More news from Yamal, West Siberia

Where: Yamal Peninsula, West Siberia
Who: fieldwork by Nina Meschtyb, text by Nina Meschtyb & Florian Stammler
When: July 2011

Anthropologist Nina Meschtyb who joined the anthropology research team in Rovaniemi came back from the field in West Siberia with news about technological change, the social impact of oil and gas industry, and the perspective for continued reindeer nomadism in that area with a most vital nomadic way of live. Nina’s report is also telling about the huge variety of skills we need as fieldworkers beyond research methods when working in such difficult fields. Organisation, logistics, paperwork, permits – all this needs as much attention as the research proper.
Nina writes from the field

“My anthropological fieldwork at the Bovanenkovo gas deposit area [Yamal, West Siberia] this time  continued about 12 days – in sum it was about only 6 days migration with brigade number 4 of the Yar-Salinsky state farm and about 6 days of waiting and organising logistic at the Bovanenkovo gas deposit.

Industrial workers’ idea about the tundra – and their sense of place

During staying at the Bovanenkovo Meschtyb interviewed some workers who had been there from the early days of industrial activity more than 20 years ago. The narratives trace their image of the tundra, its inhabitants and changes among industrial workers of Bovanenkovo deposit. The amount of workers on the Bovanenkovo increased many times compared to 2005. New fly in – fly out shift workers with whom we met were very interested in the tundra inhabitants and their lifestyle.  Nowadays contacts of workers with tundra nenets are strictly regulated as the gas companies have clearly defined roles limiting their access to the tundra. Secondly Bovanenkovo infrastructure has grown so intensively that tundra nenets make an effort to migrate through the area as quickly as possible. New workers have quite a general abstract vision of real life in tundra. Often it is a kaleidoscope of scrappy information from soviet anecdotes about some general image of northern  aboriginal peoples with additional mixed information from mass media. It was remarkable that workers now seem to be more interested to care about their surrounding environment, maybe due to the fact that already the second  generation are working as fly in – fly out shift workers in the Arctic North. This may give them the feeling of the tundra as their “second” home (Bolotova & Stammler 2010)- a phenomenon that colleagues in the anthropology research team have studied more extensively.  Some workers are confident that their children (boys) will follow the example of their fathers and grandfathers and work on deposits in the high Arctic.
Old and new staff of various profession and range were very curious about our scientific studies and information in general.

The perception of industry among tundra inhabitants

In the tundra Meschtyb worked with the reindeer herders of brigade № 4 headed by Nyadma Khudi, who is a long standing partner in our research since 2005 and participant in the Ilebts declaration process. With the limited time Meschtyb was able to join nomadic migration to 3 camp sites, moving from Bovanenkovo north-westwards towards the coast of the Kara Sea. Crossing the  Se-Yakha River close to Bovanenkovo deposit and then migrating through the deposit before the hot mosquito time started sets people and animals in a stage of hurry. Doing this rossing in hot weather could be  an arduous trial for everybody. Once the hectic of Bovanenkovo’s infrastructure is behind, reindeer herders were more relaxed. They feel protected – in front of them are lakes with fish,and the Kara sea. Fresh pastures are still abundant where they can carry on with their own way of  herding adapted for any kind of weather and season. In safe distance from Bovanenkovo the herders did their annual velvet (soft) antlers cutting and trading for additional income.

Many of the discussions with herders were about general environmental and social issues, where both positive and negative changes were mentioned. Most significantly, these changes are noticed when talking about indicators of good and bad pasture quality for reindeer and the quality of fishing grounds. For example, the migration route of the 4th brigade passes by near Yuneta-Yakha River, where herders put nets for fishing seasonally. Since the mid 1990ies fish had dissapeared from there – herders link this to the extension of a sand-quarry in the course of gas infrastructure construction.  The sand quarry was used until the early 2000s, and nowadays fish has come back. This shows how important is the presence or absence of fish for the suitability and quality of nomadic camp sites.

Lack of transparency
Not much information about infrastructure development in the area gets all the way to the inhabitants of the tundra. This lack of information flow has not changed over decades, was mentioned as a problem long ago, and found its way in to the recommendations of the Ilebts declaration of coexistence between herders and industry as well . Herders have accomodated changes of the present, but they could but how should they reply to any question about the future impacts if they haven’t got an idea of what is going to happen on their pastures? Will they still be able to accomodate and adapt?

Technological change
A cumulative consequence of industrial development is technoological change on the tundra. New models of petrol generators have brought new entertaiment to evening life among the nomads. Even in summertime light is often switched on inside chums, as they are dark from inside. The evening is a good time to load mobile phones and to watch films using portable DVD – players. Rather than talking, this has come to  attract most attention of camp inhabitants in the evening.  Devices and films for entertainment are among the commodities that are now being increasingly traded in summer in exchange for velvet antlers (panty) (See Stammler 2007).

Roman Tusida and friends using new entertainment technologies on the tundra. Foto F. Stammler, 2011

Collected data demostrated a steady presatge of man’s and woman’s tundra occupation (herder, zootechnician, house-keeper), continual good , and gender conditional  ecological knowledge.

This time the field expirience was quite short but productive, and it linked up very well  with the previous work done by Florian Stammler and Roza Laptander on Yamal in April, as well as with the ongoing Yamal projects in the Arctic Centre’s Global Change research group (Bruce Forbes et al). This Yamal field site has been for years one where interedisciplinary fieldwork of anthropologists with natural scientists was not a lip-service as so often, and social sciences where equal if not leading partners, rather than being degraded to the “human dimension” that we have come to find slightly discriminatory by now (See Stammler 2011).