An oil spill in the Komi Republic

The Indigenous Peoples of Russia’s Komi Republic are celebrating a rare victory today, after one of the oil companies that has been polluting their traditional land, was finally held to account.

Lukoil, one of the oil companies behind most of the spills in the region, has been ordered by a Russian court to pay a fine of 20 million USD for the destruction their spills have caused. The oil spills were investigated and identified by Greenpeace Russia, and then confirmed by a local nature protection prosecutor.

The prosecutor brought the case to the court and won, and now the bad guys are facing a hefty fine and a rare reminder that they are not above the law.

The fine doesn’t make it right, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for the Komi Peoples who have long been ignored or forgotten by the Russian government.

I still remember the first time I travelled to the Komi Republic, in the far, far north of Russia in the spring of 2012. At the time, feelings of hopelessness and guilt almost overtook me.

I felt hopeless because the problems seemed impossible to overcome — I could literally smell the oil and chemicals and no matter where I went, and almost everywhere I looked, I was met by the sight of dead trees and earth covered in oil. All the fish were gone, and the ice on the rivers was painted black — the same rivers the locals get their drinking water from.

Komi Fisherman tells his story in a public library in Kolva.And I felt guilty because I had the option to leave again, whereas the kind people, who let me into their homes and shared their scarce food with me, don’t have that luxury. They are tied to the region, as Russians aren’t allowed to travel freely. That leaves most of them with a depressing choice: either starve or work for the very oil companies that are destroying their lands, their nature and their livelihoods.

This disaster has been ongoing for more than 30 years now, with no consequences for the oil companies that have created it. This finally changed this week.

Even though this is only a small victory in the larger picture, it is a big victory for the Komi Peoples.

And it will mean that I can think back to my visits to the region not with hopelessness and guilt — but with hope for a better future for a region suffering some of the worst impacts of Arctic oil.  

Jon Burgwald is an Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace Denmark.