The Oil Industry and Reindeer Herding: Problems Implementing Indigenous Rights in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug , Russia

Anna Degteva

This article is a summary of a thesis submitted for a Master’s degree  in Indigenous Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tromsø , Norway. The thesis is based on fieldwork which took place in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug in July-August 2004. The author is grateful to the Centre for Saami Studies, University of Tromsø, for financial support to write this article. To receive a copy of the thesis (in English) or to discuss the topic please contact the author:,

Indigenous issues have gained increasing international awareness since the 1970s. During recent decades the international community has recognised that the causes of poverty , poor health , alienation from ancestral lands and other problems faced by indigenous peoples around the world are rooted in marginalisation and discrimination , which had been imposed on these peoples for centuries. One of main current concerns is safeguarding indigenous lands endangered by the ongoing ‘second conquest’ in the form of numerous development projects. In order to redress the harm done , indigenous peoples’ rights have been considered and international standards have been set. Currently these standards are embodied in the following rights: meaningful participation in decision-making in matters affecting them and in the life of the state in general , the right of ownership and possession over the lands traditionally occupied , the right to be consulted prior to natural resource exploration on their lands, and the right to participate in the benefits of such activities , as well as to receive fair compensation for any damages caused.

However , in spite of the acknowledgment of indigenous peoples’ rights at the international level , allegations of violations of their human rights and fundamental freedoms are being received from different parts of the world. Obviously, there are some problems with the implementation mechanisms. And the key question is what these problems are , or in other words: Why is it so difficult to implement international standards concerning the rights of indigenous peoples?

The present article is an attempt to contribute to answering the above question by discussing the example of one region in Russia – the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (hereafter NAO). Here , the interests of oil and gas companies clash with the needs of indigenous Nenets and Komi reindeer herders for land resources. The large-scale development of oil and gas fields and pipeline projects are relatively new changes for this area and are often characterised by a lack of communication between the main parties involved: indigenous and non-indigenous local population , extractive companies and government authorities. The village of Khorey-Ver illustrates what happens at the very local level. It is situated in the western part of the NAO and the reindeer herders settled here are among those most heavily impacted by oil development.

To gain a thorough understanding of the factors hindering the implementation of the international standards in question, I begin by briefly reviewing the case of the Saami people in Norway – a relatively successful example. Focussing on the factors identified by looking at the Saami case, the Russian case is then examined at three levels: federal , regional and local.

The case of the Saami in Norway

The situation of the Saami in Norway is a striking example of the successful use of aboriginality to achieve legal and political claims. In Norway , although there are almost no prospects for territorially-based self-government, meaningful participation in decision-making in the matters affecting the Saami, including land issues , has been guaranteed by the establishment of the Saami Parliament and the adoption of the Finnmark Act.

How have the Saami obtained those rights ? The breakthrough in Saami ethnopolitics – political activities that defend the economic and politic interests of an indigenous group – occurred after the environmental/Saami actions of 1979 and 1981: the hunger strike and the Alta/Kautokeino Affair [1]. Activists protested the damming of the Alta River , part of a gigantic hydro-electric project in the heart of ‘Saamiland’. Prior to this, the Saami as a group or people were not considered as an object of international conventions on indigenous peoples because of their high level of integration into mainstream Norwegian society. The idea of the Saami as ‘indigenous’, in the modern sense, was unfamiliar not only to Norwegian authorities but also to most Saami. During the Alta Affair, the Saami’s indigenous status that had been legitimised internationally a few years earlier gained internal support and boosted the fighting spirit within Saami organisations. The Alta Affair provoked the disintegration of old power structures in Norway and caused a significant change in state policies about the Saami [1]. Along with these political and legal achievements, a remarkable ethnic revitalisation among the Saami in Nordic countries occurred. It became more acceptable to wear traditional Saami clothes , to speak the Saami language – to be Saami.

What made the Saami actions of the early 1980s successful ? Within the period of the Alta crisis , several shifts in the codification of the resistance – from an environmental case to an aboriginal rights case – occurred that played an important role in the Saami’s political mobilisation [2]. It must be emphasised that the signification of a symbolic action , and not only the action itself , can make it successful and allow the subordinate minority group to attain moral superiority over the majority policy , and hence set the conflict resolution on another , more favourable ground [3]. In the Alta case , signification was achieved through public dramatising by the means of the media, as well as appealing to the moral commitment of the Norwegian state and presenting the case as a breach in Norway ’s reputation in the area of human rights nationally and internationally. During the Alta Affair, the Saami built  strong political opposition to the long established Norwegian power structure based upon their ‘indigenousness’ and , at the same time , the environmental dimension of the conflict was weakened. The phenomenon of politicised indigenous ethnicity became extremely relevant for Saami politics , and ethnicity became highly incorporated into Norwegian society.

For the Saami and aboriginal peoples in general , neither the ability to communicate their aboriginal ethnicity nor having their indigenous status recognised is enough. They require legal entitlements attached to the status in question [4]. Thus “indigenousness” manifests itself through two interrelated dimensions: ethnicity and rights. Without legal rights , claiming ‘indigenousness’ does not have relevance for the groups struggling to improve their situation. One way to achieve these rights is to politicise ethnicity. However , in Russia the situation is different.

Why is it difficult to implement indigenous peoples’ rights?

In Russia , the turning point, like the Alta Affair was for the Norwegian Saami, has yet to take place. In contrast to the Norwegian Saami, the situation indigenous peoples face in Russia can be said to be characterised by a ‘lack of indigenousness’ in that indigenous ethnicity is not an important dimension of politics or everyday life. None of the main dimensions of indigenousness that are evident in the Saami case – politicised ethnicity, and claiming rights according to indigenous status – are significant among Russia ’s indigenous peoples. As is clearly evident from the example of the Khorey-Ver village, this is the most striking characteristic of the situation at the local level hindering implementation of indigenous rights.

Could the strategy of employing aboriginality work in Russia as it did in Norway ? What makes ethnicity politically explosive in some places and not in others? What prevents ‘indigenousness’ from becoming meaningful in politics of the Russian state , as well as in the perception of its indigenous and non-indigenous citizens ? Theoretically, the above-mentioned strategy might have worked in the Russian context, if only the attention of the wider society had become aware of the issue of indigenous rights’ and considered it important to follow international legal norms, as occurred in Norway . Moreover, in Norway there were certain internal and external preconditions which facilitated the success of the Saami action in 1981. These include the stable economic and political situation characteristic of a welfare state with established democratic ideas and freedoms as well as an international reputation as a country that promotes human rights. In Russia such preconditions are still lacking. This helps explain why none of the indigenous actions in Russia have become the ‘Russian Alta’. The chain reaction that has occurred in Norway since the 1980s  −   first , politicising indigenous ethnicity, ‘indigenousness’ becoming grounds for getting certain rights and the legitimacy of this recognised within the country; second , claiming rights; and third , achieving rights  −  seems unlikely to happen in Russia in the near future.

The factors preventing indigenousness from becoming meaningful in the Russian context are complex. It is necessary to look at different levels – federal , regional and local – to find a comprehensive answer. Such an analysis is presented below.

The federal level: The policy of the Russian state towards indigenous peoples has changed over the time, from non-interference in Tsarist Russia , to assimilation and paternalism in the Soviet era, and , finally , to the policy of neglect in contemporary Russia . However , at the beginning of the 1990s there were attempts to follow international standards concerning indigenous rights. With this purpose three federal laws meant to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples were adopted from 1999 to 2000. Do Russian laws fulfil international standards ? Yes , most indigenous rights acknowledged at the international level are present in the wording of Russian laws. Are international standards implemented in Russia ? Not exactly. First, the laws are incomplete in some important ways. For example , they stipulate possibilities for the control over land and natural resource use and the right to compensation , but they do not define any mechanisms for compensation (where , what for and whom to compensate). Neither do they define how to measure possible damage to traditional land or calculate compensation [5]. Indigenous communities have got recognition , but not guarantees for their land base. The law “On Territories of Traditional Nature Use...” (hereafter “On TTNUs”), which was supposed to become the main mechanism protecting the land from environmental degradation and ensuring indigenous peoples’ access to the land they depend on , contains no procedures for its realisation. Second , the three indigenous laws conflict with other Russian legislation. This allows the authorities to manoeuvre around them and avoid prioritising indigenous issues while still claiming that they follow the law.

The current state policy prioritises considerations of security and economic growth , while the policy towards the indigenous peoples might be called a ‘policy of abandonment’. There is plenty of evidence to support this characterisation. The federal executive agency responsible for the policy in the North was discontinued in 2001. Delineation of authority between the centre and the administrative units of the federation has not been clarified, which allows shifting responsibility for solving indigenous problems from the federal authority to the regional one and vice versa. The three indigenous laws adopted in 1999-2001 do not work efficiently and , as already mentioned , are contradicted by the other legislation. For example , the Land Code passed by the Parliament in 2001, soon after the law “On TTNUs”, does not include the possibility of gratuitous (unrestricted and free of charge) land use even for indigenous peoples involved in traditional occupations , like reindeer husbandry.

There are several possible reasons behind the current policies. These include the modern perception of a poly-ethnic state as a source of political instability, a fear of terrorism and separatism and, last but not least , the priority given to economic development [6, 7, 8]. Whereas many regions enjoy a large degree of self-government, Russia’s political elite has developed an ideology that dismantles this. The core argument is that the menace to the federation’s unity increases simultaneously with the increasing sovereignty of these regions. In this regard, there is no real distinction made between the problems in the Caucasus and in the regions where indigenous peoples live.

The fear of terrorism , which until recently could be used to justify any measures against ethnic movements , was replaced by the fear of ‘outside separatism’. The Kremlin has been leading the call for tighter controls over NGOs’ activities and finances , on the grounds that the NGOs are essentially fronts for Western espionage aimed at stirring up revolutions across the former Communist world, as occurred in Georgia and Ukraine. Russian authorities promote the idea that special measures are needed to prevent foreign governments from undermining state security.

Finally , the crisis of the 1990s shifted government and public attention to economic development. In such circumstances, when short-term economic goals seem much more weighty, the state managing organs overlook unprofitable reindeer husbandry. At the same time, oil and gas development have a topmost priority in state policy design. First , the Russian economy is mainly sustained by oil/gas export. And , second , it is an important factor in shaping the country’s foreign affairs within the framework of ‘world energy security’. Indigenous peoples’ need for land can be overlooked if it clashes with the interests of the Russian economy driving force: natural resources development.

In the new Russia , the indigenous ethnic movement is represented by RAIPON, an NGO representing both indigenous residence regions and ethnic groups and embracing the regional indigenous associations. Over the last few years RAIPON has been increasing its activity as it has gained experience and international support. However, it is still not capable of counteracting the entrenched state power structures and policies.

As a consequence of both the overwhelming importance of oil and gas industries and the general state policy of neglecting indigenous issues , implementation of international standards concerning indigenous peoples’ rights is unacceptably delayed by the Russian government.

The regional level: Since Russia is a federation, its administrative units have a special responsibility to pursue federal policies by ensuring that regional law complies with federal law. What hinders implementing indigenous rights at the regional level is discussed below using the example of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

The current state of affairs in the NAO is that indigenous interests are underrepresented by both indigenous local individuals and non-indigenous institutions. As it was established during the Soviet regime , all the governing institutions or those who represent significant economic power are non-indigenous, be it the oil companies or the regional administration.

The Okrug’s economic growth is heavily dependent on oil and gas development. While reindeer husbandry is a heavily subsidised industry , oil companies provide the main revenues for the budget. The natural resource potential of this particular region is of interest to Russian and foreign energy producers and will most probably define the near future of the NAO. Oil and gas extraction is expected to increase 12-fold by 2020, requiring the construction of infrastructure to transport the resources to the market. Obviously, the pressure on traditional modes of livelihood will simultaneously increase. Reindeer herders are already experiencing the problems most oil companies bring along: contamination of the environmental bases of their traditional occupations; limited access to some valuable reindeer pastures and thus overgrazing of the rest; and changes to the social organisation and the value of the traditional economy being undermined.

The situation in NAO exemplifies the possible implications of the ‘rule of power’ and how politics can abuse economic and legal policies in regions where civil society is generally underdeveloped [9]. The relationships between the NAO administration, oil companies and indigenous peoples seem to be highly politicised. Their destructive influences concern both major industries: oil extraction and traditional reindeer husbandry. The governor was able to hinder the work of certain oil companies busing methods that were later deemed illegal by the Court. The implementation of laws regarding indigenous interests has been incomplete , inconsistent and vulnerable to political context and interests. Moves to centralise power – for example , the presidential appointment of the heads of regional administrations was re-established, replacing free elections – means that the regional governor will hardly exercise the same degree of independence and authority as he once did; the Kremlin’s politics will define regional politics.

Today , indigenous organisations are unable to take a decisive part in regional ethnopolitics, although there has been some progress in the self-reorganisation of the Association of the Nenets People ‘Yasavey’ aiming to tackle the problem. However, the administration , oil companies , and indigenous representatives still show little interest in Yasavey.. There is no serious attempt on the part of reindeer breeders to act collectively to protect reindeer breeding or to formulate a common strategy for coping with oil companies.

The local level: International , national and regional legal norms are adopted for the sake of their implementation at the very local level. What happened and what is happening that hinders implementation?

The reindeer herding enterprise ( SPK ) of ‘Put’ Il’icha’ is the core of the Khorey-Ver village’s survival , not only because the village is economically structured around it , but also because reindeer herding lies at the heart of the Nenets culture. Exercising their traditional occupation , i.e. being able to practice their culture , keeps indigenous people living in this area.

‘Komification’ and ‘Russification’ are two assimilative processes that took place in the area of Khorey-Ver. Since the place that is now Khorey-Ver is located near the territory occupied by the Komis, Komis have interacted with Nenets for centuries. Even the later process of Russification could not degrade the strong process of Komi assimilation. Today , most people in Khorey-Ver can speak Komi and for many it is a mother tongue , whereas hardly anybody can speak or understand Nenets. The reindeer herders of Put’ Il’icha use Komi as a daily language, both in the tundra and at home. “Here are the Kolva’s Nenets; the real Nenets are in Nelmin-Nos”[1] – this quote from a local man emphasises the transformation of local identity the occurred with Komification: people in Khoery-Ver contrast themselves to some degree to the Nenets in other areas, who are ‘real‘ ones.

A parallel assimilative process , Russification increased gradually during the 20th century and reached its highest level in the form of ‘Sovietisation’. Under the pressure of Soviet policies , both the traditional Nenets lifestyle and resource management were dramatically transformed over just a few generations. The triad of nationalisation, collectivisation and sedentarisation had the greatest impacts. Indigenous herders were deprived of their means of subsistence (land and reindeer) , denied the underlying principle of their social organisation (kinship) and traditional way of life (nomadism). Disregard for traditional social patterns, wage labour and Russian leadership became characteristics of Nenets reindeer husbandry under the Communist regime. Traditional knowledge was undermined by the state, which ran the ‘kolkhozy’ according to central planning. ‘Civilising’ the nomads and attempting to improve their living conditions resulted in their “withdrawal from the land” and a loss of spiritual connection to the landscape [10].

Despite major economic and political changes after the collapse of the USSR , the main organising principles of Put’ Il’cha and its herding practices have remained the same. Contrary to some optimistic predictions [11],  traditional subsistence practices and community and family relations were not restored , and consequently their transformation into ‘alive ethnicity’ stimulating the revival of native cultures and traditions could not occur.

Life in Khorey-Ver has changed significantly , and not in a positive direction. In the 1990s and early 2000s, economic problems appeared to be overwhelming for all Khorey-Ver inhabitants  regardless of their ethnicity or occupation. The most far-reaching consequence is that poverty limits their choices in behaviour and predefines their relationship with oil companies. The latter are currently increasing their activities in the area and increasing the pressure on reindeer husbandry. The negative impacts wrought by oil companies , such as environmental pollution, are being reported by local people, particularly herders. The pipeline creates the largest problem: it cuts off the pasture lands of Put’ Il’icha, so an important grazing area is hardly accessible. The carrying capacity of the rest of the pasture lands has dropped considerably since the time when the first oil project was launched. The reindeer herders face a complicated dilemma: they were advised to decrease their stocks because scientific data show the carrying capacity had been exceeded but, on the other hand , the enterprise needs to increase the number of animals to become economically sustainable in the future , and for that it depends on material help from oil companies.

In Khorey-Ver indigenous people do not actively oppose the oil and gas companies, despite the dangers they pose to the ecological basis of reindeer herding. Practically , indigenous participation in decision-making regarding oil activities cannot be seen as meaningful: though the law assumes it , the procedure ensuring such participation by all the indigenous locals has not been established. Furthermore, the reindeer herders of Put’Il’icha, in spite of the legal right to be asked for their consent to development projects , are not always aware of construction work happening on their pasture land. The Put’ Il’icha workers talk more about unresolved land conflicts with herders in neighbouring enterprises than conflicts with oil companies. The SPK solves disputes with the extracting companies through ‘mutual contracts’ , where better compensation , (more fair from the herders’ point of view than the one received after the state redistributes oil taxes) is required. Neither are land claims brought to the state. In Khorey-Ver, there seems to be no specific platform that could allow talking about indigenous rights to land. Both the Nenets and Komi are equally involved in reindeer herding, even though they are not viewed as having equal entitlement to protection as indigenous peoples [2]. Nor is there political organisation through which the claims to indigenous title can be pursued. In other words , there is a ‘lack of indigenousness’.

To conclude, the problem of non-implementation of indigenous rights is not simply a legal problem , but mostly of political , economic , social and even historical character. In Russia , at all three levels considered – federal , regional and local – there is a ‘lack of indigenousness‘. Indigenous peoples’ rights , which are attached to their status and acknowledged in international documents , are not meaningfully implemented at any of the levels in question. Ethnicity is a social dimension that is not particularly relevant for indigenous politics in Russia . There are historical , economic and political variables , as well as the factors connected to indigenous ethnic organisation , that prevent ethnicity from becoming potent in the Russian indigenous context. Non-implementation of indigenous rights is conditioned by the same factors , namely: limitations in indigenous organisation; the overwhelming importance of the economic situation; shortcomings of the legal system; and state policies , the driving force of which are security considerations. In contemporary Russia , the strategy of employing aboriginality for achieving certain rights for a disadvantaged group is unlikely to be as successful as it was , for instance , in Norway .


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[1] Interview with Dmitriy L. Khatanzeiskiy. Khorey-Ver is sited on the Kolva River. Nelmin-Nos is a village in the western NAO.

[2] The Russian law differentiates between indigenous (native) peoples, like Komi, and numerically small indigenous people , such as Nenets. Most indigenous laws apply to the latter category.