Russia: Reindeer herders seek deal with energy giants

The Russian Federation is home to about 200 ethnic groups. Of these, 41 are legally recognized as “indigenous, small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East”. This status is confined to groups numbering less than 50,000; maintaining a traditional way of life; inhabiting certain remote regions of Russia; and identifying themselves as a distinct ethnic community. Russia is the only country that places a population maximum for its indigenous peoples. The specific numerical threshold was created in the 1920s and was used to delineate small politically vulnerable groups from more numerous peoples who were supposedly protected by the governments in their own titular regions.

There are approximately 250,000 small-numbered indigenous peoples in Russia; the majority of whom live in sparsely populated small settlements or villages, or who move around nomadically. While they occupy a vast territory (about 64 per cent of the Russian Federation), they make up a mere 0.2 per cent of Russia’s total population. Among the most numerous of the small-numbered indigenous groups are the Nenets, Evenk and Khanty.

The Nenets are the largest of Russia’s small-numbered indigenous groups with a population of over 44,000. Almost all of them live in the oil- and gas-rich sparsely populated districts of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO) and the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YNAO), in north-west Siberia.

To this day, many Nenets rely on traditional large-scale nomadic reindeer husbandry for their livelihood. Reindeer provide herders with essential material for food, shelter, clothing, as well as a means of transport. Moreover, herding is considered culturally important and an integral part of the Nenet’s identity. The largest semi-domestic reindeer herds in modern Russia are managed by Nenets. Nenets have some 800,000 animals, with herd size ranging from 50 in small private herds to 7,000 in the largest state farms. As reindeer migrate and change pastures seasonally across the tundra they require large, undisturbed, open areas. Traditional migration routes can be several hundred kilometres long, with the longest annual migratory journey being about 1,200 kilometres.

In the past, reindeer pastures covered the majority of the NAO and YNAO districts. But over the last few decades, large tracts of land have been degraded by oil and gas prospecting and production, or have become difficult to access because of oil and gas pipelines. Expanding industrial development has led to the loss of grazing lands and territories with diverse ecological and cultural significance, the increasing fragmentation of the long-established reindeer migration corridors, and the ongoing pollution of lakes, rivers and ground water.

Recently, Nenets have reported that reindeer have broken their legs while trying to cross new railway lines built across the tundra to connect oil and gas plants. Herders observe that fish, an essential source of protein for maintaining a nomadic livelihood particularly during the long summer migration, are far less plentiful in the lakes and rivers. They also note that gas workers are poaching fish, birds, and even occasional reindeer. Hundreds of reindeer herders are being evicted from their traditional pasture lands, and camp sites and sacred areas have been lost in the name of development. Reindeer herders also have to cope with more frequent and intensive extreme weather events.

While reindeer herding is significant for the culture and subsistence of the Nenets, the economy of both the NAO and YNAO is heavily dependent on income from oil and gas production. Oil and gas reserves in the two regions were discovered in the late 1960s infrastructure has been rapidly expanding ever since.

Today, NAO is one of the largest oil development areas of the Russian North and the Yamal Peninsula is considered the most resource-rich region in Russia. More than 90 per cent of Russia’s natural gas is produced in the YNAO. The implementation of Russia’s Energy Strategy to 2030 is closely linked with the development of oil and gas in YNAO, and especially new fields in the Yamal Peninsula. The region is of utmost importance to Russia’s state energy giant, Gazprom; the company has a comprehensive long-term plan to exploit the vast natural gas reserves of the area. Other big energy players include LUKoil and Rosneft.

Industrial development puts the future of nomadic reindeer herding in NAO and YNAO at considerable risk. In order to prevent their heritage and environment from disappearing, the Nenets believe that open communication with companies is a critical.

There have been efforts to initiative dialogue. Voluntary cooperation agreements have been made between companies, NGOs, state representatives and reindeer herders. The energy companies have also tried to invest in the development of social and economic infrastructure in the region. Nevertheless, communication experiences between industry representatives and the Nenets remain inconsistent.

In the few instances when agreements between oil/gas companies and reindeer herders are made, they tend to be confidential and not publically available. It is also not clear whether indigenous communities fully understand the consequences of the agreements they sign. Oil and gas companies pay compensation for ceded pasture lands, but no compensation is provided for the loss of fishing, hunting and resources, which contribute significantly to reindeer herders’ subsistence economy.

Furthermore, not all reindeer herders participate in the drafting of agreements. This leads to social injustice; for example, certain reindeer communities receive compensation for damages, transport assistance and financial help, while others who are similarly affected by development projects carried out by the same company do not benefit from such an agreement. In the absence of consistent control by the regional administration or standard legislation, there is a lack of information about the contents and the standards of the agreements between companies and herders. Also, a high turnover of company staff often leads to new personnel failing to honour agreements made by their predecessors, or not being properly informed about these agreements.

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For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

Photo credit: a Nenet reindeer herder in Russia. Credit: Russian Geographical Society.

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Date: 26/06/2012


Russian Federation


State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Indigenous Peoples

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