Threats for Reindeer-Herding in Murmansk Region: The Voronya Minerals Scare of 1998

February 1999

Yulian Konstantinov
(Institute for Anthropological Field-Research, New Bulgarian University, Sofia, Bulgaria, )

The following brief account is intended to inform readers of the dangers threatening the reindeer-herding community, culture, and subsistence base in the Kola Peninsula. Every effort should be made to prevent industrial, mining and related infrastructural activities from extending east of the Murmansk-St.Petersburg railway line. Any such extension might irrevocably ruin existing grazing-land, deflect herd migration-routes, and thereby make herding impossible in some areas of the peninsula.

Fears that this might happen began with an announcement in Murmanskiy Vestnik of 25 and 28 March 1998. The Murmansk Region administration opened up a competition for mining and prospecting rights in the reindeer-herding territories of Lovozerskiy Rayon, more precisely a large area stretching from the Voronya Basin in the north, to Kolmozero and the Pana Heights (Panskie tundri) in the south.

The Lovozero Rayon Committee of the War Veterans initiated a meeting on 8 April to discuss the matter and subsequently a protest was addressed to the Regional Governor and signed by the Lovozero Branch of the Kola Saami Association, by the Association of the Izhma-Komi "Iz'vatas", and the Rayon Committee of the War Veterans, Labour Veterans, and Army Veterans (Lovozerskaya Pravda, 29/05/1998). In an abbreviated form this protest reads as follows:

"The Administration of Murmansk Region and the Committee of Geology and Underground Exploitation in Murmansk Region has announced an open competition for the right of exploiting underground mineral resources and of geological surveying with following extraction of gold, copper, molybdenum, low-yield sulphide, and platinum-metal ores in the Voronya Basin. The total area which can be thus taken from the reindeer-herding pastures equals 675 in size, which shall totally destroy a major part of the reindeer-herding in the Rayon, and thus destroy the basis for subsistence of the local tundra-depended population."

The protest did not seem to have any immediate effect. By September it had become known that a Russian-Swedish joint venture, Voronya Minerals Co., had won the competition. Anthropologist and reindeer-herding specialist from the University of Uppsala, Prof. Hugh Beach, visited Lovozero in September and made enquiries about the prospects of mining. Upon returning he confirmed that Voronya Minerals Co. had won the competition, adding that 70% of the company is made up by the Swedish firm Boliden, and that it had been granted an exploration and exploitation lease for 25 years, in the SHPK "Tundra" herding range, effective immediately (pers. comm., H. Beach 10 October 1998).

In December a new protest was circulated, this time by The Center for Civil Society International (12/12/98; e-mail: In the form of a resolution passed by The Second Indigenous Circumpolar Youth Conference (Resolution on Lovozero District 4/11/98) this statement voiced essentially the same concerns as in the Lovozerskaya Pravda proclamation of 28 May, quoted above, and was again signed by the Lujavvri (Lovozero) Local Branch of the Kola Saami Association, the Association of the Komi-Izhemtsi "Iz'vatas", and the Council of War and Labour Veterans.

Despite these two protests it looked as if come summer 1999 the Voronya Minerals Co. would begin its activities as per contract. Though it was not clear exactly where in the very large area referred to - from the Voronya Basin in the North, to the Pana Heights in the South - the activities would take place, they would undoubtedly transect the trek-routes of the SHPK "Tundra" herds. These are roughly positioned from the centre of the peninsula (winter-gra-zing) north and north-eastward for the summer grazing close to the Barents Sea coast. The area between Voronya and Kolmozero, especially, is across the trek-routes of all "Tundra" brigades, possibly excepting Brigades Nos. 3 and 5.

However, in the beginning of January Boliden sent a fax to the Lovozero Rayon administration indicating its refusal to take part as the decisive partner of Voronya Minerals Co. From what was known the other partners were a Russian firm (20%) and the Administration of Murmansk Region (10%). The official reason for the withdrawal was the financial crisis in Russia, it was said. To my knowledge, local protests were not mentioned.

While the Voronya Minerals Scare has gone away for the time being, there is no telling when it might come back in a more decisive manner. Geological surveying has been going on in the heartland of both "Tundra" and "Memory of Lenin" pasture-lands for many decades now. When I began research in this area back in 1994 there were strong local rumours that mining of kyanite deposits in the Voronya-Kolmozero area, as well as of abrasive ores in the SE of the peninsula, might soon begin and that would be the end of reindeer-herding in this part of Murmansk Region. Fortunately, consultations with the Geological Survey of Norway (NGU; courtesy of Winfried Dallmann) indicated that there was no current interest in either of these ores.

The grazing-lands east of the Murmansk-St. Petersburg railwayline and south of the Murmansk-Toumanniy road (and perhaps I should also say, west of the coastline with its military presence, and around various closed towns), should be preserved for reindeer-herding. As the current crisis has highlighted, what is at stake here is not only the preservation of a cultural heritage and the community which sustains it, but their very subsistence-basis. Significantly, increasing numbers of urbanites who had de-serted the region's rural areas are renewing their links with them, if not actually going back, and are relying more and more on subsistence items (reindeer meat most of all) from relatives working on reindeer-herding crews.

The most decisive measures which can be recommended are to gain a protected status for the whole of Lovozerskiy Rayon and to develop a local economy relying on income from renewable-resource exploitation in combination with wilderness tourism.