Industrial development in the Yamal-Nenets region

by Bruce Forbes

Northwest Siberia is undergoing large-scale industrial development at a rapid pace as construction continues on a major transportation corridor meant to support petroleum extraction between Labytnangi and Bovanenko. A gas pipeline is planned and may eventually dissect the east-central Yamal peninsula. The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District is home to one of the largest untapped sources of natural gas and gas condensates.

This massive region remains as the homeland of the Yamal Nenets, as well as many Khants and a few Selkups, who graze their reindeer there. The basis for this indigenous but modern nomadic pastoralist economy is the seasonal exploitation of extensive tundra pastures. There are indications that the vegetation is moderately to severly overgrazed in places. Furthermore, cumulative impacts from the railway and service roads are already apparent in southern Yamal.

Archaeological work has shown that Nenets and their predecessors have lived in the region for over 1 000 years, following wild reindeer and fishing in the myriad of lakes and rivers.

In the Nenets' tongue, Yamal translates roughly as ''the end of the earth'' and it is an apt descripiton. The Yamal Peninsula juts out several hundred kilometers into the Kara Sea just east of Novaya Zemlya and is underlain by frozen ground, or permafrost, at depths which range up to 300 metres in places.

The present economy, based on large-scale domestic reindeer breeding, developed over the last 150-200 years and is geared to follow a six-season rotational cycle.

Slightly over half of the 9 000 indigenous people of the Yamalskii Raion lead a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle and 46 % of the tundra is utilized as pasture. Today three large state-farms (Yamalskii, Yarsalinskii and Panaevskii sovkhozy) direct the main economic activity of the indigenous peoples.

Petroleum development is a relative newcomer to the peninsula, with explorations begun in the late 1970s and the discovery of huge gas fields at Bovanenko and other sites in the early 1980s.
Pressures for development were increasing rapidly even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but took on new urgency as the need for hard currency became more acute after 1991.

Despite these recent disruptions, as well as 70 years of Soviet institutional pressures, Nenets culture has remained remarkably intact, including their own language and many traditions. Reindeer continue to provide transport, clothing, shelter, food and even sewing thread for the nomadic population.

However, all is not well. By 1980, large portions of the Gydan and southern Yamal Peninsulas were showing signs of overgrazing. Russian scientists estimate that the number of domestic reindeer on the Yamal peninsula is already 1.5 to 2 times the optimum for the region.

They also note that ongoing oil and gas exploitation is constantly reducing the area of tundra suitable for pasture. Land managers from the okrug also report serious overgrazing in some areas with the result that researchers at the Yamal agricultural station in Salekhard call for drastic cuts in the herds, especially on the peninsula. Unfortunately for the Nenets, under the enforced system of collectivization the boundaries between the sovkhozy became rigid, reducing the flexibility that herders had used to cope with natural fluctuations in climate, vegetation and animal populations.

Russian scientists have observed that plant cover is already completely destroyed over 450 km2 within oil and gas fields and 1 800 km2 along the main pipelines.
They estimate the total area of destroyed vegetation to be about 2 500 km2. Based on the Tyumen oblast's present plans, they assert that the area of explored gas and oil fields will increase to 16 200 km2 and the portion with completely destroyed vegetation will increase to 5 500 km2.
These figures do not include the further degradation that is expected to occur due to overgrazing by reindeer.

Construction has not yet begun on the pipelines that will be necessary to transport gas from the Yamal Peninsula to an existing existing pipeline network further south and west in the Barents region.

Thus, the damage already sustained to the tundra ecosystems has been entirely from the exploration and infrastructure phases of petroleum development.
In other words, although no gas will likely be flowing for many years, extensive impacts have already resulted from drill pad, road and railway construction, geological (seismic) surveys, off-road vehicle traffic and quarrying for gravel and sand to facilitate construction of each of these various platforms.
The transport of oil and natural gas by ship from the Yamal-Nenets area has been presented as an option to the construction of a lengthy pipeline system. While at first sight this would seem to reduce the environmental risks posed by the pipeline option, it does bring with it new problems. These include the building of a ship terminal in the area for handling the goods, the disturbances brought about by increased shipping in the area and theincreased risk of tanker accidents in the area, with potentially dramatic impacts for the fragile ecosystem.

Interviews with Nenets revealed a long list of changes in the land related either directly or indirectly to the development:

During my time on Yamal I have been able to corroborate most of these points either personally or through acquaintances. The dual impacts of intensive grazing and industrial development combine to create a scale of actual and potential surface disturbance not found anywhere else in the tundra ecoregion.

Outsiders who harbour a ''romantic'' view of the Arctic might find it lamentable to see the familiar patterns of colonisation appearing in an aboriginal group which has retained its strong cultural traditions and sense of self up until and indeed right through the 20th century. But who are we to make the decisions for them?

As well, the Russian survey and maintenance crews who are accused of degrading the land have problems of their own. Salaries range from paltry and rare to non-existant and crews are often supplied with a few staples such as meat, flour, tea, tobacco and vodka.
Who can blame them for going after fresh fish ? And who can even imagine - much less have access to or afford - things like special phosphate-free detergents which might help protect the water quality ? The mere concept is absurd given the context of what appears to most Russians to be a handful of herders scattered over thousands of square kilometers of pristine wilderness.

Among the migratory Nenets and most of the migrant Russian labourers and scientists the cultural gulf is so wide as to be a canyon. It is to be hoped that by the time the petroleum development goes ahead, enough is understood about the environmental implications to mitigate against the worst of them.

Many Nenets will certainly continue to live in the several towns which border the region. Perhaps just as many will continue to herd reindeer, though they may do so with the help of snowmobiles and other adopted technologies, as is done in the Sapmi region of northern Fennoscandia. Perhaps the number of reindeer will be reduced so as not to exceed the carrying capacity of the pastures.

In the best of all possible worlds, any future changes will be made according to the choices of the people themselves, for whom their culture is at stake, and not by the minions of remote governmental bureaucracies, petroleum companies or well-wishing scientists.

Yehudi D.D. van de Pol
C/o a seed Europe
PO Box 92066
1090 AB Amsterdam
tel: +31 20 668 22 36
fax: +31 20 468 22 75

Bruce Forbes has also published an article in 'Wild Earth' Fall 1999: The End of the Earth. Threats to the Yamal Region's Cultural and Biologcal Diversity. Bruce Forbes is senior scientist in environmental science and policy at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland (