The mining industry is often connected to polarized emotional responses. It evokes hopes for a better future while causing worries over environmental harm or resource depletion. Mining development changes local relations with the landscape but also forms new connections between humans and resources. My postdoctoral project at Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) focuses on stone mining as an important element of human – landscape connections in two indigenous communities in Northern Russia and Siberia. It sheds light on how mining gets embedded in affective bonds between humans and landscape and becomes a part of local sustainability discourses.

Giving voice to indigenous and local actors

The discussions about extractive industry development at indigenous territories often imply strict divisions between traditional lifestyle and industry. In such discussions, indigenous and local residents are frequently presented as divided groups with contrasting views over local development. Indigenous communities are seen either as strong opponents to all kinds of extraction or as passive recipients of industrial changes. However, indigenous responses towards industrial development are complex and involve a variety of emotional reactions. These diverse perspectives on industry and extraction are nevertheless rarely analyzed. As a result, indigenous actors are often silenced and placed outside political discussions. In my research, I aim to tackle the complexity of responses towards extraction at indigenous territories.

The (in)visible presence of stone

The two indigenous communities I focus on are Veps in Karelia, close to the border with Finland, and Soiots in Buriatia in South-Central Siberia. Both Veps and Soiots have historical connections to stone mining going back to 18-19 centuries. Diabase and quartzite quarries are the main employers in Veps villages, and the presence of stone is visible, audible, and tangible there. In Soiot villages, however, jade mining is seemingly absent and excluded from conversations. Only after being in Buriatia for some time, I realized that many locals are engaged in informal jade extraction. Still, this occupation is illegal and therefore kept secret from outsiders. However, once I gained trust in the community, I started hearing stories about dangerous jade trips and the happiness or bad luck the stone may bring. Then I understood that both the vivid presence of stone in Karelia and its equally striking absence in Buriatia indicate the special significance of extraction. In both communities, stone mining becomes a part of indigenous emotional landscapes: it generates meanings and connects to other forms of resource extraction, such as hunting, fishing, or berry-picking. In my project, I use the notion resourcescape to stress the interrelations between mining and other forms of acquiring resources. This notion places mining emotions into a larger context of human – landscape bonds and a sense of place.

Oboo (a sacred stone heap) in Oka region of Buriatia.
Mining sustainabilities

In Veps villages, mining and nature are seen as interdependent concepts. The rare and valuable stones are an outcome of the Karelian richness of nature while simultaneously determining the region’s future. Local visions of sustainability are deeply connected to the mining industry’s development. However, private mining enterprises are blamed for appropriating the local resources and not investing in the villages enough. The residents of Veps villages strive for larger participation in decision-making activities concerning stone mining. They aim to sustain their interactions with landscape, such as fishing or hunting while remaining employed at the diabase and quartzite quarries.

In the Soiot villages of Buriatia, various landscape features are animated and connected to spiritual masters of territory. The sacred meaning of stones is reflected in the creation of oboo, stone heaps used for leaving sacrifices for spirit masters governing the particular territory. Jade, as a resource, is deeply connected to the sacred landscape. The extraction of jade becomes a negotiation with more-than-human forces who may allow or prohibit the extraction. It is important not to take more stone than one needs, as greediness may result in bad luck for the whole miner’s family. Mining, therefore, is governed by the same principles of temperance and respect as other forms of human – landscape interaction, such as hunting. The locals expect that mining companies operating in the region should follow a similar logic to ensure the sustainability of Soiot resourcescape.

The notion of resourcescape refers to the blurred borders between different types of resource extraction in Karelia and Buriatia. With this concept, I demonstrate that indigenous and local visions of resource connectivities may question the established divide between nature and industry. They also provide new dimensions for discussing sustainability in industrial landscapes

Resourcescape in a comparative perspective

Within my postdoctoral project at HELSUS, I will continue working with Veps and Soiots and will concentrate on mining as an important element of more-than-human bonds. The project will further investigate the interrelations between different forms of resource extraction as a part of sustainability discourses in Karelia and Buriatia. However, the case studies of Veps and Soiots are a part of a broader discussion on mining emotions and the role of extraction in indigenous and local visions of sustainable development. In the future, I plan to dive in to this discussion by comparing emotional responses to mining projects in the Russian North and Siberia with other northern regions or towns, such as Kolari in the Finnish Lapland or Kiruna in Sweden. The topic of resource symbolism may even connect very diverse geographical and cultural contexts. I have observed the said connections in my project concerning more-than-human turn in contemporary revitalizations of the Qatar pearl industry. As it turns out, the complex symbolism of pearls in Qatari cultural heritage has many intersections with stone extraction histories in faraway Russia.

Anna Varfolomeeva

is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) and Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki.

References and further reading

Toivanen, R., & Fabritius, N. (2020). Arctic youth transcending notions of ‘culture’and ‘nature’: emancipative discourses of place for cultural sustainability. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability43, 58-64.

Toivanen, R. (2019). Sustainable well-being of indigenous peoples in the Arctic. Voices for Sustainability.

Ødemark, J. (2019). Touchstones for Sustainable Development: Indigenous Peoples and the Anthropology of Sustainability in Our Common Future. Culture Unbound. Journal of Current Cultural Research11(3-4), 369-393.

Varfolomeeva, A. (2020). Lines in the Sacred Landscape: The Entanglement of Roads, Resources, and Informal Practices in Buriatiia. Sibirica, 19(2), 27-49.

Komu, T. (2019). Dreams of treasures and dreams of wilderness – engaging with the beyond-the-rational in extractive industries in northern Fennoscandia. The Polar Journal9(1), 113-132.

Overud, J. (2019). Memory-making in Kiruna: Representations of Colonial Pioneerism in the Transformation of a Scandinavian Mining Town. Culture Unbound. Journal of Current Cultural Research11(1), 104-123.

Photo by: Anna Varfolomeeva (2016)

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