documentary film, 30 min
The Nenets people from Russia’s northern Yamal Region, a remote area of Siberia where winter temperatures can sink below minus 50 degrees, are all-too familiar with nature’s caprice. Every other day in summer these indigenous reindeer herders travel miles across the tundra along the same routes used by their ancestors.
In 2012, production began at the Bovanenkovo natural gas field on the Yamal Peninsula, an enormous spit of land extending into the Arctic Ocean. The gas production facilities are located right on the historical migration routes of the Nenets people, forcing them to pick their way through industrial zones to reach their summer pastures.
Bovanenkovo gas field is one of the biggest in Russia and operated by state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom. Its development is a sign of the future: rising temperatures and melting Arctic sea ice mean the Yamal Peninsula is set to become an energy export hub in coming decades.
The natural gas industry’s rapid expansion over the last 15 years has steadily curtailed the herders’ access to pasture and their freedom to move across the tundra. Reindeer migration routes are restricted by pipelines, railways, roads and large drilling sites where herders are not allowed to camp.
“People who come to work here [at Bovanenkovo gas field], probably don’t even know the Nenets people exist until they arrive,” said Yuri, a 35-year old who leads a group of reindeer herders. He tries to be philosophical over the rapid development of the Yamal Peninsula, but the new roads and buildings have caused major problems for his group. His brother, Niadma, is 60-years old and remembers the pristine tundra before the arrival of the energy industry. And he recalls how the first geologists were taken in by the herders, who provided them with shelter from the cold. And then there is Pedava. From a different family, he is 23-years old and the eldest son, which means it is his responsibility to graze the reindeer. He says he envies urban dewellers with their warm flats, hot water, TV and shops. But as soon as he spends any time in a city he starts counting the days before he can return to his reindeer.
The nomadic herders are now facing a series of decisions about whether to save their unique lifestyle and traditions or assimilate with the modern world. Can they be saved? Or will the reindeer herders of the Yamal Peninsula become another museum exhibit?