not necessarily be the best assessment of its possibly detrimental effects to culture. So far I thought that one of the advantages of the etnologicheskaia expertiza model in Russia is that it actually relies on trained anthropologists to assess JOINTLY with local experts the long-term impact of an industrial project on culture. This, I think, goes BEYOND the hopes of members in a community to get one-off payments as compensation or employment in the industry during the project life-cycle. I am not arguing that the hopes and opportunities for local people from industrial development projects are not important to consider. It is great if colleagues in Russia have come up with a good formula to do so.
All I am saying is that by no means does this replace the need for thorough assessment of cultural impacts by trained anthropologists together with local practitioners using our main method of participant observation.
A fair impact assessment must consider hopes, opportunities as well as threats and dangers of industrial development for indigenous societies. It must not be limited to assessing compensation payments for damage that occurs on the way, but should show avenues for PREVENTING such damage to happen in the first place. Together with colleagues we have highlighted this need for going beyond damage compensation towards damage prevention in social and cultural impact assessment more than a decade ago. With continued exploration and extraction of energy and mineral resources in the Arctic, this need did not diminish but increase, but the prevalent extractivist approach to natural resource governance does not always consider this need, as we have shown recently in a special volume on the topic.
I really welcome if this new method in Russia, if it becomes applied, is going to be seen as a tool to meet the need for participatory action together with local people in assessing their immediate needs, but that it would not replace our longer term joint challenge of trying to maintain culturally specific lifestyles of local and indigenous peoples in the Arctic basing on their unique adaptation to the Arctic environment and their knowing how to use the renewable natural resources in it in a reciprocal and sustainable way.