‘Final countdown for reindeer on Russian Tundra’ (Helsingin Sanomat)

January 30, 2008 • Philip BurgessReindeer, Reindeer Herders

The english edition of the national Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat carried an article by Kirsikka Moring on the impact of the oil and gas industry on reindeer husbandry. The journalist attended the ENSINOR seminar in Rovaniemi, December 2007. You can read a more nuanced summary of that seminar on the Reindeer Portal.

“The oil and gas industries in the north of Russia have experienced dizzying growth. As a result, the age-old reindeer herding culture is being destroyed.
      A three-year study launched by the Academy of Finland yielded alarming results. The head of the project, Professor Bruce Forbes gathered researchers from around the world to the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland to discuss the results. Also taking part were representatives of indigenous peoples who took part in the study.
Already now, the regions of Nenetsia and Yamal Nenetsia produce 90 per cent of Russia’s natural gas.
      There is an effort to move reindeer herding in Yamal in a controlled manner to reservations called “areas for the preservation of national livelihoods”. The world’s oldest pastoral cultures is slowly dying out.
      Entire villages are being moved without listening to the residents. For instance, in Varandey, in Nenetsia, villagers were forcibly moved by helicopter one morning out of the way of an oil terminal.
Cautiously optimistic reports suggest that there is hope that oil and gas companies, local administration, and reindeer herders might be able to resolve the problems of land use together at a negotiating table.
      The optimism did not win much support among representatives of the reindeer herders. “We are outsiders in our own lands, outlaws of the tundra”, they said. A Nenets without reindeer is a dead Nenets. “He can be shot in a snow bank any time, just like a dog.”
      The situation in Yamal is the most critical, because that is where Russia’s largest gas fields are located. Exploitation of the largest of them, the Bovanenkovo gas field owned by Gazprom, will begin in 2011. That is when construction of the new Yamal central gas pipeline will be completed.
      The Nenets wander with the reindeer herds 1700 kilometres from the winter feeding grounds to the summer feeding grounds of the Kara Sea in the north. There are an estimated 750,000 reindeer in Yamal, which is more than in all of Finland, Sweden, and Norway combined.
In addition to the pipeline, a railway is being built in the area, and alongside it, a large highway, and much more infrastructure. Joensuu University researcher Timo Kumpula and his team studied the impact of the construction.
      They combined interpretations of satellite pictures with observations on the ground. The study showed that already 30 per cent of the reindeer communities whose herds graze in the area are directly affected by the gas field. The danger is that passage of the reindeer through the gas fields will be prevented.
      Another hazard facing the reindeer is the waste, scrap metal, and broken glass left at the new and abandoned drilling sites.
      Kumpula and his group gathered information from 600 observation points in the terrain. Ten square kilometres of tundra was permanently without vegetation. Vehicular traffic and construction have altered vegetation on 29 square kilometres.
      “Indigenous peoples are living critical times”, Kumpula says.
Land use rights should be clarified, and existing legislation should be followed. Both researchers and reindeer herders agree: oil and gas companies should negotiate new construction contracts before making decisions. Now the sequenced is often the opposite, and mistakes can no longer be rectified.
      Sharing of information of government officials and energy companies with the reindeer herders is not working as it should. The information possessed by researchers and local players, such as geologists and engineers does correspond to practical reality. “There is no organisation in Yamal, which would gather the information of the various sides”, says Professor Forbes.
      Yamal administrative official Konstantin Oshepkov describes how laws were changed in 2001-2002. Nowadays an assessment of social impact is required before a drilling permit is granted. Important archaeological locations and sacred sites of the Nenets need to be protected.
      This has not taken place. Hearing the arguments of the various sides, as is required by the law, is also quite haphazard.
      “Reindeer herding in Yamal is fading away, just as it is in Hanti Mansijsk and the Taimyr Peninsula. Traditional areas are lost and new areas are not indicated”, says Mikhail Jar, representative of the Nadim region.
      According to Oshepkov, the coming five years will show how the herders will survive.
West of the Urals, in the autonomous region of Nenetsia, attempts are made to enforce the laws, but even there, the rapid growth of industry has taken on uncontrollable characteristics. A new oil pipeline that cuts through the reindeer areas is being planned there.
      A representative of the local reindeer-herding association says that there have been discussions about the routing of the pipeline. “However, it is difficult to see who will ultimately decide on the routing”, says Ignati Vilko. “We will be pushed aside. We will move our reindeer out of the way of other industry, but soon there will be no land where to go.”
University of Oulu researcher Tuula Tuisku has been collecting information since the 1990s both in the villages of Nenetsia and on the tundra. She has seen how the number of reindeer has grown, how the grazing areas have shrunk in places, and their condition declined. “The Nenets have been deprived of the tundra both physically and spiritually.”
      Tuisku says that people in Nenetsia have now learned to sit at negotiating tables. However, reindeer herders do not have confidence in agreements made with oil companies. Timely information is not provided. Another problem is in the different negotiating methods and the differing views of the two sides on who has the right to the tundra.
      The oil companies do not put enough funds back into the areas. Those who live on the tundra feel that the companies get the money, but the residents get only a polluted environment.
      Nevertheless, Tuisku says that the social programmes have developed in a positive direction.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 15.1.2008