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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Environmental Impact of Oil and Gas Development

Oil and Gas Development: Environmental and Social Impacts

<<< Clean-up Practices and Restoration of Ecosystems | Environmental Problems Index | Prospects for the Future >>>

Reindeer Herding: A Conflict Between Industrial Development and a Traditional Way of Life

The main social problem inflicted by degradation of the tundra is that of reindeer pastures. For centuries, reindeer have been the mainstay of the native economy and few alternative occupations are available for the indigenous population (Osherenko, 1995a; Pika and Bogoyavlensky, 1995). Reindeer pastures in Russia occupy 350 million hectares which support 1.7 million domesticated reindeer and more than 1 million wild reindeer (Goskomstat, 1996). Much of this remote land remains undisturbed. However, Yamal (and, to a lesser extent, Taymyr) is a focus of serious concern. The oil- and gas-producing area is home for over 54 000 indigenous people (35 per cent of the total native population of the Russian north); it accounts for 50 per cent of all tundra pastures and accommodates 47 per cent of the reindeer (Goskomstat, 1996). The YNAO is one of a few places where large-scale herding, which uses extensive migration, exists. Reindeer herding is highly adapted to natural conditions such as seasonal and spatial variations in vegetation and climate. Reindeer herds winter in the forest-tundra zone in the south of the YNAO; migrate to the pastures of central Yamal in spring, and move further north to the coast in summer. Not only do oil-and gasflelds occupy some of these pasture lands, but pipelines and railways cut across the migration routes. Estimates by Vilchek and Bykova (1992) and Bykova (1995) suggest that 5 million hectares have been withdrawn from the traditional type of land use of which 3.5 million hectares are accounted for by gas and oil extraction and 1.5 million hectares by geological prospecting. It is difficult to produce precise evaluations.

One reason is that the disturbance of vegetation extends beyond the actual lands withdrawn from herding. The quality of pastures is affected by pollution and data on degradation of vegetation are at present insufficient. Another reason is unauthorized land use which makes much of the land use statistics unreliable and often meaningless. For example, between 1962 and 1987, 91 400 hectares were allotted for oil production and geological prospecting in the KMAO; however, 56 000 wells had been constructed which require 250000 hectares (Khruschev, 1991). Industrial development has intensified pressures initially created by the traditional economic activities. Overgrazing has long been a problem on Yamal. Already in the 19th century, the Nenets of Yamal developed large-scale reindeer breeding as opposed to small domestic herds typical of the taiga zone. Traditional social institutions based on clan membership allowed the Nenets to unite and divide herds and use all available resources, while religion and traditions required respect to nature and its wealth. Together with an increase in the number of reindeer in the 20th century from 200 000 in 1922 to 508 000 in 1996 (Podkorytov, 1995; Goskomstat, 1996), the system of ownership and structure of the economy have changed dramatically.

The Soviet policy on Yamal, as elsewhere in the USSR, was to replace a system of family ownership by state farms. Family herds were amalgamated into large herds owned by state farms and pastures were divided between the farms. The most disruptive element of this reorganization of the native economy was the fact that boundaries between the state farms became rigid and herders lost the flexibility of coping with natural fluctuations of climate, vegetation, and reindeer population (Osherenko, 1995я). Because of this, the quality of pastures and their capacity to support herds has been declining since the 1930s and through the 'pre-industrial' period. Thus in 1936, pastures of the YNAO were capable of supporting 700 000 reindeer, in 1950 this number dropped to 520 000 and in 1954 to 480000 (Khruschev, 1991). However, if between the 1930s and the 1950s there still was the possibility of transferring herds to the virgin lands, providing time for restoration of the used pastures, there is no such potential now when land is withdrawn for industrial development.

Degradation of reindeer pastures is also a problem on the Taymyr peninsula although it has not reached the critical proportions of Yamal (Shchelkunova, 1993). The enormous emissions of sulphur dioxide produced through processing of copper and nickel mined locally have had a disastrous effect on the quality of pastures (Shchelkunova, 1993). No serious attempt at restoration has been made and natural rehabilitation leads to the replacement of valuable shrub and lichen species, which form a basis of reindeer diet, by sedges and cotton grass and, therefore, does not restore pastures to their original quality and capacity (Shchelkunova, 1993). The construction and exploitation of the Messoyakha-Norilsk gas pipeline caused damage to over 570 000 hectares of previously high quality reindeer pastures, which were subsequently withdrawn from utilization, and disrupted seasonal migration routes.

Industrial development in the Russian Arctic has created a conflict between economic benefits for the economy nationwide and preserving the regional environment and maintaining the traditional way of life. The deteriorating state of reindeer breeding, particularly in the YNAO, and the settlement of nomads in poorly equipped villages devoid of housing and jobs have created multiple social and health problems (Pika and Bogoyavlensky, 1995). The North American experience has shown that the indigenous population can benefit from oil and gas development and that environmental protection and maintenance of the traditional way of life are not an obstacle to the development of non-renewable resources (Osherenko and Young, 1989; Chance and Andreeva, 1995). However, success in maintaining indigenous economies strongly depends on the property and political rights of the minorities. The rights of indigenous peoples in the Russian north and possibilities of its transformation have been researched in depth by Osherenko (1995a, b).

At present, the system of land-ownership and use in the YNAO has elements of state, common, and private property. Land is legally owned by the state. However, land management is the responsibility of the local administration, which has authority to allocate and transfer land use rights and is in most instances committed to full-scale development. State farms, the main traditional land users, are to be consulted prior to transfer of land use rights to industry. However, their role in decision making is limited. Until recently, compensation for the transfer of land from state farms to oil and gas companies was received by local authorities and represented an important component of their budgets. Given that local authorities also received a percentage of export revenue, their preferred investment was into improving infrastructure (e.g., transportation network, power lines, etc.) largely for the benefit of industry, and social conditions in industrial settlements dominated by migrants. A positive local legislative initiative on Yamal was the adoption of a new legislation according to which, from 1993, 50 per cent of compensation is to be received by state farms (Osherenko, 1995a).

This provides an opportunity to improve conditions and supplies in the native settlements, which deteriorated with the collapse of the traditional market for products of reindeer herding and the withdrawal of state support to the farms. Where limited property rights have been allocated to individuals or families, the economic status of some families has been improved. However, unethical bargaining practices are widespread (Osherenko 1995a, b). Compensation, even when used for the benefit of the indigenous population, however, does not provide a fundamental solution to the long-standing problems. In order to protect remaining pastures and benefit from the development, the native population needs a wider role in decision making. Co-management arrangements, in which governmental structures and native groups share power over management of land and wildlife, have become a practice in Canada and Alaska (Osherenko, 1988) and may be a useful approach in the Russian north. An obvious difference, of course, is that in Alaska and northern Canada, the main traditional occupations of the indigenous peoples are hunting, trapping, and fishing and it is much easier to combine these activities with industrial development than the large-scale reindeer herding of Yamal.

However, unlike North America, Russian legislation does not provide a clear foundation for indigenous claims. Although Article 69 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation 'guarantees the rights of numerically small indigenous peoples in accordance with the generally accepted principles and standards of international law and international treaties' (Constitution of the Russian Federation, 1993), these rights are not clarified and elaborated. An indigenous organization, Yamal for the Future Generations, formed by the Nenets of Yamal in 1988, and an Association of Numerically Small Peoples of the North, formed in 1989, have been campaigning with some success for improving the rights of northern minorities and better implementation of existing rights, and has been successful in attracting public attention to these issues (Vakhtin, 1992). Their lobbying played an important role in postponing a new massive project of gas development on Yamal (Vitebsky, 1990). However, a law 'On the Legal Status of the Numerically Small Peoples of the North', first called for in 1989 as a definitive document on the rights of northern minorities, has not yet been adopted. Moreover, in contradiction to trends in international legislation on indigenous rights, succeeding drafts of the law have been drifting away from the protection of indigenous rights towards the protection of their traditional occupations, thereby threatening benefits of those who are not directly involved in traditional occupations (Fondahl, 1995).

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