Russia’s Tragedy of the Commons: Indigenous Life in the Changing Arctic

April 2019

The day on the tundra starts at five in the morning. A nomadic family is loading their belongings onto a chain of wooden sleds. Each sled is designated to carry specific items for each member of the household. The portable chum, the Russian word for tent, is always the last object to be dismantled and packed. As the group sets off for fresh pastureland, the single-file reindeer ride extends to several kilometers, undulating across the wilderness of Russia’s Arctic.

Located in Northwestern Siberia, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug stretches over three large peninsulas, Yamal, Tazovskiy, and Gydan. The region is home to more than 26,000 indigenous Nenets, about half of whom continue to lead a nomadic way of life. For more than a millennium, these Nenets have followed the same ancestral migration trails and maintained a unique life and culture of reindeer husbandry. They have relied on the animal for food, clothing, transportation and housing supplies.

“I live in the midst of winter, in the midst of snowstorms, with nothing around me but the whistling wind,” as one Nenet storyteller Pavel Yadne describes their epic voyages to a Greenpeace research team. “A herder should be kind and love reindeer. A growing herd means the owner is a kind man.”

The tundra nomads revolve their everyday activity around reindeer, yet the centuries-old practice is facing growing threat from intensifying industrial development. With the world’s largest proven natural gas reserves, Russia is responsible for 17.3% of the global natural gas supply (635.6 billion cubic meters) which includes a third of Europe’s natural gas consumption.

Much of this supply flows from Russia’s Arctic, a circle of latitude 66th parallel north, inhabited by half of the four million Arctic population. Known as the “gas heart” of the entire Federation, the Yamal Peninsula, in particular, has attracted some of the largest and most complex hydrocarbon production centers in the world.

State-owned energy giant Gazprom estimates its development over 32 gas fields in the region will eventually provide up to 360 billion cubic meters of gas annually. The Bovanenkovo production zone is seen to have the biggest extraction potential, reaching an annual output of

82.8 billion cubic meters in 2017. The gas was then transported into the Federal gas supply system via an onshore pipeline.

Independent natural gas producer Novatek has also launched its extraction program at the South Tambey gas field. In partnership with France’s Total (20%), China’s CNPC (20%) and the Silk Road Foundation (9.9%), the first of the three phases of the Yamal LNG plant began production in December 2017. Due to the coastal location of the project, some 5.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas will be able to depart from the new seaport of Sabetta each year. Four ice-breaker tankers are in service with 11 more to be commissioned by 2019, providing year- round delivery to markets in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

The burgeoning drilling rigs and infrastructure plans have seized significant areas of pastures used for reindeer grazing. The construction work has caused pollution and fragmentation of the tundra, altering the traditional migration routes. The irony is that the tundra dwellers here don’t even use gas.

“There is so much sand around the drilling towers and the small villages of seasonal workers. Sand is almost a marker of industrial development,” said Dmitry Arzyutov, a historical anthropologist based in Stockholm. “The herders can no longer travel to pastureland near sites like Sabetta because the reindeers will fall ill and die if they digest lichens with sand.”

Returned from a trip to Yamal this June, Arzyutov has studied the indigenous life of the Nenets for many years. He sees his nomadic hosts as his extended family and follows them during their seasonal migrations from time to time.

The migration routes also connect to hunting and fishing sites. Fish constitutes a substantial part of the indigenous diet. Commercial fishing is also one of the essential forms of employment of the settled Nenets. Arzyutov said the herders had noticed that in some lakes and rivers the fish were gone.

“When I was a child, we didn’t hunt. Fishing and herding were enough.” The family told him. The disappearance of fish means the nomadic families have to survive on an almost all-meat diet as the harsh tundra climate offers no alternatives.

The eastern coast near Ob Bay of Kara Sea used to be one of the richest fishing resources in the region. According to a field report conducted by Danish researcher Daria Schwalbe, the fish began to decline six years ago when the dredging started.

Commissioned by the German Institute of Ecology and Action Ethnology, Schwalbe traveled to the village of Seyahka in May 2016 and interviewed more than 30 indigenous Nenets. The report suggests a change in salinity of the water as a possible cause of the fish decline. An environmental impact assessment published by Yamal LNG also shows that underwater noise induced by the development has the potential to impact marine fauna. Changes in turbidity levels can interrupt the timing of fish migration and spawning. “A range of habitats will be lost during the construction phase” with “direct and indirect impacts on flora and fauna species.”

Energy companies have been handing out monetary compensation to herders for the damage engendered by the gas extraction. The monthly subsidies rose from 2,000 to 3000 roubles per person in 2016 (about 52 U.S. dollars), but the amount accounts for a mere 30% of the minimum living wage in the country. Some families save the money for their children’s future higher education, while others prefer to spend it on bread and alcohol. Arzyutov said Vodka was considered one of the best gifts by the locals.

The regional government has expressed its intention to resettle more nomadic families into villages permanently. The Nenets complain that these compensation schemes have often been drawn by the gas companies with little input from local residents and indigenous groups. The tundra dwellers lack both professional training and education to reconstruct their lives in an urban environment.

The situation is further complicated by a recent pension reform bill backed by President Vladimir Putin, which will raise the retirement age to 60 for women and 65 for men. The move has triggered nationwide protests, with indigenous activist groups pointing out in rural regions like Yamal, male life expectancy rarely goes above 50.

Expressing dissent, however, often comes with a cost in Russia. Since the foreign agent law came into effect in November 2012, indigenous rights activists in Russia have faced unprecedented pressure, ranging from petty sabotage, physical violence, financial sanctions to political purges. Under the new legislation, organizations must register as foreign agents with the Justice Ministry if they receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity.”

A report from Human Rights Watch shows more than 150 groups have been designated as “foreign agents,” including the Moscow-based Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North run by Rodion Sulyandziga, a non-governmental organization that provides the locals with rights advocacy training.

The activist leader was prevented from leaving Russia to attend the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014 after border control officers damaged his passport. His organization was then labeled as a foreign agent in 2015 with a fine of 300,000 roubles or about 4531 U.S. dollars. Police searched his house and briefly detained him in 2016, following his brother Pavel Sulyandziga’s participation in the State Duma elections as an opposition candidate. Pavel is currently seeking political asylum in Maine, the United States.

Rodion Sulyandziga believes the fundamental problem is the indigenous hold no legal claims to their land, which excludes them from planning development independently. Any opinions of the indigenous groups are considered voluntary rather than legal bidding. On top of that, the public hearings are often held in urban centers, far away to the tundra dwellers. The company representatives always speak in a scientific and managerial language that many Nenets cannot grasp.

Energy extraction in the Arctic is a contentious issue, with various competing claims on the resources and differing views about the appropriate pace and approach to exploiting them. Projects like Yamal assert Russian claims in the region, explained Richard Mallinson, a cross- energy analyst at Energy Aspects.

Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, there was an increasing discussion in Washington of how the United States could help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian pipeline gas.

“The reality is that LNG (produced in the U.S.) remains more expensive than Russian supplies from Gazprom, and so Russian gas will continue to make up a substantial share of European supply, particularly with new pipelines like Nord Stream 2 coming online.” said Mallinson.

Connecting Russia and Germany directly through the Baltic Sea, the 1,200-kilometer underwater twin pipeline is expected to begin operation in 2019 with a capacity of 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year, roughly 28% of Russia’s annual supply to Europe.

Mallinson added that President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies had introduced more uncertainty for U.S. allies and rivals alike, which created opportunities to Russia to adopt a more assertive foreign policy and China to expand its economic and political influence in many regions.

Having demonstrated remarkable resilience to colonization, civil war, and communist rule, the traditional livelihood of the Nenets is again challenged by outside forces. Anthropologist Dmitry Arzyutov referred their resilience as “the Nenets Phenomenon.” Their traditional practice is based on a changing landscape where a mutual understanding of nature guides the herders on how to share space and resources. This flexibility makes their way of living highly adaptive and sustainable, even during Stalin’s rule.

Beginning in the 1930’s, the Soviet government forced the reindeer herders into collectivization and persecuted the wealthy landlords. Deprived of their pastures, reindeer, and subsistence rights, most adult Nenets worked on large state farms and herding brigades, while children were sent to state-run boarding schools.

The enigmatic landscape and extreme climate of the tundra certainly helped shield the locals from Soviet dominance. Russian ethnographer Andrei Golovnev and American lawyer Gail Osherenko further explored the puzzle in a joint publication Siberia Survival. The Nenets have maintained a nomadic lifestyle that requires the daily practice of their traditional knowledge. Additionally, a minimalist ethic limits the need for material goods, whereas the economic autonomy of reindeer herding guarantees essential human needs.

More than 600 Nenets joined the Soviet army in 1941 and fought as the reindeer transport troops during World War II. In 2012, a monument was erected in one of the administrative centers to commemorate their sacrifice. Relatives said some veterans took the military service as an opportunity to see something different, “we saw the world with our army,” according to anthropologist Arzyutov.

Despite being patriotic, these indigenous herders always identify themselves as Nenets. Occasionally, the researcher would hear his hosts saying “you are from Russia and you know how to live in cities. But we are tundra people, and we have our own treasure and knowledge.”

At the end of his trip, Arzyutov and his extended family were hit by a blizzard. The horizon had sunk into oblivion. For two days they sat inside the chum, sipping hot tea. Arzyutov admired the innate optimism of the Nenets, a humorous perception of the ever-changing socio-economic development. They give funny names to their reindeer calves. They are curious about the life of the Inuits. They would make jokes of the drill rigs and use them as landmarks for navigation. “Maybe humor is all they have left.” said Arzyutov.

A special report on global warming released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Monday warns the world has only 12 years to phase out hydrocarbon fuels to avoid catastrophic environmental breakdown. The finding points out “tundra-dominated landscapes have warmed more than the global average over the last century, with associated increases in fires and permafrost degradation.”

As more extraction plants and infrastructure projects are planned for Yamal, the nomadic community is expected to see an even greater impact on the social-ecological system of the tundra. Will fortune continue to favor the resilient Nenets? If not, where will they go?

“Pitter-patter of hooves and whisper of sled runners. My proud reindeer, spare your strength!

But the leader runs through the snow and mist,

My proud reindeer in the tundra, following the trails.

And the old Yenisei rolls its waters along That’s how our life goes on,

Like a swift-flowing stream.”

(The cited poem in the article is told by reindeer herder and storyteller Pavel Yadne and translated into English by Greenpeace’s Elena Sakirko.)

Multimedia journalist in politics & international affairs. Cortado drinker. Columbia Journalism School and SIPA alum. Views are my own.

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