Russia's Arctic People at Risk

By Justin Burke, | The Christian Science Monitor, February 9, 1993 | Go to article overview

Russia's Arctic People at Risk


Justin Burke,, The Christian Science Monitor


FOR Yuri Veingo, a reindeer herder near here, the struggle to survive the Russian Arctic's bitter, dark winter has been reduced to a 26-mile commute.

The 26-year-old Mr. Veingo spends most of his time tending his herd in the tundra, living in a chum - a tepee-like structure with a wooden frame covered by reindeer skin.

Although the chum is similar to the dwellings of his ancestors, life in the tundra for Mr. Veingo isn't the constant battle against the elements that it was for his forebears.

Every few days he is able to obtain provisions relatively easily, hopping on his Russian-built snowmobile for the roughly 13-mile ride to Gornoknyazevsk, an isolated settlement comprising a few wooden shacks that Veingo can nonetheless describe as "civilization."

Dressed in a traditional costume of reindeer skins, he says life is getting progressively easier.

"We just got a Japanese generator for our chum, so we now have electricity. We've also got a radio," said Veingo, an ethnic Khanty, one of several indigenous groups in the region, known as the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area.

While Veingo doesn't seem to mind the intrusions of technology into his traditional lifestyle, there are some who say the modern conveniences are harbingers of changes that could wipe out the indigenous people of the Arctic area.

"Many small nations of Russia are on the verge of biological extinction," Yevdokia Gayer, deputy chairwoman of the Russian State Committee for the Social and Economic Development of the North, told the Tass news agency.

In all, there are more than 60 small ethnic minorities in Russia totaling about 450,000 people, according to Ms. Gayer. In connection with 1993 having been declared the International Year of Indigenous People by the United Nations, Gayer's committee is paying particular attention to the protection of the cultures of Russia's indigenous people.

But achieving a harmonious balance between the hunter-gatherer traditions of the local inhabitants and economic development has become increasingly difficult, Gayer and others say. The problem in the Yamal-Nenets region is especially acute because of the presence of oil and gas reserves on land historically used by the Nenets, Khanty, and Mansi tribes as fishing grounds or as grazing land for reindeer.

The oil and gas deposits, discovered about 30 years ago, have been largely undeveloped to date. But with the collapse of the centralized communist economic system, and the subsequent drop in support from Moscow, the pressure on local officials to tap into the reserves is growing. The revenue derived from oil and gas could go a long way toward financing regional economic development.

Even though there has not been widescale development of regional natural resources, significant environmental damage has been done over the past few decades, says Alexander Vladykin, vice mayor of Salekhard, the capital of the Yamal-Nenets area. …

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