To Justify Land #3


Prayer, Albina Tsybikova, 1995

by Lital Khaikin

3 — discrepancies in the values

In Southern Siberia, where the Sayan Mountains rise over the heavy chest of confluence of Central Asia, the Buryat peoples have told legends about the ancient lake Baikal and his beautiful daughter Angara. There are 300 rivers that stream into the Baikal, and Angara is alone among them as the only river to flow away. Old man Baikal made sure to keep Angara locked up, so that she would never leave his care. Out of the ancient Sayan, the great river Yenisei heard of the beautiful Angara. The Yenisei was known as a great and proud warrior spirited with wildness, his mighty waters rippling over the land’s most ragged stones, the water like sinew, stretching and coiling to gather strength. The two rivers were seduced by each other from afar. Longing for freedom, Angara escaped her father’s confines, the only river to stream out of the great lake, and flew towards Yenisei. When Angara escaped from Baikal, making a dive north through Irkutsk, the old man pursued his runaway daughter. In a fury, Baikal threw a stone to stop his daughter in her path, which became known as the Shaman-Rock. It is said that if the Shaman-Rock were to fall, it would open the way for the Baikal, who would spill over his banks and recapture the runaway Angara. The waters of the Angara still course with tears of wrath and loss, concealing a prayer for liberation. In those times, the gods heard her cries. The beautiful river spills over her banks into a larger basin at Bratsk, and continues north to Ust-Ilimsk, to curl west on her passage towards the Yenisei. Angara finally reaches the Yenisei at the town of Strelka, “arrow”. The great rivers run together through the unyielding tundra, towards the churning grey and black waters of the Arctic Ocean.


Throughout the definitive periods of industrialization and intensified militarization of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Soviet Union pushed the frontiers of Russian settlement deeper into Siberia with enforced migration, relocation of exiles and, during the Second World War, deportations of enemies of the state from the western border and occupied states. This would continue the process of colonization and the period of Christianization that had begun in 16th century Imperial Russia. The Russian border pushed north towards the Kara Sea, through the steppes of Central Asia, over the backs of the ancient mountains, towards the Okhotsk Sea and the Pacific Ocean. As colonial populations began to outnumber indigenous peoples across Siberia, nationalist movements resisting westernization took shape by the late 19th century, and evolved throughout the years that would follow. Siberian regionalism was mostly derivative of the concerns of the western, Slavic populations and Russian “intelligentsia” who settled the eastern regions between Tyumen’ and Chita. In contrast, the Indigenous nationalist movements rose out of a need to protect their distinct and divergent cultures against Russification and the continued theft and exploitation of their lands by the Soviet state (Diment, Slezkine, 1993: 115, 124). Rhetorics in both streams, however, criticized Russian colonization of Siberian regions and the hegemony of interests coming from west of the Urals that saw Siberia as an opportunity to exploit for its own economic purposes.

Yet this colonial nature persisted within the regionalist movement, which sought to sweep up the distinct nationalities throughout Siberia into a single autonomous region that remained under the influence of the Russian state. The idea of a unified Siberia simplifies and assimilates any region east of the Urals, consolidating the nations that pre-existed Slavic settlement and the colonization by the Soviet Union and Russian Federation. The Siberian regionalist agenda had a tendency to erase from view the multiplicity of identities and cultures that populate Asiatic Russia, in this way delegitimizing concerns for Indigenous autonomy from any encompassing federation. In contrast to the Siberian regionalist movements, the Indigenous autonomous movements – such as Buryat, Kazakh, Tuvan, Altai, Tungus, Yakut and the Khakassian establishments of self-governance – were more concerned with self-determination in land use and culture for their particular regions that were in the process of being colonized and assimilated into the state structure of the Soviet Union, or into the economic and cultural interests of the Slavic regionalists. Familial and territorial fragmentation between peoples within these regions was due in part to artificial state division of geopolitical and cultural identities, as with the division of Buryat peoples in the Mongolic region between Russia and China (Naumova 2015: 17). To overcome the processes of cultural and territorial assimilation, Indigenous nationalist movements advocated for cultural unification, such as consolidating language education and spreading a single religion in order to more effectively empower and mobilize independence movements. The Buryat might be seen as an example with the spread of Tibetan-influenced Buddhism and Buryat language to unify people across the Baikal regions, appealing to historical memory and symbolism to strengthen a sense of nationalist unity (Naumova, 2015: 16). The movements for national autonomy were based on realizing interests and rights that were increasingly oppressed by the Soviet state, or were threatened by settlement. These include: the survival of traditional language and education; infrastructure and administration for self-governance; the preservation of land rights that made nomadic lifestyles possible; and processes of decolonization that include the return of lands that were settled, or taken by the state, into the ownership of Indigenous peoples.

Following the February Revolution of 1917, national autonomous movements gained traction across Siberia, with particularly strong movements in the Trans-Baikal region of Central Asia. Historic precedents were set, which can now contextualize autonomous movements in Siberian regions, as well as similar movements for self-determination in Alaska, Nunavut and Greenland. Autonomous regions were established through the Buryat-Mongol and Alash (or Kazakh) Autonomies, the Oyrot Autonomous Oblast in Khakassia, and the Tuvan People’s Republic, which had to re-establish itself in the 1920s after annexation by Russia from Qing Dynasty Manchuria. The pursuit of autonomous republics included division between those who sought older styles of governance based on 19th century codes of hereditary leadership and those who sought to integrate elective processes (Diment, Slezkine, 1993: 116-121; Naumova 2015: 22). The Buryat-Mongol Autonomy, for example, based its system of self-governance on a progression of councils that broadened in scope from communities, through counties and districts: somons, khoshuns, and aymaks (Sablin, Korobeynikov, 2016: 218). By 1930, Siberia was divided into ‘oblasti’, or semi-autonomous regions that were still responsive to the governance of the Soviet Union (Hele, 1994: 255). These oblasti in some cases would become amalgamated into still larger republics, as was eventually the case with the Alash Autonomy which, after its dissolution in 1920, was absorbed into the Republic of Kazakhstan. Divergent cultural groups were ultimately assimilated into the Russian Federation, making the regions more conveniently regulated through solely symbolic regional governance and total governance by the contemporary capitalist state. In total contradiction to what autonomous movements sought, their regions became subject to amendments over laws that govern “protected lands” and land usage by the state and its corporate partners.

Just as the concept of “Siberia” imposes a falsely unifying concept on a diversity of geopolitical regions, the USSR’s creation of artificial territories, and simplified distinction of nationalities, imposes artificial definitions of cultural and geopolitical identities. Similar to the creation of reserves and the imposition of government-instituted territorial distinctions on Indigenous peoples in colonial Canada and the United States, the USSR created sovkhozi, or state farms. Sovkhozi governed aspects of life that would normally bring in income or otherwise sustain communities – such as agriculture, hunting, herding, and fishing – by subsuming all activities under state ownership. The sovkhozi were an integral process of Soviet expropriation and collectivization, where the ‘resources’ being worked on the land, like the reindeer herded by Nenets on the Yamal Peninsula, would be fully or partially owned by the state.

“USSR in Construction” magazine spread, 1933. / Oleg Klimov / Russian State National Library, St. Petersburg

State land seizures, expropriation, collectivization, and the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples in Siberia to sovkhozi would syphon off the people and their activities into more conveniently regulated zones, forcing a change in the culture and relationship to the land that had been cultivated through often nomadic forms of life. Herding, hunting and fishing were practiced to be reciprocal and regenerative towards the Siberian land and the animals with which people coexist. The lifestyles that had sustained entire cultures became increasingly difficult with the regulations over Indigenous property rights and land use within state-defined territories, the resulting increases in sedentary lifestyles, and an increasing reliance on the arbitrary decisions of capitalist agents regarding land-ownership, usage and development. For the Nenets in the Yamal region, for example, the state’s decisions on territorial distribution did not account for the migration and grazing patterns of reindeer, and these unnatural, imposed distances between ‘legal’ pastures were disruptive to herding and hunting (Osherenko 1995: 26-27).

Many cities throughout eastern Siberia were established out of industrial ‘development’ projects, labour camps, and the deportation of exiles from western Russian cities. To exploit the fertile land of northeastern Asia, the Soviet regime installed coal and mineral mining companies, metallurgical plants, and power generation facilities. Seeing the economic opportunity in Siberia, Texas-based oil company Amoco quickly established an office in Nadym, Yamal following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Portraying the Yamal Region as devastated by decades of pollution by Soviet industries, a 1994 New York Times article titled “In the Defiled Russian Arctic, Hope Is a U.S. Oil Company” portrayed Amoco vice-president Garry F. Howe as a kind of saviour descended upon an old world, bringing faith in new industry and economic prosperity through ecologically sensitive American drilling of the Yamal. “But Amoco has seen what happened to other companies when the needs of the local people are ignored. Texaco, for example, was stymied with its oil exploration in Ecuador when Indians were outraged about the lack of consultation. And company officials know the public relations value of producing oil in an environmentally safe way.” (The New York Times, Nov. 27, 1994).

After the dissolution of the USSR and the conversion towards a capitalist market economy, attracting American investment in Siberian ‘natural resources’ became a priority for Russian business. The freedoms of deregulation under economic policies encouraged profitable manipulations of proprietary and land usage regulations, continent-hopping by bloated oil industries, and the ruthlessness of western investors and the World Bank that made the conquest of ‘resource-rich’ lands possible. Even reports that spoke sympathetically about colonial exploitation of lands in Siberian regions – such as Osherenko’s study on the impact of changing property rights on the Nenets of Yamal Peninsula – would orient documentation in a way that would appear to support the preservation of Indigenous cultural and land rights, and self-governance, while somehow still promoting American investment and development of oil and gas fields: “according substantial property and even political rights to indigenous peoples need not constitute a barrier to larger national agendas for development of oil and gas resources” […] “The World Bank aims to enable the Russian oil and gas industry to improve oil recovery, reduce spills, repair broken pipelines, and reduce waste through improved environmental technology.” (Osherenko 1995: 2, 44).

The expansion of cities across Siberia was exacerbated by an economic dependency on resource extraction, metal processing, power provision, construction, and engineering. Electrification for these primary industries was made possible through the construction of hydroelectric dams – major components of the Soviet colonization of Siberia – harnessing the abundant rivers of the east. These grandiose Soviet infrastructural projects established a legacy of forced labour and “re-education” of gulag prisoners in the construction of its hydroelectric dams. The great river of the west, the Volga, was dammed by the construction of the Uglich’ Hydroelectric Station by gulag prisoners. In the region of Samara, gulag prisoners were forced to construct the Zhiguli (previously Kuibyshev) Hydroelectric Station. Gulag prisoners dug the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal and Moscow-Volga Canal, which then spurred the construction of numerous locks and dams; the creation of reservoirs for these dams flooded villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of people (Terminski 2014: 184-185). The far north of Russia continues to rely on extractive industries of oil, gas and coal, and the “clean energy” of nuclear and hydroelectricity – often on the basis of projects that were established during the Soviet regime, or through foreign investment in the delirium of privatization that defined the post-Soviet entry of market capitalism.

“Dams were a communist article of faith, dubbed ‘‘temples of kilowatts’’ by the poet Yevtushenko, and embodied power and modernization, as well as the noble and heroic conquest of nature. Electrification was an important component of the Cold War in both the United States and the Soviet Union, and continues as a component of policy in both countries today. […] Hydroelectric dams in the Altai Mountains were originally part of the Project of the Century, an unrealized turn-of-the-century plan that was later embraced by Stalin as he developed the support base needed for postwar industrialization of Siberia. The basic intent was to turn the great northward-flowing Siberian rivers and make them flow south.” (Klubnikin, Annett, Cherkasova, Shishin, Fotieva 2000).

Construction of the Dam near the Village of Kuzminskoe. Oka River, 1912. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. / Library of Congress.

Krasnoyarsk dam on Yenisei River on a 10 ruble bill.

Many cities throughout Siberia have become so exclusively reliant on extractive industries that continued economic survival depends on the acquiescence to the demands of multinational companies and investors, for whom the health of people, animals, and land do not matter as much as the profits they glean. In some cases, corporate initiatives for further profiteering off of Siberian lands are as overt as the Corporation for Development of South Yakutia – a partnership between the government of Yakutia Republic and RusHydro (previously HydroOGK), nuclear company Teksnabexport, diamond mining conglomerate Alrosa, and Yakutia Coal-New Technologies. In the benevolent spirit of collaboration with Indigenous peoples, Russian oil and gas companies offered sovkhozi, such as those on the Yamal Peninsula, the opportunity to become subsidiaries and theoretically share in the profits gleaned from drilling and pipeline projects. With the repression, or total destruction of traditional, localized economies, there is no real opportunity for subsistence that does not rely on either a total dependency on government subsidies or participation in the corporate bribery of ‘shared revenue’ in exchange for development permission.

“very American-like”.

Under the deregulation of land usage for resource extraction and power generation, the privatization of land and exploitative development continues throughout Siberia under the current Russian state. State-established national park boundaries are being “redrawn” to permit oil development while continuing to displace Indigenous peoples in Northern Siberia (Arctic Deeply, May 9, 2017). This is a similar story to the creation, governance and oversight of national parks in Canada, such as Algonquin Park and Anicinabe Park in Ontario. National parks have displaced Indigenous peoples from their homes and been used to further force their relocation into reserves. In 2013, the Russian State Duma passed a bill amending the Federal Act on Indigenous “Territories of Traditional Nature Use” (TTNU), changing the terminology of “Specially Protected Conservation Areas” to “Specially Protected Areas”, which legally lifts regulations on already encroaching extractive industries. These areas are no longer “specially protected” from exploitation by oil or mining companies as sites of ecological and human significance, and their borders are being redrawn by government agencies to allow further development by extractive industries. “On 30 September 2016, without prior notification of the authorised representatives and organisations of indigenous peoples, the acting Governor of Khabarovsk territory issued an order changing the boundaries of the 13 TTNU that had been created by regional or local authorities. This has shrunk the TTNU area to less than half its prior size.” (IWGIA, INFOE, Feb.-Mar. 2017)

Today, the wildness of the great Yenisei is harnessed to power Russia’s mining and oil corporations that continue to form the spine of Siberian industry. The Krasnoyarsk hydro-electric dam that spans the Yenisei is one of the most powerful generators of hydroelectricity in Siberia, and one of the largest dams in the world. The majority of the power generated by this dam is sent to the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant, owned by aluminum producer RUSAL. Further south, the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric dam breaks the mighty Yenisei outside of Sayanogorsk. It too feeds the majority of its power generation to Rusal’s smelting stations. RUSAL has plans to continue ‘developing’ Eastern Siberia: “RUSAL together with RusHydro is constructing a new Boguchanskaya hydropower station in the Krasnoyarsk region. RUSAL is also part of the joint venture to develop the Ekibastuz coal basin in Kazakhstan.” (RUSAL).

On the Angara in Khakassia, power company Irkustskenergo, a subsidiary of EuroSibEnergo, operates the Bratsk Hydroelectric Station, which supplies power to the Bratsk Aluminum Plant. “UC RUSAL aluminum smelters – Krasnoyarsk, Bratsk and Irkutsk – are among the major consumers of electric power generated by EuroSibEnergo and account for the half of electric power produced by EuroSibEnergo’s generating facilities.” (EuroSibEnergo). After 36 years elapsed since the start of its construction, the Boguchanskaya dam finally opened in 2012 on the Angara. It is operated by RusHydro and RUSAL, with its power diverted to the Rusal aluminum smelting plant. Farther south, the Altai government negotiated in 1998 with private investors, including American Global Power, Light & Water Company, on the development of a dam on the Katun River (World Rivers Review, Dec. 1998). At the Bratsk basin, at Ust-Ulimsk, at each strong-willed bend Angara takes on her passage north, she is wrangled by concrete, and her strength is poured into the mouths of insatiable mines, metal processing plants, and electric companies.

“Someone cries in the winter steppe”, Albina Tsybikova, 1996

North of the city of Krasnoyarsk lies the “closed city” of Zheleznogorsk, previously known as Krasnoyarsk-26, where even today, access is monitored by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Here, the waters of the mighty Yenisei have been used for the nuclear projects of the Cold War, harnessed to cool plutonium-generating reactors for the manufacturing of nuclear weapons (The New York Times, Nov. 18, 1998). Zheleznogork’s Mining and Chemical Combine, which produced weapons-grade plutonium, is responsible for radioactive contamination of the Yenisei by tritium from reactor coolant, open settling ponds, deep aquifers, liquid wastes, aerosol discharges, and nuclear tests. These radionuclides permeate throughout the Yenisei watershed, into tributary rivers, like the Bolshaya Tel’, Ploskii Stream and the Shumikha River, and become absorbed into the Yenisei’s aquatic life, like the shining weed and Canadian pondweed (Bondareva, Bolsunovskii 2004). The contaminated waters from the nuclear facilities are carried upstream, to settle and collect in regions along the river, or flow north to the Kara Sea (Philips, Kondratyev 2002; Linnik, Brown, Dowdall, Potapov, Nosov, Surkov, Sokolov, Wright, Borghuis 2006: 188-208).

Yenisei River, Igarka region in the Krasnoyarskii Krai / Photograph from my grandmother.

Farther north in the Krasnoyarsk Krai, near the industrial town of Norilsk, the Daldykan River turned blood red in September 2016, with little explanation outside of public speculation on industrial pollution escaping the filtration dam from the Norilsk Nickel Plant (Nornickel), also known as the Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant (Nadezhda, for “hope”) (The New York Times, Sep. 9, 2016). In October 2016, Norilsk was imposed an undisclosed fee. “‘There is no danger for fish and people,’ said Sergey Dyachenko, Chief Operating Officer of Nornickel in an earlier comment. ‘We hope that it will not happen in future,’ he said. … The company has said it is taking massive steps to clean-up historic pollution dating back to Soviet times.” (The Siberian Times, Oct. 31, 2016). In March 2017, the “environmental-oriented” nickel plant was awarded Russia’s Environmental Gold Standard, for closing down Norilsk Nickel Plant (Bellona, Mar. 22, 2017), an action that was “lauded by experts as a one-of-a-kind experience for the Russian industry practice”  (Nornik, June 28, 2016).


NASA satellite images depicting contamination in the Daldykan from 2001 / NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Angara’s ancient father, the great lake Baikal, was harnessed as a source of power for the construction of hydro-electric dams by Mongolia along the Eg River, which seeps into the Selenga, a major tributary to Baikal (Siberian Times, Jul. 22, 2017). The proposal for the Nizhne-Angarskaya dam on the Baikal is funded by the World Bank, which put up $16.4 million to date, from the $25 million for feasibility studies and China’s Export Import Bank, which in turn loaned $1 billion to the Egiin Gol hydroelectric dam project (Forbes, Apr. 7, 2017, World Bank, July 31, 2017). The feasibility studies for the Selenga dam were conducted by Tractebel Engineering SA, a subsidiary company of France’s GDF Suez SA (Hydroworld, Jun. 24, 2016). Tractebel has previously consulted on such hydroelectric projects as the Chenab River in Himachal Pradesh, the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River in Brazil, the Estreito Hydroelectric Power Plant on the Tocantins River in Brazil, the Mazar Dam in Ecuador’s Rio Paute Valley, the Berke dam on Turkey’s Çeyhan River, the Manantali dam on Mali’s Bafing River, the Jirau dam on Brazil’s Madeira River. Despite the environmental impacts of the proposed Nizhne Angarskaya dam on the Selenga and the great lake, Tractebel’s study claimed that there would be no issues with its construction. Environmental studies by the engineering group favour the interests of such environmentally-concerned clients as Alcoa, the Moser Baer Group, Consórcio Norte Energia, Brazilian mining company Vale SA, the French energy company GDF Suez (which became ENGIE in 2015), and ENERSUR. Mongolia’s push for the construction of hydroelectric dams represents an effort to establish a greater independence from reliance on power imported from Russia, and conversion from a current primary reliance on coal power towards “clean energy”. The Amur Basin is rife with hydroelectric dams, with Russia’s EuroSibEnergo and China Yangtze Power Co. having signed an agreement in 2012 to work on synchronizing power supply between Eastern Siberia and China, and direct power towards the metal processing plants and mining companies in the Trans-Baikal. The deals between Russia and China, their American and European financiers, and the World Bank, jeopardize the remaining free water that runs through the far northeastern lands of Asia.


During the first few decades of the 20th century, Québec’s rapid industrialization reshaped the subarctic land of the northeast which lay within its territory, casting an industrial net along the wilding coast of the Gaspé, Sept-Îles and the Côte-Nord region, towards Labrador and the lip of the Atlantic. In an area that has been called Nitassinan – “our land” – by the Innu, prospectors and investors from Québec and the United States found economic prosperity in rivers yet unreached, forests uncut, land that had been untouched by the industrialization occurring farther south along Kaniatarowanenneh, or the Saint-Laurent. The first prospectors were initially focused on timber, and the pulp and paper industries, rather than an immediate interest in the northern rivers (Massell 2011: 25-26).

The rapid and wide-reaching damming of the rivers of Québec’s rivers occurred during the First World War. With the demands of military production leading up to the First World War, the market for metals grew, and Québec broadened its surveying and prospected more vigorously for mining opportunities northwest towards James Bay and northeast towards the Saguenay (“where the water exits”). During the Second World War, Canada would come to supply to majority of aluminum to Britain and the Commonwealth, replacing former sources from France and Norway. In order to provide power to mines and smelters, Québec needed to expand its base of hydroelectric power. Resource prospecting was integral to the colonial settlement of northern Québec. As the province pushed the frontiers of its resource extraction and power companies farther north, it took ownership over the watersheds of the Peribonka River and the Saguenay (Massell 2011: 16). At an expanding scale, water storage and usage rights along the Saguenay watershed – including Piekouagami (Lac St-Jean), Lac Manouane, Lac Passe Dangereuse – were granted by the Québec government to the private ownership of American tobacco magnate James B. Duke, to eventually be passed into the ownership of aluminum company Alcan (Massell 2011: 17).

The processes of developing hydroelectric projects in northern Québec were later accelerated by the Canadian-American wartime-economic alliance signed at Ogdensburg in 1940 – a precursor to the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Massell 2011). Alcan signed contracts with Britain that would provide over 100,000 tons annually by the middle of the Second World War (Evenden 2015). With the plenitude of rivers running through the province’s swathe of territory that could be turned into electricity, hydroelectric power was eventually seen as a critical investment to finance Québec in its pursuit of sovereignty.

“René Lévesque declared that Québec should try to imitate the Arabs and increase its wealth through the control of the province’s natural resources. Newly elected Premier Robert Bourassa presented James Bay as a “Klondike rich in white coal” and, in the 1980s, he thought Québec could become “the Alberta of the East”. Again, in 2009, during the launch of the La Romaine River dam project, Premier Jean Charest argued in a passionate speech that “Québec will be built on its blue gold”.” (Warren 2012: 85-86).

American aluminum company Alcoa established a Canadian branch in 1903, called the Northern Aluminum Company, which became known as Alcan in 1925. The company would become Rio Tinto Alcan when the British mining company Rio Tinto bought Alcan in 2007, acquiring Alcan’s mining facilities and dams across Canada. The Saguenay region was settled by Alcan with “industry towns”. Arvida, established by Massachusetts financier and Alcoa president Arthur Vining Davis, is one of the more well-known industry towns in Québec and even sought to join the UNESCO World Heritage List as “one of the most ambitious projects of its time”, in the words of local councilor Carl Dufour (Globe and Mail, Nov. 12, 2010). Everything about the town was strategically designed by New York planner Harry B. Brainerd, from the houses for the workers of the aluminum plants and hydroelectric facilities, to the institutional, religious, commercial and recreational spaces. The town was constructed in four stages between 1926 and 1948. Following the final stage of housing development, Arvida’s aluminum smelting plant began operations in 1954. While the town’s councilors advocate for UNESCO World Heritage status for the American-commissioned aluminum town, the industrial ‘development’ of the region carries a long legacy of pollution seeping into the soils and watersheds of the Saguenay. In recent years, Rio Tinto Alcan caused protest to an intended expansion of a site of bauxite residue at its Vaudreuil factory, which was established in 1936, and extension of its usability for another 25 years (Radio-Canada, Aug. 30, 2016).

Vue aérienne de l’usine Alcan à Arvida / Société historique du Saguenay

Arvida, Québec in the Saguenay / Archives Rio Tinto

The subarctic upper Saguenay basin that seduced industrialists from America and the cities of southern Québec was home to Innu peoples, whose territories were often in the way of planned developments. In order to access land for cutting trees, boring mines, and building dams, the Canadian government resettled Innu into reserves throughout northern Québec and nearby Labrador, such as in Uashat and Maliotenam in the Sept-Îles region, forcing people to live in decrepit shacks, and to change their way of life to the stagnation that was imposed by the confines of the reserves.

Following Rio Tinto’s acquisition of Alcan in 2007, a lawsuit was brought forward in Québec by the Innu of Uashat Mak Mani-Uetenam and Matimekush-Lac John, which set the precedent for First Nations to sue companies for damages, instead of provincial governments. The lawsuits sought retroactive compensation for Rio Tinto’s acquisition and exploitation of land that was developed without consultation for the establishment of iron ore mines under the company’s subsidiary, the Iron Ore Company of Canada (CIM Magazine, Feb. 5, 2016). In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau gifted the Innu two stones in commemoration of the discovery of iron ore in northern Québec’s Shefferfield, where Rio Tinto had been operating 20 mines: “the only thing we have ever received” (Globe and Mail, Oct. 1, 2014). Rio Tinto, usually eager to appear collaborative and protective of cultural places, objects and practices – “because it is the right thing to do and because there is a strong business case for doing so” (Rio Tinto) – appealed to the Québec Superior Court to stop the lawsuit of its subsidiary Iron Ore Canada (IOC). Rio Tinto’s appeal was shut down by the Superior Court in 2013, but the “pioneers in mining and metals” pushed back again, taking their motion to the Québec Court of Appeal. Once again, Rio Tinto’s appeal to shut down the Innu lawsuit was dismissed, but Rio Tinto dragged the Innu to trial, back at Québec Superior Court, presumably seeking to “collaborate with local communities to develop clear and transparent agreements, which are essential to providing access to land we require” (Rio Tinto). Following an unsuccessful trial, Rio Tinto appeal to the Canadian Supreme Court, at which point, in 2016, the motion to dismiss the Innu lawsuit was finally dismissed. According to the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum Magazine, there is hope yet for the mining company post-lawsuit, as Rio Tinto sensitively advocates for the need for future consultation and consent with “land-connected peoples”, as well as beneficial agreements.

Shawinigan 2A, 1911 (Top), Beauharnois generating station construction, 1931 (Bottom) / Hydro-Québec archives.

Rapides-Farmer generating station and its weir, 1928 (Top), Shawinigan hydroelectric complex on the Rivière Saint-Maurice, 1911 (Bottom)  / Hydro-Québec archives.

Hydroelectricity development continues in Québec, as Hydro-Québec currently targets the “protected” Magpie River, with recent contestation from the Natashquan Innu who blockaded La Romaine hydroelectric complex near Havre-Saint-Pierre in 2015. Yet, reparations for century-old projects are still being sought for their devastation of the environment throughout Nitassinan, across the borders of Québec and Labrador. Reparations are also still sought for a cultural genocide committed in favour of war-time industries and industrialist profiteering. The power of the northern rivers of the Boréal was monetized for the benefit of a few industrialists whose notions of progress still resonate today. The same companies still believe in their proud history of colonial brutality, of their conquest of the wild frontier, empowered by Canadian neoliberal policy. The same legacy of politicians believes that progress is continued surveying, extraction, production, land development, and prioritization of corporate interests over the truly global crisis of the endless growth of capital.

The mask of these extractive industries is the promise of employment – first to Québec workers and later, when they began to resist too effectively, to Innu communities. Just like the Nenets on the Yamal who were offered the opportunity to become subsidiaries of Russian oil and gas companies, the Innu too could now share in the revenues of mines, smelting factories, and profitable hydroelectric dams! In the process of negotiating rights for self-governance, Innu communities in Québec are being offered buy-in to ongoing hydroelectric projects. “In Nutashkuan, the Innu could have the option to partner with Québec in developing and profiting from a 50-MW hydroelectric dam.” (National Post, Feb. 7, 2016). Collaboration with extractive industries and power companies is cynically depicted as the only way to progress in negotiations with the Canadian state for better living conditions and self-governance in affected regions, and the only way by which to maintain a semblance of control and oversight on projects being developed. In “consultation”, permission for continued development is taken for granted as a guaranteed outcome, not as a point of true disputation. The compromise is employment opportunities and “guaranteed royalties”. Under the conditions of assimilation into the state, “progress”, “success” and “development” mean “revenue generation” that is based on “institution-building, economic development, land and natural resource use”. Co-operation with Indigenous peoples means enforcing an economic system that fosters dependency on private corporations for the provision of benefits and security, and enforcement of environmental regulations, when the conditions for self-governance in all of these areas is systemically oppressed by colonial states – autonomy, self-governance, independence are, after all, all enemies of the state.


In an elegant deconstruction of scientific objectivism as it is applied in resource extraction industries, scientist Godofredo Pereira writes in an essay titled “Underground Frontier” on the systems of abstraction that erroneously create distinct sectors of social, economic, technological, and climatic concerns. This separation of distinct [spheres] in turn permits the reduction of land into exploitable components. Pereira identifies that this ‘resourcification’ is made possible by the very systems of quantification by which we relate to and measure the land – such as “mineral prospection or land use analysis” in the pursuit of natural resources, or “bioinformatics for the modeling of living systems”. The reduction of a river into quantifiable data allows energy companies to represent hydro-electricity as a sustainable means of power generation, while dismissing the large scale impacts of dam infrastructure on a river’s networked ecology. The notion of a ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ capitalism relies on abstractions of the principles and consumption patterns that govern the way we live, and obscures the true beneficiaries of our superlative use of ‘renewable’ energy. These methods of measurement and identification are inseparable from the machinations of advanced capitalism, where techno-scientific modes exacerbate a psychological distance between people and land.

“The important point here, however, is that once captured by quantification procedures, the earth is made commensurable with capitalist modes of valorisation and therefore becomes abstracted by capital as quantities whose differential relations are productive of surplus values. In this context science becomes a motor of accumulation: each new analysis allowing for new forms of valorisation and circulation. The epitome of this process is the transmutation of both people and materials into “decoded flows” in the operation of contemporary financial devices. Thus the constitution of the underground as a frontier, as well as the specific kinds of disputes that emerge therein, cannot be uncoupled from the modes of seeing and knowing the earth that are characteristic to the capitalist partnership with technoscience.” (Pereira 2015).

The hydroelectric dam that is jointly operated by Hydro Ottawa and Hydro Québec on the Kichissippi (Ottawa River) is undergoing a multi-billion dollar expansion, encroaching on land that was transferred by the Ottawa municipal government into the private ownership of Toronto’s Windmill Development Group. Despite the Kichissippi’s ecological, geographic and cultural significance – including the presence of ancient animal fossils, pre-colonial antiquities, and the graves of Algonquin people – few studies have been conducted on the impacts of the dam on the river. The predominant tone and intention of such studies focus on the economic feasibility for natural resource development. Where is the research about the river before the current reconstruction of the hydroelectric dam? Where are the reports on the water’s changing levels of oxygenation due to the disturbance of migration and breeding patterns of fish, insects and molluscs? The American eel that lives in this river is especially important to inquiries into the ecology of Asinabka, because its breeding and migration path is interrupted by the dam and its massive turbines. The only action in response to the endangerment of the eels is a reactionary adaptation of the existing dam with “renovated” turbines and screens that are intended to let eels pass through the dam – an action taken by Energy Ottawa in collaboration with Canadian Wildlife Federation only after much local protest, and without due respect to the long-standing emphasis on the eel’s significance by the Algonquin.

Hydro-electric dams are touted as a clean-energy alternative to fossil fuels, but these claims are dismissive of the environmental impacts of turbines, reservoir flooding, and river re-routing, on river ecosystems. Clean for whom? Hydroelectric dams alter the movement of sediment, the chemical composition of water, the breeding grounds and migration of aquatic life, thereby disrupting the balance of a river’s self-sustaining network. Just because electricity is generated from water – a clean, pure and natural source – does not mean that the methods of processing water are ‘sustainable’. The major consumers and operators of hydro-electric dams around the world are mining companies, metallurgical plants, and chemical processing plants that operate upstream, or in proximity to tributary rivers that often run towards lakes and oceans. Overproduction of hydroelectric power is sold to foreign governments and private companies, which capitalize on the exploitation of rivers they never have to see, live with, or care for. Oversight is conducted by private companies that have their boards and pockets filled with the money of oil, gas, coal, and aluminum magnates. The systemic neglect and muzzling of research into river ecosystems that prioritizes life over economic feasibility reflects an ideological problem that runs much deeper than the superficial approach to sustainability that underlies the current approach to the generation and provision of so-called renewable energy.

Resourcification allows a person to look at a river and think “electricity”, to look at a forest and think “money”, or to look at land and think “mine”. This way of thinking creates the illusion that the earth provides an inexhaustible supply of resources that can always be exploited further, to which human practices can always be adapted to increase the potential profits from what has not already made itself readily available. In an essay titled “The Infinity of Water: Climate Change Adaptation in the Arabian Peninsula”, Gökçe Günel writes on the use of human intervention and modification to water in the Arabian Peninsula to create the appearance of an unlimited natural resource. Günel discusses the desalination process that is used on sea water in the Emirates, to produce drinking water in an area that is otherwise largely devoid of fresh water.

“The imaginary of “infinite water” mirrors what happens in the energy sector. Timothy Mitchell (2012) argues that conceptions of endless oil supplies enabled progress to be conceived as infinitely expandable, without any material constraints. In the mid-twentieth century, the cost of energy did not present a limit to economic growth, as oil prices continuously declined. Given how simple it was to ship oil across the world, this resource could easily be treated as inexhaustible. This belief in the infinity of oil also played a key role in producing the “economy” as an object, which could expand without any limits. In Abu Dhabi, the imagined infinity of wealth engenders an illusory capacity to construct water infrastructures whenever necessary.” (Günel 2016: 292).

Günel also notes the tone of private consultants working on the environmental consultation around water in the UAE: “The climate consultants I met did not necessarily identify as “environmentalists”; rather, in the words of one consultant, they believed that “the environment is a sexy part of the economy.” Accordingly, in the UAE they attempted to employ market mechanisms such as water pricing to change human behavior regarding consumption.” (Günel 2016: 294).

Windmill Development CEO Jonathan Westeinde cites the book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, written in 1999, as an inspiration to his business practices and “environmentally friendly” development motivations (Ottawa Business Journal, Jun. 23, 2015). Natural Capitalism derives its thesis from an industrialist mentality that sees the earth as an exploitable resource, blatantly manipulating semantics to construct ethical justifications for exploitation of the ‘natural world’ as an available ‘resource’. “Natural capital includes all the familiar resources used by humankind: water, minerals, oil, trees, fish, soil, air, etcetera. But it also encompasses living systems, which include grasslands, savannas, wetlands, estuaries, oceans, coral reefs, riparian corridors, tundras, and rainforests. […] Humankind has inherited a 3.8-billion-year store of natural capital.” (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999). With a small change of words, business practices gain untouchability. Natural capitalism is represented as a progressive, ethical alternative to a “traditional capitalism”, but its premise remains that of continued “growth” and expansion called “economic development”.

“Natural capitalism […] is neither conservative nor liberal in its ideology, but appeals to both constituencies. Since it is a means, and not an end, it doesn’t advocate a particular social outcome but rather makes possible many different ends. Therefore, whatever the various visions different parties or factions espouse, society can work toward resource productivity now, without waiting to resolve disputes about policy. […] The limiting factor to future economic development is the availability and functionality of natural capital, in particular, life-supporting services that have no substitutes and currently have no market value.” (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999).

A guiding premise of natural capitalism is that the natural world has not yet been assigned enough market value, its potential has not been exploited to the fullest, and there is still more profit to be made by thinking about the planet as an endless supply of commodities: “One of the keys to the most beneficial employment of people, money, and the environment is radical increases in resource productivity.” This resourcification is embedded in language, and by extension the negotiation of policy that justifies such developments. When the earth is reduced to an assemblage of quantifiable commodities, the terms of policy-making, judicial ruling and even activism become entangled in the terms of capitalist privatization and statehood. In “Underground Frontier”, Pereira refers to the European colonial history of “creating wildness”, which territorializes human habitation, and detaches it from its participation and reverberations through complex ecological frameworks. He writes, “it is not that the violence of resource extraction needs to be accounted for in law, but that law itself, and its history, is inseparable from the policies and violence of resource extraction.”

Natural capitalism leaves no place for human respect and humility towards the natural world, and eliminates the sense of responsibility that is not derived from human interests by which to decide what cannot and should not be commodified. In the logic of natural capitalism, it is unimaginable for a river to exist independently of human concerns, and without serving consumer demands – it is ludicrous for a river to exist for its own sake. This immensity is antithetical to the reductive purposes of capitalism that, running ever farther on an internal and self-justifying logic, reduces all of life to singular, finite functions. All that exists is the consumer and the resource, familiar and pathological relationships that contaminate everything about the home and the wild. How then is it acceptable to continue acquiescing to a standard of “ecological feasibility” that is determined by parties invested in resource extraction self-serving power generation?

“In Gèsèr Khan’s Land”, Albina Tsybikova, 1982.

The same energies that crave the profits off decay, long-buried stagnation and the dissembling of life that define the oil industry, also crave the harnessing of the free elements, of strangling the course of living matter until it provides its movement only for the reproduction of profits, until its body has forgotten itself, and is forgotten by the expanses into which it poured life. What remains of the world’s veins that still run free? Papua’s Fly River remains undammed. The Rio Negro remains undammed. The Lena still breathes across Asia. The free Vjosa River of Albania is undergoing a struggle against hydro-electric damming. What do the rivers still mean in the words of the old legends? Where is Angara now, where did she go? Where has the wild daughter run to, from her sickening father? Was the brisk leap north enough to take her along the strong course of the Yenisei, away to a clear passage, away from the fumes and seeping parasite industries? Did the chokehold take her by the neck before she struck into the Arctic? The powerful rivers of southern Siberia and her wild sisters that cross the Boréal, charged with the energy of ragged cliff-faces and the turmoil of their ferocious rapids, are harnessed in service of the industrial towns: the paper mills and steel factories, the rubber plants and mining companies, and the nuclear power plants. The mountains and ancient bors that culminate in the edge of estranged Siberian lands are ripped open by mining industries and agricultural projects. The daughters of Angara and the Yenisei been sold, their necks throttled. Land that was once home to nomadic peoples is parceled out to private ownership, guarded by resource extraction companies and the corporate oligarchs of the West. Rivers become the harnessed forces of war profiteers, extraction industries, and corporate interests who manipulate consumption patterns and engineer both desires and demands of the masses towards more material, ever more power.



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About the Author:

Lital Khaikin has published in 3:AM Magazine, Afterimage, Black Sun Lit, The Brooklyn Rail, continent. journal, Deluge, and e·ratio, among others. A book, Outplace, was published with Solar Luxuriance in May 2017.

This is the third part of a series of essays for Berfrois, read To Justify Land #1  and To Justify Land #2