Indigenous Peoples and Development of the Lower Yenisei River Valley

(By David Anderson; INSROP Working Paper No. 18 – 1995, IV.4.1)


The Lower Yenisei River Valley forms the central terminus for the Northern Sea Route. The ports of Dikson, Dudinka and Igarka provide havens and servicing centres for traffic rounding the Taimyr Peninsula - a dramatic projection of the Asian mainland that pushes well beyond 75 degrees N latitude. The mouth of the Yenisei, which forms a fleuve 40 kilometres wide, is also the source for a significant proportion of the current commercial traffic of the sea route. Russian and foreign clients receive hardwood from the mills of Igarka as well as shipments of refined nickel and copper ore from the factory city of Noril'sk. This commercial centre is remarkable for its high level of built infrastructure. Even the High Arctic port of Dikson boasts brick houses with central steam heating serviced by air strips and hospitals. The comforts of Dikson pale before the marble theatres, colleges, and the Petersburg-inspired architecture than one may find in Noril'sk. Although the short period of summer navigation makes it possible for river barges to bring grain and containers from the railway terminal to the south, and daily jet flights unite Noril'sk with Moscow, this highly cultivated cluster of urban areas along the Lower Yenisei Valley relies on the Northern Sea Route for its main lines of sustenance in the form of food, commerce and even fuel.

The official figures concerning the volume of trade and level of employment tell a story about the quality of the lives of the people living in the intensively developed urban settings along the valley but give a poor representation of the lives of those people inhabiting the spaces between these centres. The well-being of the indigenous peoples of the areas, small in population yet stewards of an extensive territory, is linked to the future of the Northern Sea Route in other structural ways. Often their subsistence and commercial activities are disrupted by the expanding industrial activity which realizes its profits and its growth only through the services of the sea route. More subtly, the social and economic institutions that have developed alongside the Northern Sea Route play an important role in subsidizing the villages around which these people centre their activities. The purpose of the paper is to outline the characteristics of the indigenous nations of the lower Yenisei valley and to present a picture of their structural links to the activity of the Northern Sea Route.

The paper's conclusions include the following:

There are several possible institutional innovations which if supported by the Northern Sea Route Administration could lead to the direct benefit of native peoples:

1. The establishment of a trust-fund like that in the Khanti-Mansi Autonomous okrug which would reserve 15-20% of all proceeds from commerce on the Sea Route for the supply of transportation, heating, and electricity to native communities. Such a fund would have the flexibility to provide for those outlying villages which happen to fall outside of the boundaries of Taimyr and the subsidies of the Noril'sk factory.

2. The foundation of a transportation consortium under the direction of the Sea Route authority which would see to the transport of cargo destined to native villages at a subsidized cost.

3. The foundation of a retail trade organization which would distribute essential consumer goods to native villages at a subsidized cost.

4. The provision of equity shares in the Sea Route for native communities.

Although the political consciousness of the associations which represent native people are at an early stage of organization, it is not unreasonable to expect them to gain momentum in making more vociferous demands which challenge the present structure of economic and political power. Current proposals for aboriginal rights resemble those advocating the establishment of a 'city state' where rural native peoples are directly incorporated into the fabric of the Noril'sk Metallurgical Plant or the Igarka forestry enterprise. If native communities did not receive equity in future industrial developments, it would be reasonable to anticipate the demand for a 'land claim' by local communities on the state. Such a proposal, which has only been casually discussed by activists, would bear many similarities to the struggles of aboriginal groups in the Canadian and American Arctics. It could be assumed that under a potential land claim agreement native groups would ask for direct compensation for the pollution and flooding of their lands by industry. The only alternative to a renewed institutional framework, or a land-claim would be the fragmentation and isolation of native communities - an alternative which would only lead to the further impoverishment of groups already in a cultural and demographic crisis.


    David Anderson, 1995, Indigenous Peoples and Development of the Lower Yenisei River Valley, INSROP.©