The flare stack at the Yarudeiskoye gas well burned brightly through the long Arctic night, lighting up the treeless tundra in northern Russia as compressors filled the air with an incessant whine.
Indigenous Nenets reindeer herders said oil and gas operations in the Yamal region — exploration activity that includes hundreds of wells, and dozens of trains and tankers — are polluting the environment and harming their animals’ health.
However, avoiding the gas fields in Yamal, 2,000km northeast of Moscow, is becoming harder as fossil-fuel infrastructure creeps across the region, spurred on by tax breaks passed last month as part of Russia’s new Arctic development strategy.
Illustration: Mountain People
At the same time, the strain on the Nenets’ traditional livelihood is compounded by climate change, with extreme weather events and disease outbreaks killing tens of thousands of reindeer over the past few decades, the herders said.
“If we don’t convey to people that the Earth is being destroyed, then indigenous peoples will be destroyed,” herder and advocate Yeiko Serotetto told reporters in his family’s reindeer-hide tent.
“With such barbaric methods of conquering the Arctic, in 100 years [reindeer herding] won’t exist,” he said.
People in Yamal have been partially domesticating reindeer for hunting, transport, food, clothing and shelter for much of the past two millennia.
Today, about 10,000 reindeer herders in Yamal — who make up one-fifth of Russia’s Nenets population — migrate up to 1,300km across the tundra in the course of each year.
They travel from the forest’s northern edge to the Arctic coast, where summer winds give the reindeer a brief respite from mosquitoes and botflies as they build up fat.
With the Arctic warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, according to the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, “rain-on-snow” events have become more common across the region.
When temperatures fall below freezing after such rainstorms, they create a nearly impenetrable crust of ice over the lichen that reindeer rely on for food over the winter.
Rain-on-snow events have worsened over the past 15 years, according to locals and Arctic experts. The biggest in the past few years killed about 61,000 reindeer in the fall and winter of 2013-2014.
Warming weather also led to a record heat wave in Yamal in 2016 that caused an anthrax outbreak, killing more than 2,650 reindeer and a 12-year-old Nenets boy.
A state report said that unprecedented thawing of permafrost soil had unleashed anthrax spores that had been trapped in a frozen reindeer carcass for at least 75 years.
During a hot summer in 2018, the Serotetto family also lost nearly one-third of its herd to necrobacillosis, a bacterial foot infection that a Norwegian study suggested is more active in warm, moist weather.
The herders “have never lacked the confidence in their skills to navigate what’s happening, but right now they’re getting worried,” said University of Lapland professor Bruce Forbes, an author of a study looking at changes in the region.
Part of the threat to the Nenets way of life stems from the natural gas beneath their animals’ hooves.
Almost half of the EU’s growing gas imports came from Russia last year, much of them from Yamal, where the government claims to have more than one-fifth of the world’s reserves.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an Arctic fossil-fuel stimulus package that slashes taxes on new liquified natural gas and gas chemical projects to zero percent for the first 12 years.
Despite the plunge in energy prices amid the COVID-19 pandemic, oil and gas projects in the region are pushing ahead.
Novatek and Gazprom, two of Russia’s largest gas producers, already have several large operations in the area, and both have publicly stated that they would keep building new gas terminals, refineries, pipelines and fields through the pandemic.
The Yamal region uses revenues from energy to pay herders a monthly subsidy of 5,000 rubles (US$67), and oil and gas companies often give away snowmobiles to the top wrestlers and sleigh racers at the annual Reindeer Herders’ Day celebrations.
However, many locals and advocates said that is not enough compensation for the environmental impact of massive hydrocarbon projects.
A Russian state-funded study published last year found that concentrations of mercury were above safe levels in the soil at all 20 sites examined in central Yamal, linking the high levels to air pollution.
The governor’s office told reporters in a statement that Yamal residents are given the chance to have their say on hydrocarbon projects through letters and public hearings.
However, Serotetto and other herders said they are not informed in time to come in from the tundra to attend the meetings.
Although the wellheads and pipelines take up a small percentage of the region’s territory, scientists have said that they have an outsized effect on pastoralism.
Most herding routes up the Yamal Peninsula have to cross a railway, and various pipelines and roads, creating bottlenecks for migrating families, and cutting off access to campsites and grazing areas.
Gas companies have raised some of their pipelines to allow reindeer to pass underneath and drillers lay tarpaulin across roads to help reindeer cross.
Still, a 2007 Norwegian study has found that industrial disturbances can hurt reindeer reproduction and calf survival rates.
Nomads and state researchers agree that Yamal’s reindeer are skinnier and more vulnerable to die-offs than they were 20 years ago.
The regional government and state-owned reindeer herding cooperatives said overgrazing is to blame, not fossil-fuel development, adding that, with an estimated 600,000 head, the region’s reindeer population is still the largest in the world.
“We’re seeing overgrazing by reindeer in the tundra, that’s a fact. The forage base just doesn’t have time to regrow,” Yamal Governor Dmitry Artyukhov told local media last year.
To address what they see as the problem, the Yamal government in October last year allocated 15 million rubles to build two ranches for 1,000 reindeer in the south of the region as an alternative to nomadism.
“If the results are positive, this practice can be spread to other parts of the region, which in the future will allow us to lessen the load on tundra pastures,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
However, Forbes said ranches are not the solution, as his research shows lichen loss is as related to trampling by reindeer as overgrazing.
As Serotetto watched over a group of reindeer digging for lichen in the snow, he said he hopes his six-year-old son would be able to continue the reindeer herding tradition.
“I want my way of life to last for another thousand years, and I would do everything to preserve it from the fuel and energy industry,” he said.
“If you convey to people that climate change is a catastrophe, maybe something will change,” Serotetto said.
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