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The Oil Adventure and Indigenous People in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (Northwestern Russia)

30 Nov 2003

Approximately 6500 Nenets and 5000 Komi indigenous people, most of them somehow related to reindeer husbandry, live in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO). Large portions of Nenets reindeer pastures, especially in the neighbouring Yamal area, were devastated by reckless oil prospecting in the 1960s to 1980s. Recent years have witnessed an increasing interest in the hydrocarbon occurrences in the NAO. Naturally, people are worried about their future. How have conditions, policies and attitudes changed in modern Russia?

In addition to the high unemployment among indigenous peoples, the situation in the reindeer husbandry sector is deteriorating: decreasing numbers of reindeer, misappropriation, absence of appropriate marketing schemes for products. These and other factors provoke a general degradation of indigenous society. A Federal law on land use rights for indigenous communities has been in force since 2000, but new political policies are developing, which try to remove certain rights from the law. Legal norms for implementation are still absent, and a regional legislation on this issue does almost not exist in the NAO. In 2002, the okrug administration developed regional regulations for the establishment of so-called Territories of Traditional Nature Use, and a few of such territories for reindeer farms were created. But this was mainly done on paper, and the regulations are not applied in reality. Land can be allotted for industrial and resource-extraction purposes, while users receive miserly financial compensations.

Until recent years, the NAO Administration was in charge of representing the interests of the indigenous peoples in these allotment processes. Participation of the indigenous peoples’ organisations and representatives of the concerned communities and farms is a fairly new achievement. Processes result in agreements, where the amount of financial compensation is regulated. In an open letter of October 2002 to President Putin, the Association of Nenets People “Yasavey” complained about an uncontrolled situation, which has developed around the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the NAO, accusing oil companies for grave violations of ecological standards and Russian legislation. The letter expresses the impression that many companies, in particular Russian ones, have not changed their attitudes since the 1970s. Especially in the southeastern part of the NAO, there seems to be no control whatsoever. Numerous oil spillages and other degradations of the upper soil layers occur periodically in the tundra during the summer season, inflicting irreparable damage to the Arctic natural environment. Not only the oil companies are to be blamed for this situation, but also the Okrug Administration, which does not fulfill their functions when it comes to surveying and monitoring.

Nenets and Komi in this region have for many centuries maintained a traditional way of life rooted firmly in reindeer husbandry in the area. These are the people who mainly suffer as a result of the attitudes of newcomers to the Arctic natural environment, in spite of all legal guarantees.

The most effective means to achieve positive interactions between indigenous peoples, government and companies is the establishment of transparent contractual relations. Roundtable fora were held. Several oil companies participated in a constructive dialog, while others – including foreign ones – refused to attend.

The Yasavey Association and the “Union of Geologists and Oil Workers of the North” have established a work group to assess the overall problems of the NAO concerned with hydrocarbon exploitation. Oil companies are financing this group, but do not sufficiently participate in problem solving.

Up-to-date technology with clean production, however, is largely being employed by other companies such as Polyarnoe Siyanie (Russian-American) at Ardalinskoye, TotalFinaElf (French-Belgian) at Kharyaginskoe, etc. So, the choice is there. But time is short, and appropriate attitudes towards environmental problems have still to be developed, both in the companies and throughout the authorities in post-Soviet Russia.

The pdf file is available by purchase in the link:


Status: Completed

Type: Staff Publications

Author: UNEP/GRID-Arendal

Year of publication: 2003

Publisher: Polar Environmental Times

Tags: indigenous peoples oil Russia

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