The recent announcement by the Yamal government of a plan to artificially reduce the number of reindeer in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug by a quarter of a million animals has caused a discussion in Russia that has now spilled over to the international arena. The Siberian Times has thoroughly reported both the pros and the cons of the plan.
On a Russian website, Sergei Khudi is quoted as suggesting that herders should be compensated for that slaughter, not with money, but with mortgage payoffs for apartments in villages. Khudi is a long-term collaborator of our anthropology team in Rovaniemi, Finland, and has been at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland several times. I have lived at his parents’ place in the tundra when I was doing my PhD fieldwork. Khudi, now the Yamal-Potomkam! association’s vice president, has a track record of environmental and political activism that supports the coexistence of nomadism and gas development. His suggestion that compensation should come in the form of mortgage payoffs instead of money is controversial.
On the one hand, the idea is understandable. One does not want to pay a large amount of cash to herders without earmarking the money for a useful purpose. On the other hand, these reindeer are the herders’ private property, and as free citizens they should have the right to decide what happens to the income from that private property. But more worrying is the connection between killing animals – the base of a nomadic lifestyle for herders – in exchange for helping them get housing in the settlements. Is this a kind of voluntary sedentism, through the back door, advocated by Indigenous representatives themselves? Incidentally, the government plans the slaughter at a time when industry also happens to want to speed up gas exploration in the area.
In the Siberian Times article, our colleague Olga Murashko said that the measure endangers nomadic reindeer herding on Yamal and that many herders have not much more than a 100 reindeer to bring to this deal. Most probably, poorer herders would not have mortgages to pay off in the first place, and secondly if they had, they would hardly agree to sacrifice their herds for a partial mortgage payoff. So, the reindeer-for-mortgage measure would target only wealthier herders who could be interested to getting rid of their debts faster.
However, one is left wondering why this mass slaughter has been suggested now, so soon after the Yamal Nenets lost tens of thousands of reindeer in the 2014 icing-over event, and again more in the recent anthrax outbreak. If this was so pressing, why wasn’t this slaughter suggested two years ago when there were almost 100,000 more reindeer on Yamal?
In the end, it has to be up the herders themselves whether they want to slaughter their reindeer, and how many. It is encouraging that everybody seems to agree with this, and there is no expropriation of the herders’ private property planned. Although, even if this did happen, it would not be exceptional, as sad as that is. Police
in northern Finland forced unwilling herders in Nellim 2011 to slaughter their reindeer because they exceeded the allowable numbers calculated by the pasture scientists.
In Yamal, the discussion about maximum allowable numbers of reindeer on the pastures has also been going on for decades. Scientific calculations on how many reindeer are tolerable per pasture unit are often challenged by herders. In the early 2000s, I encountered the same thing during my work with Yamal herding: Different calculations of carrying capacity were saying the exact opposite from each other.
This discussion about how much the pastures are overloaded is not new. Herders point out that the models often do not consider herding practices. It makes a huge difference whether the animals or the humans decide where to graze. With domestic reindeer, which are different from caribou, a lot of human decision-making influences how much biomass reindeer consume, where they consume it and in which season; models calculating standardized grazing pressures and vegetation recovery times are insufficient.
In addition to that, due to what colleague Bruce Forbes and others have described as the “greening of the Arctic,” increased shrub growth due to warming actually might increase the available plant biomass on the tundra to be consumed by reindeer. Has someone calculated that into the carrying capacity consideration?
One hopes that if the reindeer numbers of Yamal are going to be regulated centrally, then all the best practices for interfering with the basis of this nomadic culture should be applied: Free prior informed consent, adequate compensation and slaughtering must be implemented in a way so that no herder who does not want to be a part of the program is induced forced to settle in the village. Instead, any offloading of grazing pressure should be done in a way that boosts the nomads’ capacity to herd their animals on healthy ground so they can continue their nomadic lifestyle,
not bring an end to it, as is feared by some, who connect the slaughtering campaign with increased pressure for gas development in the region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.
A version of this commentary first appeared on the Arctic Anthropology blog run by the anthropology research team at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland, and is reprinted here with permission.