The tundra ecosystems in Siberia are vulnerable to both climate change and oil/gass drilling. Yet the Yamal-Nenets in West Siberia have shown remarkable resilience to these changes. “Free access to open space has been the key for success” says Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland, Finland, Environmental Research Web reports.
Forbes and five colleagues from various disciplines (including anthropology) at the University of Joensuu, Finland, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Cambridge, UK, have studied the Yamal-Nenets for more than four years. The research should not only help with plans for the Nenets’ future survival but could also offer tips for other communities.
The ability to roam freely enables people and animals to exploit or avoid a wide range of natural and manmade habitats. The Nenets responded to their changing environment by adjusting their migration routes and timing, avoiding disturbed and degraded areas, and developing new economic practices and social interaction, for example by trading with workers who have moved into gas villages in the area.
“Our work shows that local people have an important role to play, one that is every bit as useful and informative as that of the scientists and administrators charged with managing complex social-ecological systems", Forbes says.
Around half of the Yamal Peninsula’s 10,000 Nenet people are herding reindeers. Average temperatures in the region have increased by 1–2 °C over the past 30 years. The area contains some of the largest known untapped gas deposits in the world.
Their findings were published as open access article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, see High resilience in the Yamal-Nenets social–ecological system, West Siberian Arctic, Russia.
One of Forbes’ colleagues is anthropologist Florian Stammler. He has put several papers online, among others Arctic climate change discourse: the contrasting politics of research agendas in the West and Russia (together with Bruce C. Forbes), The Obshchina Movement in Yamal: Defending Territories to Build Identities? and the magazine article Siberia Caught between Collapse and Continuity (together with Patty Gray)
To conclude, historical experience and current Nenets agency could serve as a stable basis to continue the decades-old coexistence of industrial development and nomadic pastoralism, if a certain number of conditions are met.
Investments by industry must undergo a cost-benefit analysis for the ecological and socio-cultural situation in the tundra, rather than focusing on development of sedentary communities.
If nomads' suggestions are considered, money would be redistributed away from village housing to increase ecological safety of tundra infrastructure, raising pipelines to allow free movement of humans and animals, more air-based supplies instead of an extended road network, concentration of sprawling infrastructure to minimize ecological damage to tundra pastures and freshwater fish sources, and strict implementation of codes of conduct for herders and workers.
The region is experiencing a pattern of activity that is likely to be repeated elsewhere in the Arctic and have feedbacks to the global system. Now that the conditions for successful coexistence are known, and a reliable knowledge base on both sides exists via this and previous studies, proper implementation could turn the region into an exemplar of global relevance for the future.