Yamal Peninsula, Northwest Siberia

Yamal's Contested Terrain: A Brief Introduction


Norman Chance

In northwest Siberia, oil and gas development has expanded dramatically over the past several decades. Stretching from the Ural Mountains in the west to Novosibirsk in the south, this region produces 78 percent of the Russia's oil and 84 percent of its natural gas; and it is expected to increase its petro-chemical industry significantly within the next decade.

The area is also inhabitated by seven indigenous Native populations as well as a much larger number of immigrant workers. The Yamal-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Regions, situated within the Tyumen Oblast [province], represent the center of this development, producing many billions of cubic meters of gas and millions of tons of oil annually. However, the ecological and social costs have also been tremendous as existing oil, gas, and other forms of industrial production pollute the surrounding air, water, and land to an almost unimaginable extent.

One rapidly developing area is the Nenets Autonomous Okrug [district], including Yamal Peninsula, a large parcel of land jutting out into the Kara Sea above the Arctic Circle. Today, the total population of the okrug is approximately one half million of which the indigenous Nenets and Khanty represent a little over thirty thousand. Yamal Peninsula's physical structure is unique with permafrost over 300 meters deep in some areas. Lakes and rivers are rich with fish, and on the tundra reside over 210,000 reindeer, the majority of them under the control of several state farms. The peninsula is also the location of Russia's largest known untapped gas reserves.

The earliest sedentary peoples of Yamal hunted caribou on the tundra, harpooned seals, walruses and beluga on the waters and ice of the Kara Sea, and caught white fish in hundreds of tundra rivers and lakes. About a 1000 years ago, the Nenets moved into the area. Eventually assimilating the earlier inhabitants, they followed a nomadic lifestyle based on reindeer breeding, as did a number of Khanty who also settled in the same general locality.

Arctic reindeer pastoralists, the Yamal Nenets and Khanty traveled great distances up and down the peninsula, moving from northern tundra pastures in summer to the more protected sub-Arctic taiga in winter. By 1900, a few families had amassed thousands of reindeer, but most herds were much smaller, ranging from several dozen to several hundred.

The culture and technology of the Nenets and Khanty were well adapted to the nomad pastoralist lifestyle of this arctic environment. Traditional social institutions based on clan membership allowed them to share animals and food, unite and divide herds, and use all nearby resources. Religion and other cultural beliefs stressed respect for the land and its resources. Sacred sites, found in key locations, were considered very holy; as were 'stick god' representations. Made of wood, they were brought by the Nenets from the winter shelter of the tiaga to the treeless pastures of the north in summer.

Beginning in the early 1930s, Yamal and other regions of the Russian north underwent a dramatic series of changes. Following Stalin's vision of socialist development, the Soviet government forced Nenets and Khanty reindeer breeders on to newly established collective farms (kolkhozy) while prosecuting the rich kulak owners. Boarding schools were also established, first for children of nomadic families, and later for those of settled villagers as well. Turning children over to state-run schools eventually led to serious adjustment problems for young people who, after ten or more years of Soviet education, retained little knowledge of their parent's subsistence economy, family life, and native language.

Three decades later, the collective farms were transformed again into state-owned "soviet farms."(sovkhozy). Deprived of their lands, subsistence rights, and reindeer, most Nenets of Yamal became hired workers in reindeer breeding state enterprises, although about 1750 indigenous residents, comprising 343 households, still have small private herds, living on the tundra and more southern tiaga largely separate from the collective economic system.

It should be noted, however, that prior to the discovery of huge gas deposits in Yamal, the region's economy had once again become stabilized. This included the establishment of sustainable fishing and hunting enterprises along with the reindeer breeding industry. Severe problems of tuberculosis among the young were also largely brought under control. And while boarding schools brought adjustment difficulties for parents as well as children, the latter did have the opportunity to continue their education beyond the primary level. Special incentives including financial support enabled indigenous students with demonstrated academic abilities to enter higher level educational institutes and universities as well.

A major problem facing the people and the government is how to assure a sustainable future forYamal's Nenets and Khanty peoples - culturally as well as environmentally. At present, the Yamal native people's association, Yamal Potomkan [Yamal for Future Generations], has limited experience and no legal base. The legislative status of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug is also unclear, thereby further hindering legal improvements for Yamal's indigenous people. In such circumstances, questions about gas development can be addressed with little if any serious negotiations - or a few urban-based native elites, strongly influenced by regional bureaucrats and powerful industrial managers, could sign documents that fail to solve the problems of land, resources, and compensation in an equitable manner.

In the early 1980s, Bovanenkovo and several other major gas fields were discovered in the west-central sector of Yamal Peninsula making the region a prime target for future development. Given their immense potential, large numbers of non-native workers were soon drawn to newly constructed towns by offers of high wages and improved housing associated with the expanding petroleum industry. At this same time, a law was passed replacing national minority okrugs with autonomous ones, removing in the process all reference to native peoples. Election to these new administrative bodies was by equal suffrage, which meant that the indigenous population, by now a small minority, were excluded from any meaningful participation in the political decision-making process. As a result, when construction began on a railroad in southern Yamal that eventually destroyed 594,000 hectares of pasture and more than 24,000 reindeer, local indigenous leaders were unable to mount effective resistance.

While giving little attention to the needs of the Nenets, Khanty, and other indigenous peoples, the Yamal-Nenets Okrug administration did demand from regional and central government authorities compensation for the steadily expanding land utilized by the oil and gas ministries for railroad and pipeline construction. Their appeals, however, met with little success.

By 1987, without an environmental impact assessment, and largely bypassing the demands of the local administration and indigenous population, preliminary construction began in the Bovanenkovo gas field. Work was also begun on building a railroad and adjacent series of pipelines that would travel down the center of the peninsula and then west, across the Kara Sea basin at Baidaratskaya Bay, eventually reaching the industrial centers of eastern and western Europe. Recognizing that these efforts would seriously disrupt the Nenets and Khanty subsistence-based economy, the regional and Moscow-based gas ministries acknowledged that some compensation should be given to local native residents - although no specific amount was ever decided upon.

Two years later, after assessing the extremely high costs of the project, all activities aimed at the immediate "all-out-development" of Yamal were temporarily suspended. Other factors influencing this decision included opposition by the newly formed State Committee for Environmental Protection, along with protests by local administrative bodies, indigenous peoples, and various environmental organizations. These protests had been initiated when it became obvious that development of this new region - the last resource reserve of the Tyumen North - would be affected by the same ecologically destructive industrial methods as had been practiced in the nearby Urengoy, Zapolarny, and Medvezhy fields of the Pur-Tazov district.

Just to the south of Yamal in the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region, an earlier petroleum development had had a similar devastating impact on the Nenets and Khanty people living in that area. In some localities, as much as a third of summer pasture had been taken over by oil ministries for construction purposes, forcing greater overgrazing on the remaining tundra. Those engaged in commercial fishing on the Ob River basin had seen their waters seriously contaminated by pollutants flowing north from southern industrial centers. Funds designated by Moscow state planning agencies for improved housing, education, health services, and vocational retraining of the rural indigenous populous, were regularly siphoned off by local and regional administrations and then reallocated to larger towns and cities to be used for construction of administrative buildings, recreational centers, and the like. Special laws and decrees designed to protect the interest of the Nenets and Khany were also disregarded.

With the breakup the Soviet Union in 1991, and Russia facing an extremely difficult economic transition to a more capitalist-oriented economy, Yamal's role as a major national resource again received major attention. Unfortunately, a combination of factors including continuing problems of financing, outmoded technology, complex hydrologic and permafrost conditions, a difficult working environment, and the central government's demand for rapid construction, may well bring about a serious deterioration in the environment and equally significant economic and social problems for its indigenous peoples - a very high price to pay for a short-term economic effect.

In 1988, responding to earlier threats to their subsistence economy and cultural survival, the Nenets formed Yamal Potomkan ("Yamal for Future Generations"), an indigenous organization designed to work with legal and executive bodies in the region to improve their economic and social conditions as well as strengthen their political autonomy. However, with little experience and no recognized legal base, its political power is severely limited. The 1993 disbanding of the local Yamal-Nenets legislative council further hindered its political development. Now, other administrators are responsible for making major decisions over land and resource use. In most instances, these administrators, together with their higher level ministerial counterparts in Moscow, are committed to initiating full scale gas extraction in Yamal Peninsula at the earliest possible moment.

A new scientific feasibility study offering precise recommendations for sound environmental protection as well as addressing the interests of the region's Native people has been submitted to the government for consideration. Proposed recommendations include the utilization of special methods of construction in biologically sensitive localities; the building of houses, schools; and hospitals in Native settlements; the offering of increased social services; and the establishment of special protection areas enabling the indigneous population to continue reindeer herding and similar forms of traditional subsistence.

The region's gas ministry [Nadymgazprom], has also encouraged local residents to become direct participants in its economic development by obtaining shares in the nearby industrial enterprises. Whether this effort will turn potential adversaries into active supporters, remains to be seen. Certainly shares held by indigenous residents will be far too small in number to influence government policies in any meaningful way.

The most serious problem is where to find the funds to put these recommendations into effect. Even if they might be so inclined, the newly elected deputies of the State Duma are unable to exert much influence. Nor does the economic crisis in Russia appear to be subsiding. Under the circumstances, it is quite likely that Yamal's future gas production will be undertaken with minimal attention focused on the rights and needs of its indigenous population; or a few urban indigenous elites, strongly influenced by regional bureaucrats and powerful industrial managers, will sign documents that fail to solve the problems of the land, resources, and compensation in an equitable manner. If this turns out to be the case, Nenets and Khanty will continue to live under conditions of increasing turmoil and social depravation, while the natural resources from their land provide new wealth to those holding the reins of power.

Needless to say, future conflicts are not limited to the Nenets and Khanty. Competition over who should benefit from the land's oil and gas wealth has also resulted in a sharply escalating struggle between local and regional political bodies. In September and October of 1996, the Yamal-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug Dumas voted to ignore a presidential decree ordering them to hold elections for the regional Tyumen Oblast governnor simultaneously with their own elections. [The rest of Tyumen only has a small amount of oil and gas.]

By such action, the two areas, wishing to gain greater economic control over their local resources, effectively withdrew from the Tyumen Oblast, declaring themselves independent in the process. The electoral conflict was only resolved following negotiations between leaders of the two Dumas and Moscow's First Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff, Aleksandr Karakov. What are the long term prospects for the Nenets, Khanty, local and regional administrations in this region? Together, it constitutes the richest segment within all of Russia. If the okrugs were to split off from Tyumen, it would serve as an important precedent for renegotiating other internal Russian borders - including the possible division of Chechnya. Under the circumstances, considerable attention will be given to this continuing conflict in the months and years ahead.



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