Indigenous peoples of the northern part of the Russian Federation and their environment. Atlas and historical ethnographic back ground information

(By Winfried K. Dallmann ; INSROP Working Paper No. 90 – 1997, II.4.10)


Indigenous peoples have very strong ties to their natural environment. This relationship has a combined spiritual and subsistence-related nature. Their societies and cultural identity are thus directly dependent on intact ecosystems within their residence and subsistence areas.

Since the colonisation of the North, parts of these areas have gradually been converted into areas for alien settlement, transportation routes, industry, forestry, mining and oil production, as well as devastated through pollution, irresponsibly-managed oil and mineral prospecting, and military activity. These impact processes are going on, and the NSR - if extensively realised - is one of them. The NSR can, consequently, not be regarded as an isolated factor. Several effects on the indigenous peoples will also be implied from other development projects indirectly related to the NSR.

The NSR will influence the overall development in a way that the far northern areas are involved to a larger extent, including e.g. the transportation of hydrocarbons and other resources via the north instead of the south. In this context it is very important to consider not only the direct, or primary, impacts of shipping along the Russian Arctic coast, but also the indirect, or secondary, impacts of the associated infrastructure development.

In the present working paper, an introductory chapter addresses the political, historical and ethnographic background. In the subsequent chapters, 17 ethnic groups with residence and subsistence areas close to the Arctic coast of the Russian Federation are described and their environmental needs discussed. These groups are the Eastern Saami, Nenets, Enets, Nganasans, Khants, Dolgans, Evenks, Evens, Yukagirs, Chuvans, Chukchi, Siberian Yupik, Aleuts, Koryaks, Itelmens/Kam-chadals, as well as the northern subgroups of the Yakuts and Komi. Information on ethno-geography, subsistence, indigenous land use and environmental threats is sorted both according to ethnic groups (Chapter 2) and administrative areas (Chapter 3), and illustrated by a series of maps in the end of the report.

During the Soviet Era, indigenous subsistence was transformed into economic branches, with negative long-term results. Most indige-nous societies are now on their way back to traditional, subsistence-related land use. Reindeer breeding is the fundamental land use of most of the North-ern indigenous peoples considered here.

Reindeer breeding needs large continuous pasture areas and is very sensitive to en-vi-ron-men-tal changes. Most of the northern areas from Kola to Kamchatka - except for the polar desert areas of Taymyr and some high alpine areas - is pasture land, unless it is now used for industry, mining or oil production, infrastructure, military purposes, urban settlements, or is devastated or polluted.

Hunting of game, predators and birds is a traditional land use that has lost much of its importance in many areas due to the depletion of wildlife. It still forms an important subsidiary occupation. The most important hunting area is the Taymyr Peninsula, where the increasing wild reindeer population offers a basis for subsistence.

Trapping of fur animals locally has a tradition for procurement of clothing. Since colonisation, it has been modified into a tax-procurement and trade branch. The wild fur animal population has declined severely. Trapping is still important locally. In many places, fur farms have taken over.

Inland and estuarine fishing is a major subsistence branch throughout the Russian North. Salmon and various freshwater fish occur in large amounts. The main catches are made in estuaries and lower parts of rivers. The branch competes on uneven terms with commercial offshore salmon fishing.

Sea mammal hunting (walrus, whales, seals), and to a lesser degree marine fishing, is the main occupation along the coast of the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean. The Arctic shore west of Chukotka does not provide a subsistence basis for sea mammal hunters, although some hunting has locally been done.

Gathering (berries, herbs, roots, mushrooms) is one of the oldest subsistence branches in the world, which has still a fundamental - now increasing - importance in the North. It has in general not been economised, and is still yielding important supplementary provisions for individual families.

Other primary economic branches (stock farming, horse breeding, vegetable gardening, fur farming) have taken over in areas, where traditional Northern indigenous occupations are given up, or where they have been introduced by the state for commercial reasons. Environmental impacts on these subsistence branches can be subdivided into three main groups. Items (1) and (2) are direct impacts by the NSR, while (3) summarises indirect impacts. The latter are considered to have the most important consequences for the indigenous environment.

1. Pollution through shipwreck and other possible accidents

2. Change of wildlife population, distribution and migration pattern

3. Development or extension of infrastructure and industry

Already existing environmental impact sources are sorted by a number of factors (below). Most of them will change the degree or sort of impact (mostly to the worse) during the development expected in the wake of the NSR.

1. Oil and gas development

2. Radioactive pollution

3. Pollution from river traffic, industry and mining

4. Redisposal of land for other purposes

5. Transportation lines (boat traffic through ice, oil pipelines)

6. Shipwreck

7. Military activity

8. Commercialisation of hunting, trapping and fishing (competition for subsistence)

9. Tourism

10. Environmental laws (mostly positive, though locally negative influence)

11. Socio-economic crisis

The possibly most hazardous and acute of the ongoing development projects is the oil and gas development in Western Siberia and in the Nenetskiy Avtonomnyy Okrug. There is some hope that modern environmental understanding combined with international participation and western investment in production and transportation technology may reduce the damage from that experienced during the Soviet development of the Middle Ob and Yamal areas.

The only way to control development is a new legislation with considerable respect to indigenous land use, and an effective law enforcement and implementation of environmental regulations is needed. Most important of all, the indigenous societies need to be part of the process of creating the framework for the development, and their premises need to be viewed and treated on an equal basis.


    Winfried K. Dallmann, 1997, Indigenous peoples of the northern part of the Russian Federation and their environment. Atlas and historical ethnographic back ground information, INSROP.©