Nenets nightmare

Ada Wordsworth looks at what the climate crisis means for Russia’s reindeer herders

THE indigenous Nenets people are nomads living in the icy tundra of Russia’s far north. For a thousand years Nenets reindeer herders have migrated to summer pastures on the Yamal Peninsula above the Arctic Circle, returning south in winter. This 800-mile journey over frozen rivers and permafrost has always been challenging. But now climate change, with its summer droughts and winter rains, poses a threat to the Nenets’ way of life – and so does Russia’s development of Yamal’s vast natural gas deposits.

The annual migration includes a 30-mile crossing of the frozen waters of the Ob River but, due to rising temperatures, the river doesn’t freeze nowadays until late December. Global warming affects weather conditions in other ways: thousands of reindeer died of starvation a few years ago because rain in February turned the tundra into a sheet of ice and the herd were unable to graze for lichen. Scientists say this kind of freakish event will become more common as the climate warms. This summer the town of Verkhoyansk recorded the highest temperature ever in the Arctic, hitting 38 degrees Celsius.

Climate informs the identity of the Nenets, as does the reindeer. Not only is the animal a  source of food, income, shelter, transportation and clothing for the herders. Seasonal migration also sets the rhythm of life. ‘In our world, if a herder is left without reindeer, he has nothing else. Nothing,’ one of them says.

The Nenets’ case is just one of many examples of the impact of climate change on indigenous people in Russia who continue to live by traditional means. From the Saami in the West Arctic, to the Yakuts in Siberia, most of Russia’s indigenous ethnic groups are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change. The melting permafrost is also causing a resurgence of anthrax, which is deadly to humans and reindeer alike. In the summer of 2016, a boy and over two thousand reindeer died from anthrax poisoning – and dozens of people got sick – because the thawing permafrost allowed animal carcasses buried during an earlier anthrax outbreak, in the 1940s, to re-emerge still bearing the infectious microbes. 

In the Nenets language, yamalmeans ‘end of the world’. Ironically, Russia’s determination to exploit the natural resources beneath the herders’ homeland could spell the end for their traditional way of life, even before climate change does. Under the reindeer pastures of the Yamal peninsula are huge gas deposits holding almost a quarter of the world’s known reserves. Since the 1990s, Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, which supplies more than a third of the European Union’s imports, has been actively destroying the habitat and migration routes of the Nenets people in order to build drilling sites. Pipelines and railways crisscross the tundra. The Bovanenkovo gas field, the largest on Yamal, is now an obstacle as wide as the Ob River blocking the Nenets’ migration path. Relentless expansion of Russia’s gas industry will also exacerbate the long-term problem of global warming.

High hopes for climate change

Last month Russia’s energy minister Alexander Novak confirmed that the government has no plans to decrease oil and gas production in the coming decades. By 2030, Yamal could be producing more than a third of Russia’s total gas output, as much as 15 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, according to Gazprom’s boss Alexei Miller.

The Kremlin’s defence of its fossil fuel agenda rests on a loophole in the Paris Agreement that bases the emissions reduction target on 1990 levels of carbon. This was a year before the Soviet Union collapsed, along with its industrial activity. The Paris target of a 30% decrease in emissions is therefore easy pickings for Russia, and will almost certainly be achieved.

The Kremlin is able to continue to push the growth of oil and natural gas without worrying about repercussions. In fact, Russia is warming at a rate that is two and a half times faster than the rest of the world. Last winter in Moscow was the mildest on record, with the result that fake snow had to be imported into the city for the traditional New Year celebrations. Yet there is a macabre sense in which many Russian officials believe that climate change will actually be good for Russia. Take its Northern Sea Route from the Arctic coast to the Bering Strait, for example. It has been compared to the Suez Canal in terms of potential but is frozen for 10 months of the year. Once climate change takes effect, the shipping route won’t only be usable during the summer.

Yet even though the climate crisis is so visible here, opinion polls show that only 33% of Russians see it as a serious problem. Arshak Makichyan, a climate activist in Moscow, told me that global warming is a difficult topic for people to understand. ‘Fossil-fuel companies in Russia are government-owned so there is a conflict of interest, and a lot of the media are also owned by the government, or directly by the fossil-fuel companies themselves, so they’ve been silent about climate change or misled people about its causes, saying “yes, the climate is changing but it’s not because of human activity – it’s because of the sun or something else,”’ Makichyan said.

‘Historically we are dependent on oil and gas,’ says Dasha Khamaza, an 18-year-old activist based in St Petersburg. ‘Many people might not see an alternative because any change, any alternative requires some sort of sacrifice or transition. And most people, especially the older generation, are not ready to change or to live in a new world. Because of the economy and a fear of societal change many people are very resistant.’

Nevertheless there is a history of climate activism within the Nenets community. Yuri Vella, who died in 2013, was a poet, writer and environmental activist. He battled with the oil giant Lukoil to preserve Siberian pastures for his reindeer and argued that indigenous peoples had the right to shape a sustainable future relationship with nature and their neighbours. Though Vella remains a symbol of resistance, the Russian government has cracked down on activism in the Yamal peninsula since his death. The Nenets’ cause is increasingly marginalised and was dealt a further blow when the Kremlin refused to sign up to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A lack of information is the problem. Until the urgency of the Nenets’ predicament is recognised in Russia and beyond, there is little hope for change. However, the Nenets’ present is our future. The climate crisis may have come first for indigenous ways of life, but the rest of us will not be far behind.

Ada Wordsworth is studying Russian at University College London and working as a volunteer at Pushkin House

Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager/Unsplash

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