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Reindeer herding and petroleum development on Poluostrov Yamal: Sustainable development or mutually incompatiable uses
by Bruce Forbes
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Background and introduction
  In the Nenets' own language, "Yamal" means roughly "the end of the earth" or "land's end". It is an apt description for a peninsula that juts well out into the Kara Sea from the mouth of the Ob River, and which serves as the northern endpoint of an annual reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) migration route that, for most animals and modern herders, covers several hundred kilometers. For the reindeer, and the herders or their hunting predecessors, this migration has been taking place for at least a millennium, probably longer. Evidence comes from several places, including Yarte 6, a major archaeological site near the south shore of the Yuribei River on west central Yamal Peninsula (Golovnev and Zaitsev 1992). The latest archaeological material at Yarte 6 dates from the 11-12th century, but there is evidence for domesticated reindeer as early as 600 AD (Fedorova1998). However, at that time only a few reindeer were partly domesticated, perhaps only for riding or as hunting decoys. Even in the 12th century there were probably still relatively few semi-domesticated animals compared to wild ones. It is unlikely that intensive breeding began before the 16-1700's (W.W. Fitzhugh, pers. comm.,Director, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution, Septmber 1996; see also Krupnik 1993). Post-Soviet reindeer ownership patterns are complex, as many formerly state-owned herds revert to private hands and the so-called 'brigade' system undergoes fundamental change (Golovnev and Osherenko 1999).
  The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District (Fig. 1), although home to one of the largest untapped sources of natural gas and gas condensates in the world, has only recently been introduced to the outside world via major coverage in the popular and business/finance media (TheNew York Times22 November 1994;The New York Times27 November 1994; Furman 1995; Klebnikov 1997; The Globe and Mail(Toronto) 15 March1997; Deutsch Morgan Grenfell 1998). The region has a long and troubled history, due in large part to first Tsarist and later Soviet dreams of establishing state and religious authority over even the most remote human populations. Parallel ambitions for developing the so-called 'Northern Sea Route' have meant that traders have been active in the area for several centuries (Golovnev et al. 1998; Golovnev and Osherenko 1999). The town of Salekhard (formerly Obdorsk), at the base of Yamal Peninsula, celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1995. However, early interests in furs, fish and timber have shifted to gas, gas condensates and oil in recent decades.
  Pressures for development were increasing rapidly even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but took on new urgency, as the need for hard currency grew ever more acute after 1991. Just before the breakup of the union, former production amalgamations in the petroleum industry were transformed into "Soviet Union Concerns," and Gazprom took its dominant position in the gas industry. Gazprom was subsequently transformed from a state concern into a state-owned joint stock company, and the priorities of the state and Gazprom changed. Since then, Russia has been designated a 'Cooperation Partner' country within NATO and Western oil companies and the World Bank have been pledging billions in funding to develop the resources of the Yamal Region and export the the gas and oil via pipelines (The New York Times 24 April 1993; The New York Times27 November 1994; International Herald Tribune 18 November 1997). In fact, petroleum is one of the most stable and well-developed industries in the Siberian economy and the most important sector of the Russian economy overall. Russia has approximately 47 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves, about 80% of which are located in Western Siberia (Deutsch Morgan Grenfell 1998). The $40 billion Yamal project is the last of the 'Soviet'-style megaprojects (Deutsch Morgan Grenfell 1998), for which Gazprom has been actively exploring since the 1960's (Vitebsky 1990).
  Exploration and development activities at the Bovanenkovo Gas Field alone had, by 1990, led to the loss of 127,000 ha (1270 km²) of tundra comprising reindeer pasture land (Martens et al. 1996). This process, combined with massive outright land withdrawals by Gazprom and cumulative impacts, has pushed a relatively consistent (M.N. Okotetto, pers. comm., Nessei Reindeer Cooperative, Seyakha, Yamal, Janaury 1998) or increasing (Golovnev and Osherenko 1999) number of animals onto progressively smaller areas of tundra. By 1980, large portions of the Gydan and southern Yamal Peninsulas were showing signs of heavy grazing (Vilchek 1992). It is now estimated that the number of semi-domestic reindeer on Yamal (ca. 180,000) is already 1.5 to 2 times greater than the optimum for the region (Vilchek 1992; Vilchek and Bykova 1992; Martens et al. 1996).
  The regional scale of habitat destruction in northwest Siberia, including the Yamal Peninsula, was recently summarized by Vilchek and Bykova (1992) and Vilchek (1997). These authors observed that plant cover is already completely destroyed over 450 km²within gas and oil fields and 1800 km²along the main pipelines. They estimate the total area of destroyed vegetation to be about 2500 km². Based on the Tyumen Oblast's present plans, they assert that the area of explored gas and oil fields will increase to 16200 km²and the portion with completely destroyed vegetation will increase to 5500 km². These figures can be misleading because they do not include the further degradation that is expected to occur due to overgrazing by reindeer, nor cumulative impacts such altered hydrology and blowing sand/dust from roads, quarries and abandoned drilling sites (e.g., Forbes 1995). The three most widespread types of disturbance are off-road vehicle traffic, exploratory drilling, and sand excavation (Vilchek and Bykova 1992; Khitun 1997). Assisted revegetation programs designed to control erosion on affected areas have met with limited success due to their immense expanse and the prevalence of nutrient poor, well-drained and highly erodable sands, in conjunction with the cold, dry climate (Martens 1995; Forbes and Jefferies 1999).
  The dual impacts of intensive grazing and industrial development combine to create a scale of actual and potential surface disturbance not found anywhere else in the tundra ecoregion. The two starkly differing economies would appear to be mutually incompatible. Yet there are few quantitative baseline data available to predict how the tundra will respond to the range of anthropogenic disturbance regimes introduced or accelerated in recent years.
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Reindeer herding and petroleum development on Poluostrov Yamal: Sustainable development or mutually incompatiable uses, by Bruce Forbes.
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