Dmitry Berezhkov. The Yamal’s reindeer herders are facing a perfect storm

The energy companies attract migrant workers, who settle in the region. If they have no work between shifts they go and fish in the rivers, drink in the village bars, sometimes have relationships with local women, which can be a source of tension. And of course there’s the effect of global climate change. People in the Yamal have already died or been seriously ill due to anthrax, or the “Siberian plague”, being released from melting permafrost. The changing climate means that unusual rainfall freezes quickly and forms ice over the snow, which prevents reindeer from grazing. Poaching by energy workers is a big issue, as is pollution. This means there’s double the pressure on local wildlife, alongside temperature changes in the rivers due to global warming. For example, there’s a local fish, the muksun, which is a delicacy in local cuisine and provided good income to local Nenets people who sold them to the workers. But now, there are almost no muksun left. Wealthy oil and gas executives who developed a taste for the fish have to buy it from Canada!

According to Russian law, all areas around the edge of the country’s landmass count as border regions. This includes the Yamal, as it’s located in the Russian Arctic. To go there, you need an invitation from a local resident or organisation, which is of course signed by the FSB [Russian security services.]

So when the companies and the authorities say that they spoke with the reindeer herders and that the herders agreed to everything, it’s hard to really know how that discussion went. Officials could have just come to their campsites with a piece of paper and said “you need to sign this.”

From a practical point of view, it’s wise for any reindeer herder to just sign any such paper. Because high bureaucracy can’t help you, but it can certainly hurt you. For example, we have some cases when a police helicopter comes to a nomadic camp and tells them “you’re catching too much fish, and that makes you a poacher.” They can come to nomadic camps and ask why they don’t keep their guns in a safe, as demanded by Russian law. Even if you’re a reindeer herder.

Nobody will touch you if you mind your own business, but if you raise your voice, you could face trouble.

Russian version:

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