English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов - живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World - Living Arctic) No. 11-12, 2002

Reindeer herders of the Komi Republic and oil extraction: Points of mutual cooperation and conflicts

K. Istomin

A significant part of the population in the oil extraction region in the north-eastern part of European Russia consists of Komi Republic reindeer herders. Yet oil extracting companies carry out no work with the Komi reindeer herders. Already in the very near future this could have extremely negative consequences for both parties.

A brief description must first be made of contemporary reindeer husbandry circumstances in the Republic of Komi. Seven enterprises involved with reindeer husbandry operate in the Komi Republic. The largest among them is AO Sovkhoz Izhemskiy Olenovod, which combines Izhemskiy Rayon reindeer herders in the Komi Republic. This was historically the former homeland of the Komi people and a small number of Russian reindeer herders from the Ust-Tsilemskiy Rayon. This enterprise deals exclusively with reindeer husbandry and is also, by the way, the largest reindeer husbandry enterprise in north-east European Russia―not only for the overall size of the herd (34,600 head of reindeer as of March 2001), but also for the territory used. The entrepreneurial administration (i.e. the main farmstead) is situated in the village of Sizyabsk, Izhemskiy Rayon of the Komi Republic. The sovkhoz is divided into four sectors (from east to west: Bakurinsk, Sizyabsk, Brykalansk and Kipievsk). Within the boundaries of this enterprise, each sector of the reindeer driving passage has its own corridor and head manager. The sovkhoz employs about 350 reindeer herders, not counting the administration.

AO Sovkhoz Severnyy is located to the east from the Izhemskiy Olenovod and has its main farmstead in the Mutnyy Materik, Usinskiy Rayon, Komi Republic. The sovkhoz has a registered herd of 12,300 head of reindeer taken out to be grazed by about 150 reindeer herders. It is adjoined from the east by AO Ust-Usinsk, with a center in the Ust-Usa settlement in the same Usinskiy rayon. In addition to reindeer husbandry, this enterprise breeds cattle and grows crops. The reindeer husbandry sector alone employs about 100 persons.

The Intinskiy Rayon of the Komi Republic has three reindeer husbandry enterprises: AO Sovkhoz Bolshaya Inta, with the central farmstead in the town of Inta; Intinsk, in the Petrun settlement; and Fion, in the village of Abez. Until recently, all three enterprises were of a mixed type, involving both reindeer husbandry and agriculture. At the end of last year, however, the Bolshaya Inta sovkhoz claimed bankruptcy once again and the process of withdrawing the profitable branch of reindeer husbandry and establishing it as a separate enterprise began. As far as I know, this process has not yet been completed. The sizes of these enterprises amount to 12,400, 10,600 and 5900 head of reindeer, respectively. The total number of reindeer herders is about 300.

And, finally, the seventh reindeer husbandry enterprise of the Republic is the municipal enterprise Olenovod, under the jurisdiction of MO Gorod Vorkuta, with its central farmstead in Vorkuta. The size of its herd is 14,300 head of reindeer and the number of employed reindeer herders amounts to about 150. It differs from the other enterprises in that Nenets, rather than Komi, are the main employees. There are small numbers of Nenets reindeer herders in the other enterprises.

The seven enterprises described comprise virtually all reindeer herders of the Republic. There are no real private or farm reindeer husbandry in the Republic (they are all sovkhozes, which are cooperative –The Editor). The minor attempts to establish such enterprises in the 1990s ended in bankruptcy. The only private reindeer herding enterprises are entered in the documents of the Ministry of Nationalities. They are Nenets who have not been collectivized and who until recently were not in the possession of any documents. These Nenets stopped off regularly on the territory of the Vorktunsk Governmental Council during the winter.

The techniques used for grazing reindeer in the Republic are the traditional methods for the Komi and for most of the Nenets reindeer herders. Depending on the season, the reindeer are driven between the taiga, the forest tundra and the tundra. During the winter season the reindeer herds are located in the taiga zone and as a rule on the left coast of the Pechora and the right bank of the Usa, although part of the herd belonging to the sovkhoz Izhemskiy Olenovod crosses the Pechora and is located on the tributaries of the lower Izhma. Usually in the second part of April and the beginning of May, the reindeer herders leave the winter pastures with their reindeer and migrate northwards. During the second half of May they arrive on the early spring pastures or the thawed pastures in the forest tundra, where they remain right up to the end of the thawing period at the end of May or the beginning of June. Then the reindeer herders leave directly for the tundra, where they spend the entire summer and part of the fall. In the second half of July they reach the extreme northern point of their annual migration route: the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea. The herd begins to head back south in the first part of August and once again arrives at the boundaries of the forest by the middle of October. This is where the animals are selected for slaughtering; the animals to be slaughtered then leave in separate herds to the slaughtering destinations while the main herd continues moving south and reaches the winter grazing land approximately in the second half of December. This movement pattern corresponds well to the natural migratory cycle of the wild northern reindeer and consequently its natural instincts. It must be remembered that the majority of reindeer herders in the Republic migrate with their herd the entire year. 1970s plans to introduce a “shift system” for grazing into the reindeer husbandry enterprises of the Republic were never implemented. Today the shift grazing system is applied only by the two brigades of the Barents sector of the sovkhoz Izhemskiy Olenovod: Ust-Ilimsk reindeer herders work there and a large number of them are Russian.

The traditional reindeer husbandry management system can not be entirely confined within the boundaries of the Komi Republic because of certain geographical features. Only winter and some early spring and late fall grazing lands are situated in the Komi Republic. The main warm season grazing pastures of the Komi reindeer husbandry enterprises are located in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Both within the boundaries of the Komi Republic as well as on the territory of the Nenets Autonomus Okrug, a strip of land has been allocated to each reindeer husbandry enterprise, a so-called reindeer driving or reindeer running passage for the migration of the reindeer herders and grazing of herds. The present location and boundaries of these passages were introduced in 1974 according to the plan made by the Committee for Land Development and have not changed since then, at least officially.

What is the relationship like between the Komi reindeer herders and the oil workers? It is a well-known fact that the extracting industry, like all industrial activities, influence traditional economics and this happens in two ways: first, due to the change in environmental conditions in the region, destroying in turn the ecological foundation of traditional production; and, secondly, due to changes in the social and economic circumstances, which inevitably alter the social arrangement as well as the priorities of people with traditional ways of life.

The environmental effect of oil extraction on reindeer husbandry is mainly the destruction of ecosystems in reindeer grazing pastures brought about by polluting them with extraction products, with garbage, and by destroying the upper layer of the soil with extracting equipment and construction machinery. The combination of these factors makes it impossible to use the land for reindeer herding.

The laying of pipelines and soil improvement canals or tracks are widespread features that constitute obstacles for the migration of reindeer herds. Though not significantly environmentally destructive in themselves, they render some grazing pastures inaccessible for the herds. In addition, there is another factor to consider: sound pollution of the territory, which has not yet become an object for research in our country. Reindeer herders have told me more than once that it is impossible to let the reindeer graze in the proximity of working oil rigs, roads, pipelines, settlements for oil extractors and other places where helicopters fly regularly. Reindeer are afraid of noise; they often stampede and consequently do not graze sufficiently. This is particularly sad during the winter season since the reindeer frightened by the noise leave the food holes dug up by them in the snow and never return. The digging of new holes is quite exhausting for the reindeer and in the long run can cause death by starvation.

The severity of the environmental effects depends on the reindeer husbandry methods practiced in the area and on the geographical location of the region. According to information received from the Komi reindeer herders, the most destructive consequences for reindeer husbandry is the pollution of winter grazing land in the taiga zone. High quality pastureland is required for Komi reindeer husbandry, particularly where there have been reductions in the quality of the land available for grazing. Furthermore, as suggested above, the biggest danger to grazing land in the winter comes from sound pollution.

The social and economic effects of oil extraction on reindeer husbandry are related to the general changes occurring in the economic status of the population living in the region of the reindeer herders, combined with the social composition, purchasing power, etc. Also of note is when reindeer herders migrate into a previously unsettled zone which is now occupied by the staff of oil extraction facilities. These two factors contribute to a unique effect on reindeer herders and reindeer husbandry as a whole. The way that the oil companies look at it, the presence of relatively well-off oil workers opens up new markets for reindeer herders. This could stimulate the growth of new reindeer herds, as has happened, for example, in Yamal. However, cooperation can easily turn into ugly and conflict-ridden circumstances, such as when reindeer belonging to reindeer herders were shot by personnel of the oil rigs. Cases like this are not a rarity in the Bolshezemelsk tundra.

These processes are already in full swing in the Komi Republic, where the influence of oil extraction on reindeer husbandry enterprises in the Republic is handled quite unfairly and in an extremely unequal manner. In the Komi Republic, oil extraction chiefly impacts the reindeer husbandry enterprises in the Usinskiy Rayon (the “Severnyy” and “Ust-Usinskiy” sovkhozes). In the taiga zone, their reindeer migratory routes are situated on the deposits of Vozeysk (north and south), and Usinsk (north, east and west). In addition, passages in the south cross over the track of Usinsk-Haryag. All this is best expressed by the reindeer herders. According to them, there is currently an insufficient amount of sovkhoz and winter grazing land in their passages available. This makes it absolutely impossible to increase the number of herds in the sovkhoz. Moreover, the reindeer herders are convinced that the future expansion of development of the Usinsk deposits will make it necessary to curtail the number of reindeer. Quite stringent limitations concerning the number of reindeer have already been introduced into the sovkhoz. These matters evoke a strong sense of unrest and dissatisfaction among the Usinsk reindeer herders. Information received from reindeer herders is confirmed by such objective and documentary indicators as the relatively low weight of the reindeer to be slaughtered. Due to these indicators the Usinskiy sovkhoz is listed at the bottom every year of all the sovkhoz in the Republic.

Oil extraction also directly touches upon the migratory route of the sovkhoz “Izhemskiy Olenevod”. On the whole the situation is better here because oil extraction operations currently occur only in the northern (tundra) part of the passage (Haryaginsk deposits) and therefore only affect summer pastures. The reindeer herders of this sovkhoz take note of the difficulties when grazing reindeer in the summer, due to the construction of the Haryaga–Naryan-Mar track and they also connect these construction activities to that of oil extraction.

Even though, according to reindeer herders, oil extraction development on the lands used by the “Izhemskiy Olenevod” does not pose an immediate threat to further development of reindeer husbandry and to the increase of herds, but only creates a problem during the driving out time, there is a feeling of anxiety among reindeer herders for the future of their traditional livelihood. They are aware of plans to begin oil extraction in the Izhemskiy and Ust–Tsilemskiy Rayon of the Republic, the rumors being spread around concerning the scale of the planned drilling, the sites and consequences for reindeer herding are probably slightly exaggerated. Similarly, during my stay among the reindeer herders of this sovkhoz in the summer of 2000, there were rumors in the brigades that keeping domestic reindeer (with the exception of riding bulls) was to be banned as soon as oil extraction begins, due to insufficient winter pastures. It is highly probable that fragments of rumors concerning the problems of their colleagues from the Usinskiy Rayon have reached the ears of the Izhma reindeer herders.

Whatever the reason, the attitude of the Izhma reindeer herders to oil extraction is extremely negative and loud discussions are heard about the necessity for joint actions to prevent this from happening. Dissemination of such ideas is promoted to a large extent by numerous reindeer herders in the sovkhoz, whose residential area in one rayon is small and who have numrerous family ties. Nearly all reindeer herders of the sovkhoz fully support the activities of this “Lastin movement”, to which I shall return later.

In the passages of the other four reindeer husbandry sovkhozes of the Republic, direct oil extraction is essentially not being carried out. There is only one operating oil rig in the “Bolshoy Inta” passage and in the passages of the “Intinsk”, “Fion” and the “Olenovod” enterprises there are only surveying drills. In spite of this, the average environmental effect of oil extraction is felt even here. Thus, the “Bolshoy Inta” autumn pastures that border the tundra are used every year during the winter period by the “Rassvet Severa” sovkhoz, Nenets Autonomous Okrug. The “Bolshaya Inta” reindeer herders informed me that the Kharutintsy themselves (reindeer herders of “Rassvet Severa”) explain their behavior due to not being able to use their own winter pasture near the town of Usinsk: “there is no Iceland moss there, towers all around, oil workers shoot the reindeer and many dogs run around”. The violation of passage borders by the Kharutints leads to a reduction of food products on the “Bolshaya Inta” territory and a justified rage is evoked. In this manner the tensions grow between reindeer herders of neighboring sovkhozes, a factor, unfortunately, which does promote brotherly love between reindeer herders and oil workers.

Regarding social and economic effects of oil extraction to the subject of reindeer husbandry in the Republic, we should state that a significant correlation exists among the Komi Republic’s reindeer husbandry enterprises between the economic state of the enterprise and the proximity of its slaughtering points and central farmstead to the oil extraction region. Nearly all the reindeer husbandry enterprises today (with the possible exception of the “Olenevod” enterprise, concernign which there is contradictory information) have managed to overcome the consequences of the crisis in this branch in the beginning of the 1990s and approach―in some cases, even exceed―operating without losses. Today, three out of seven reindeer husbandry enterprises are considered essentially profitable. The first enterprise in line for profitability is the reindeer husbandry division of the “Bolshaya Inta” sovkhoz; since a division for animal husbandry and agriculture, considered to be very unprofitable, is also part of this sovkhoz, the enterprise as a whole has been unprofitable until recently. At present the reindeer husbandry division is separating from this enterprise and establishing an enterprise of its own and will thus probably give the Republic the first highly profitable reindeer husbandry sovkhoz.

The reindeer husbandry divisions of the sovkhozes in the Usinskiy Rayon is also profitable, strange as it may sound given that these are among those enterprises where oil extraction effects are most appreciable. Reindeer husbandry profitability in these sovkhozes, as far as I know, can be attributed to the maintenance of high prices for the reindeer products. In the case of the Usinskiy sovkhoz, this is explained by the high purchasing capacity of the inhabitants of this favourable oil extracting area. Apparently, the success of the “Bolshaya Inta” reindeer enterprise can be explained by the advantageous location of the slaughtering facility adjacent to the town. The meat is reprocessed there and can then be transported cheaply by rail to the industrial towns of more southern rayons of the Republic, particularly to Pechora and Uhta, where the high purchasing capacity of the population is also assured to a large degree through oil extraction. It can thus be concluded that the change in the economic status of the indigenous herders in the Komi Republic is on the whole more positive in those rayons where there is oil extraction. However, the profitability of the enterprises does not directly indicate a higher standard of living for reindeer herders.

Unfortunately, the appearance of a new group of settlers―the staff of oil extraction installations―in the rayons where reindeer herding takes place, does not have the same positive assessment. The relationship between oil rig operators and Komi reindeer herders is very complicated and contradictory. Discussions with informants indicate frequent visits to the oil rigs by reindeer herders since they serve as an important source of products and materials such as cloth, kerosene and tarpaulin. These products are bartered for with meat and kamus [skin from reindeer legs for footwear – The Editor]. In addition, the oil extracting installations serve as important channels for communication with the outside world, especially for those brigades without walkie-talkies or who are in such areas where the obsolete equipment of the reindeer herders does not permit proper communication.

This could be looked upon as a positive effect but in all the reindeer herding brigades that I have investigated there were tales of deception. In the opinion of the reindeer herders, the oil workers are constantly attempting to cheat them and they cannot be trusted at all. For instance, reindeer herders have been sold low-quality goods for artificially raised prices, they have been encouraged to become inebriated. This is aggravated by the wide distribution of vodka and other alcoholic drinks to the reindeer herders. There is also the shooting of reindeer: numerous Komi reindeer herders have informed me that it is better to make a wide circle around the operating oil rigs, not only because of the dirt, but because the danger is great of losing many reindeer which the oil workers will kill.

As the amount of oil extraction increases the reindeer herders observe an increase in feral dogs, especially in the vicinity of Usinsk and large oil extraction settlements (Kharyagi, Verkhnekolvinska, etc.). The dogs cause a noticeable loss to the reindeer herds passing by. On the basis of this it can not be a surprise that the herders’ relationship to the personnel of the oil rigs is on the whole negative and hostile even though the reindeer herders admit that among the oil workers there are also good people.

The negative social and environmental effects of oil extraction evoke substantial restlessness and a feeling of protest among the reindeer herders. Hindering specific measures that the reindeer herders can take, there is almost a total absence of legislation in the Komi Republic concerning the activities of the reindeer herders; there is also an absence of an organizational base among the herders.

The Komi people do not officially belong to the minorities of the North. The law on tribal land possession―if it is ever introduced―does not apply to the Komi reindeer herders since there is no tradition of land ownership. Historically, the right to pasture land among Komi reindeer herders existed in the form of use rights of migratory routes (vergi) belonging to separate families. Research shows that frequently two groups of reindeer herders, connected by kinship, migrated along one vergi. However, these groups can not be considered as “tribes”. Today, territory for deer driving passages are entirely at the disposal of reindeer husbandry enterprises, and the legal basis for the application of a tribal land possession law to these enterprises is quite contradictory.

In the territory neighbouring the Komi Republic, the only legislation regulating land use by reindeer husbandry enterprises is the so-called “Leasing Agreement at a Nil Rate”, which was concluded between the forestry enterprise of the rayon in question and the reindeer husbandry enterprises, whereby one contract provides the right to land use by all enterprises in the rayon. In accordance with such agreements, the forestry enterprise offer territorial pastureland to the reindeer husbandry enterprises for grazing reindeer, without the right to use them in any other manner, and no payment for the pastureland is collected. A map is usually attached to the agreement indicating the borders of the pastureland offered to all enterprises. Similar agreements are drawn up with the enterprises of the Nenets Okrug, which make use of pastures in the winter on the territory of the Komi Republic.

A significant particularity of such agreements is that the forestry enterprise retain the right to review the borders of the allotted lands, to discontinue the agreement, and to reallocate the lands to other enterprises, including for other kinds of utilization as long as they do not directly conflict with reindeer husbandry. There is no legal specification of the activities that inflict loss on reindeer husbandry and it is quite difficult for reindeer husbandry enterprises to defend their rights, particularly since claims may be directed not to the reindeer breeders themselves―the users of the territory―but to the forestry enterprise.

Concerning pastureland territories of the Komi enterprises located in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, here the situation is even more complicated. When speaking about a legal basis to use these territories, both the directors of reindeer husbandry enterprises as well as the officials from the Ministry of Agriculture usually refer to some contract between the Komi Republic and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug which regulates the handing over of the pasture land to reindeer husbandry enterprises. I was not able to find the text of this contract, however, and the directors and officials I questioned were not familiar with the specific requirements of the contract. Some of the directors of reindeer husbandry enterprises (particularly from AO “Sovkhoz Izhemskiy Olenovod” and “Bolshaya Inta”) refer, though, to their responsibility to pay for the use of the pastureland to the Nenets Autonomous Okrug yet they all acknowledged that actually they make no such payments and are not even sure of the amount they are supposed to be paying.

When speaking about the absence of an organizational base, it is worth mentioning that at present the Republic has no reindeer herder associations. The Komi organizations that do exist, such as the Congress of Komi People, Komi Kotyr, and even the regional Komi-Izhma association “Izvatas”, do not handle, in practice, the problems of reindeer herders. I want to remind you that only one of the 11 Komi ethnic groups are involved in reindeer husbandry and even within its framework, reindeer herders comprise only a very unimpressive percentage. Only environmental organizations show some interest in the problems of reindeer herders in the Komi Republic, in particular the association “Clean Pechora”, yet they are not considered as directly representing the interests of reindeer herders.

In spite of all the difficulties mentioned there are, however, many indications that a movement is afoot which is just making an appearance and which has the goal of defending the rights of reindeer herders and representing the interests of reindeer husbandry enterprises. Notable initiatives of this kind are coming both from above (from the entrepreneurial administration) and from below (from the reindeer herders). During a private discussion last October, the former director of a sizeable reindeer husbandry and agricultural shareholders’ association “Sovkhoz Bolshaya Inta”, Sabil T. Zakirov, stated that at a recent meeting of directors for reindeer husbandry enterprises in the Komi Republic, a lively discussion was in progress concerning the possibility of beginning legal proceedings against oil extracting companies with the aim of fining them for polluting the reindeer grazing land due to emissions and oil spillages.

The director added that even though at this moment there was no opportunity to demand payments from oil companies for their use of lands, fines causing losses to reindeer herding enterprises were in principal possible. Zakirov also stated that in his position as director of a rather successful reindeer husbandry enterprise in the Komi Republic he intends to become the first to initiate such proceedings, with regard to oil spills, against the oil rig within the boundaries of the “Bolshaya Inta” lands. In the event that his initiative is successful he will be supported by other enterprises, in particular by the sovkhozes “Severnyy” and “Ust-Usinsk”. We discussed this with him at length, and talked about the possibility of using photographs of these places (to be disseminated via internet) as evidence of the damage caused to the pasture land by the oil installations. All this confirms that the management of reindeer husbandry enterprises is fully prepared to begin proceedings in the near future on defending the right to manage pastureland.

And the first sign from the grassroots of the growing movement was the protest activity by the inhabitants of the kinship village Lasta in the Izhemskiy Rayon. The beginning of this activity started in April 2000, when there were plans to work on an oil deposit in the Sebys reserve, a traditional hunting territory for the Lasta villagers. In the beginning the unorganized protest of the villagers quickly turned into an organizational structure, as did its newspaper “Veskyd Serni”, which was published very irregularly and with a very restricted circulation. The original aim of the movement was to stop the cutting down of trees in the forest and the construction of the towers in the Sebys reserve. But in a very short time, as can be seen in “Veskyd Serin”, a demand appeared for monetary compensation from th eoil company to the local population for using the territory. The movement was met with strong opposition by representatives of the rayon administration and the Komi Republic, even though it was supported by the Ministry of the Environment and environmental organizations. The conflict subsided on its own when the Sebys deposits turned out to be unsuitable for industrial operations and the building of the towers ceased.

The folding up of the plans to exploit the deposits did not, however, bring an end to the organized protests. Last summer the movement joined the association “Clean Pechora” and with it wide access to financial means. The main objective of the movement is now to protect the local population from the consequences of industrial exploitation of territories and its final aim is a system to organize monetary compensation for the use of territories. Even though reindeer herders were never a part of the Lastin movement, the interest of the organization towards them is becoming more and more intense recently. And the majority of the reindeer herders from the Izhemskiy Rayon openly support the idea of the movement. In conclusion, the appearance made by the movement to defend the reindeer herders can be expected in the very near future.

The message in essence is that it would be very reasonable and wise for the oil enterprises to pay more attention to the reindeer herders in the Komi Republic. It is still possible for the oil companies to avoid demonstrations, widespread popular movements and legal suits. To accomplish this, the negative effect on reindeer husbandry associated with oil extraction must be mitigated and the positive influences must be strengthened. The easiest measures include forbidding the oil rig staff to keep dogs, hunting rifles and fishing gear (except for protection needed against predators) and to prohibit bartering with the reindeer herders with vodka. These rules must be strictly enforced. Such measures could ameliorate quite drastically the negative relationship between the reindeer herders and the oil workers.

Moreover, companies could organize mutually advantageous cooperation with reindeer herders to provide the latest products and materials needed. This type of cooperation already exists to a certain extent but without any profit for the company. One of the options available could be the purchase by oil workers of venison from reindeer that suffer from hoof disease. The reindeer husbandry in the Komi Republic loses many animals every year due to this illness. The meat of these animals is completely acceptable for consumption. As is well known, only the lower part of the animal’s leg is affected, causing its death because it can not keep up with the herd during migration. At present, the sovkhozes permit their workers to use the meat for consumption. The number of dead animals quickly surpasses the annual food requirements of reindeer herders and the surplus corpses are just left on the tundra. Some enterprises, in particular “Bolshaya Inta”, have managed to organize their removal by helicopter; however, the cost of such meat is too high. Organizing the purchase of meat for oil rigs would be advantageous for both the oil workers, who would obtain food at an incredibly low price, for the sovkhozes, which would receive profits previously lost, and for the reindeer herders themselves if part of the meat payments were to be given out directly to them in the form of products and services (communication, transport, etc.). Such actions will also help change the relation to the oil workers to the sovkhoz management, which now only sees enemies and potential adversaries in court disputes.

It is clear that these measures would not solve the fundamental problem of land use conflicts. The only way out that I see is the distribution of compensatory payments to the reindeer herders in the Komi Republic, a practice applied in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Organizing this remains a problem requiring special investigation. But if this is not taken care of now, the problem will inevitably and very quickly remind us of its existence in a much more acute form.