New Gas Plant Threatens Indigenous Livelihoods in Russia’s Far North

A nomadic reindeer herder in the Yamalsky District

Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference in December 2017 came a few days after the Russian president took part in the launch of the new Yamal LNG plant in the Russian Arctic, a $27 billion project aiming to overtake Qatar’s leadership in the gas sector.

The biggest industrial project in the region, the plant is operated by Novatek, Russia’s largest gas producer, in cooperation with France’s Total (20 percent), China’s National Petroleum Corp (20 percent), and the Silk and Road Fund (9.9 percent). The annual capacity is expected to be at least 16.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas, shipped through the Northern Sea route to both eastern and western markets. Tankers have already been shuttling to and from the Yamal port of Sabetta since its launch.

Answering questions from journalists, President Putin reaffirmed his enthusiasm concerning resource development in the Arctic, including mining and other commodities. In fact, the region contains Russia’s main mineral reserves and accounts for around 20 percent of Russia’s GDP.

After these assertive declarations, Putin also mentioned the interests of the indigenous peoples of the North, pointing out that if major national projects were to interfere with their traditional economies, measures of compensation and substitution would need to be taken.

Indigenous Livelihoods

According to the 2010 national consensus, 70 percent of the population in the Yamalsky District, where Yamal LNG is located, is indigenous. Among them, around 6000, mostly from the Nenets community, are nomadic reindeer herders. The Nenets have been practicing reindeer husbandry in this area for over a thousand years, using the animal for food, clothing, housing supplies, and transportation. Accordingly, reindeer husbandry constitutes a cornerstone of the culture of the Nenets people.

Yet infrastructure projects on the Yamal Peninsula have been expanding rapidly since the discovery of massive oil and gas reserves in the area in the 1970s. The tundra landscape has since undergone significant transformation – home to villages for gas workers, thousands of drilling sites, roads and railway lines, and pipelines crisscrossing the land.

Such developments have severely affected migration routes for the Nenets, reduced available grazing land for the herds, as well as caused considerable pollution. As one herder recounted to the London-based NGO Survival International, “We are afraid that with all these new industries, we will not be able to migrate anymore. And if we cannot migrate anymore, our people may just disappear altogether.”

Extractive industries aside, climate change is also posing a further threat to the Nenets way of life. In 2006 and 2013, untypical heavy rains formed a thick ice layer on the pasture lands, making food inaccessible for herds until the following spring. More than 80,000 reindeer died due to starvation.

Yamal LNG

While demonstrating remarkable resilience to changes forced upon them over the decades, the unveiling of the most recent Yamal LNG project constitutes yet another serious challenge to their way of life. Indeed, the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and the Stakeholder Engagement Plan of the Yamal LNG project include a large section on the potential impacts for the indigenous population.

Studies conducted within the license project area and in a 10km protection zone around it, found that eleven sacred and worshiped sites, including four cemeteries, were located within the Yamal LNG project area. Besides “detailed surveys to determine the presence of cultural and historical heritage sites to ensure avoidance of impact,” there are no mitigation measures to compensate for the loss of such sites.

Other impacts are alleviated by mitigation measures such as the installation of crossing paths for reindeer, the development of a complaint mechanism, or holding of workshops for industrial workers on how to communicate with reindeer herders. The project is also funding new residential facilities around the concession area for the local population.

The questionable effectiveness of such mitigation measures aside, more fundamental issues concern the issue of free, prior, and informed consent for extractive projects. The Russian Federation has yet to endorse both the UNHR Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which defines such consent, along with ILO Convention 169, specifically dealing with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. And while Russian legislation sets out the rights for “indigenous minority peoples of the North,” local and regional indigenous organizations still operate under tight state control.

Section 5.5 of the ESIA affirms that the “Indigenous People Development Plan” was presented in 2014 to the twenty-four elected indigenous representatives and approved by all of them, along with the Free, Prior and Informed Consent declarations. It is, however, difficult to assess if a genuine FPIC was negotiated, in full respect of indigenous customs and norms, and if signatures were obtained based on complete information and free from any pressure. The evidence of the agreement, such as the minutes of meetings, reflecting the voting process are inaccessible through the project’s website.

Resource extraction in the Russian Far North has led to increasing conflicts with the nomadic population in recent years. Following an outbreak of anthrax which decimated herds in 2016, the Yamal government announced a plan to reduce the reindeer population in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug by one third, officially to stop the disease spreading. However, some argue that this oddly coincided with the rapid issuing of licenses for new projects in the region.

An Uncertain Future

The Nenets have survived colonial intrusions, civil war, communist collectivization, and the crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the rapid development of the region combined with global warming are threatening the longevity of their nomadic lifestyle. For Moscow, the Nenets’ ancestral homeland is first and foremost Russia’s main oil and gas reserve. In 2016, Nyadma Khudi, a reindeer herder explained that: “We understand that the country needs natural gas, and once the main construction stopped, we figured a way around this mess. We can cope with it. As long as they don’t build any more roads or pipelines.”

Yet with the unveiling of a huge new LNG plant, Vladimir Putin has made it clear that resource extraction in the Arctic must and will continue, and that more projects were welcomed along the Northern Sea Route. Russia’s second Arctic LNG plant, to be sited by the Gulf of Ob, should be ready for production in 2023. This bodes ill not only for the Nenets but also other indigenous groups throughout the Russian North.