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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reindeer Herders Under Threat

Air Date: Week of

The Nenets, reindeer herders in Russia's frozen arctic, depend on their animals for survival. They employ every part of the deer. But their way of life is now under threat: their territory sits on one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world and a gas pipeline under construction poses immense problems for the Nenets and their herds. William Gasperini reports.


(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: In the vast expanses of Russia's Arctic North, more than a dozen native groups live primarily by herding reindeer. This nomadic lifestyle has long since disappeared in most other parts of the world. An indigenous group known as Nenets have the most intact traditional culture in the Arctic. These nomads still live mostly the way they have for the past 1,000 years. But now, as Bill Gasperini reports, the prospect of drilling for oil and gas in their homeland is putting this way of life at risk.

(Strong winds blow)

GASPERINI: In the harsh climate of Russia's far north where the bitter Arctic winds blow, the snowy tundra seems to stretch away forever. It is a vast expanse that appears to be completely empty and quiet, except for the wind.

(Strong blasts of wind)

GASPERINI: Yet then, out of nowhere, comes a herd of animals. Gray, brown, white, and all shades in between, with hundreds of antlers pointing up into the sky.

(Scraping of hooves, calling sounds)

GASPERINI: These are domesticated reindeer, staff of life for an Arctic people known as the Nenets, who use only the most natural of resources in every sense.

(Whistles and voices calling)

GASPERINI: They live almost entirely off of these animals, moving the huge herds thousands of miles throughout the year, following the change of seasons. The Nenets' clothing is made out of reindeer fur, including hooded parkas and leggings which reach all the way up to the thigh. The thick deer hairs provide the perfect insulation to protect against the bitter winter, when temperatures routinely plummet to minus 40 degrees below zero.

(Scraping sounds)

GASPERINI: To an outsider, it seems like a hard life, but the Nenets don't see things that way. One herder named Yasha says he dislikes even going into the only town which his herding group passes by just twice a year.

YASHA: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: I don't think life is very hard, because we live close to nature. It's always interesting. When we go to town we can't stay there for a long time. The stones push us down.

GASPERINI: It's a lifestyle most other Arctic peoples have now lost. A lifestyle much like that of Plains Indians in North America years ago.

(Pounding sounds; a dog barks)

GASPERINI: Walking into a Nenets camp is like stepping back in time. Most striking are the tipi-like tents known as chumes, made out of reindeer skins. Smoke curls out through the opening made by the poles, which provide the structure for the chume. Bryan Alexander is a photographer who spent over 25 years specializing in the Arctic. He's traveled with the Nenets on several occasions.

ALEXANDER: My first impression, when I saw a sight not dissimilar to this, was I almost had arrived in the American prairies or something in the middle of winter a couple hundred years ago. It's quite unique.

GASPERINI: Just as the Plains Indians of North America lived almost entirely off of the buffalo, the Nenets get just about everything they need from reindeer. Apart from the clothing, lassoes used to rope in individual animals are made from reindeer leather. Deer bone is fashioned into bridles. The diet consists mostly of reindeer meat, along with whatever fish they catch in ponds and lakes.

(A motor runs)

GASPERINI: The few other necessary supplies include tea, sugar, and salt, which the herders acquire in the region's only town, a settlement of just a few thousand people. The herding groups only come near it in April and November at the beginning and end of the summer migration season. In a legacy of the Soviet era, all herding groups officially belong to collective farms, which provide some assistance, such as a health clinic.

(A helicopter rotor whirrs)

GASPERINI: But for the most part they're out in the vast wilderness, areas so remote it's only possible to reach them by helicopter. There are no roads where the Nenets go as they constantly move from place to place. The herders spend winter in forested areas south of the tundra tree line. This allows the deer to forage beneath the snow to eat lichens, which are rich in carbohydrates.

(Sawing sounds)

GASPERINI: While the women sew new clothes, the men make the sleds, which carry them north once spring arrives.

(A man calls out, urging on)

GASPERINI: It then takes months of constant movement to reach the northern tundra far above the Arctic Circle. Often, huge snowstorms engulf the scores of sleds, each lashed one to the other as people, animals, and supplies make their way ever forward. Navigating in the snowy whiteness requires great skill, as another herder named Anatoly explains.

ANATOLY: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: If you want to live on the tundra, you need to be well-rounded and fully-developed. You need to know how to find your way, even in a blizzard. At times you have to drive at night. We don't have lights on our deer, and sometimes it's hard to know where you're going.

GASPERINI: The calves are born in late spring during the long migration to summer pastures where the deer graze on lush, protein-rich grasses. The animals' fur coats thicken as they fatten up in time for the return trek back south: nature's way of preparing them for the rigors of another winter. Like native peoples all over the world, the outside culture has presented constant challenges, beginning with the forced Communist collectivization in the 1930s.

(Helicopter rotors whir)

GASPERINI: Since that time, all Nenets children have been flown out by helicopter to attend boarding school, returning to help their parents only in summer. Most young men also serve in the armed forces, just like their Russian counterparts. Although exposed to the outside world, almost all come back to continue herding deer, demonstrating a remarkable cultural resilience. Sergei Serotetta is the leader of one herding group. He says there's never been a question for him about where to live.

SEROTETTA: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: My mother is a good example. When she goes to the village, she just doesn't feel free. All she wants to do is get back to the tundra, back to home.

GASPERINI: Yet there's another challenge which may prove far more difficult to overcome. The area where most Nenets migrate sits on one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world, which has led various gas and oil companies into the area. For over a decade a major camp has been operating right near the migration routes of many herding groups. Russia's largest gas company, Gazprom, also plans to build a gas pipeline, which would ultimately run across the entire area. The company's already built an unpaved road to haul in heavy equipment, says the herder known as Yasha.

(Sleigh bells, footfalls, voices in the background)

YASHA: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: Of course, it's very hard where the gas industry is developing. Already there are lots of machines and equipment everywhere.

GASPERINI: Yasha and other herders say the deer have gotten sick eating grass which grows near the big camp. Other animals have cut their hooves on rusting equipment discarded near the new road. Photographer Bryan Alexander has been with the Nenets as they've passed through the gas area. He says the implications are clear.

ALEXANDER: There's logistical problems of crossing the gas fields or going anywhere near them, because you've got these raised roads 2 meters high. You've got telegraph poles. They've got problems with gas workers' dogs going out and attacking their reindeer. They've got problems with their reindeer being poached. The lakes have been polluted, largely, I understand, from the lubricants used during the drilling process, which then go into the water system.

GASPERINI: There was a slowdown in the pipeline development this past year because low oil prices and Russia's general financial crisis led Gazprom to suspend activity in the area. But this is likely to be only a temporary halt to the pipeline plan, perhaps only postponing the threat which gas development poses to the Nenets and their reindeer herds. For Living on Earth, I'm Bill Gasperini in the Russian Arctic.



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