I have been doing fieldwork with Yamal Nenets reindeer herders for more than 20 years now, and have noticed this year a change in their perception of the changes happening around them, maybe partially reinforced by corona virus.
Be it industrial expansion, the icing-over of pastures, outbreaks of diseases, methane holes in the tundra, the change of a political regime or other disasters – they have always given me the impression of incredible self-confidence that whatever comes, these tough enthusiastic nomadic reindeer herders will manage to face the challenge and continue their life. I witness some of this still in the tundra: this year for example the annual reindeer herders day festival – the main party of the year for herders – was cancelled due to Corona obviously. Usually, these are big gatherings of hundreds of herders, featuring a meeting where spring migration schedules and routes are discussed, and then – most importantly – reindeer races take place.
In absence of the big festival and meeting, herders self-organised in smaller groups instead and held meetings and races among neighbours.
One such meeting was in the 20th brigade of the Yar-Sale herding enterprise, not too far from the city oc Nadym, end of March 2020. Instead of big prices awarded by oil and gas companies and municipalities, every reindeer herder participating in the races offered one 2 year old male reindeer as a contribution to the award. With 12 participating racers, this meant that the first winner got 6 reindeer as an award, the second four, and the third two. During the races one could really feel the mood of “so what – if the officials don’t want us to have our meetings in town because of Corona, we have it in the tundra”. And my host for these weeks mentioned that “we have our own way of running things here”. It made sense to me that the Russian laws are good for villages run by Russians, but not necessarily for organising herders actions in the tundra. Good legal anthropology, yes?
But the change in the perception was that it seems now in times of corona, people try to get news over their mobile phones and satellite TV even when they are in their nomadic camps, and there is more and more talk about conspiracy theories for all these disasters.
Not only the Corona, but also the anthrax, the iced pastures, the craters on yamal and all other significant changes. This made me think that people have such a strong sense of “we can manage all challenges” that the only way of interpreting things that they CAN NOT cope with is when it is a conspiracy. That’s why I heard from several that the corona pandemic may be the works of some group of secret world rulers who decided to paralyse the globe for their own benefit. In the same way as some thought the big pasture icing event was aggravated by people who wanted consciously to reduce the number of reindeer and people on the Peninsula, and the anthrax outbreak was the work of evil forces that wanted to empty the area for making space for industry infrastructure.
This is an interesting pattern: could it be that nowadays conspiracy has partially taken over from the spirits as an explanation how things occur that are beyond the herders capacity to adapt?
So is there any immediate influence of corona on nomadic life in the tundra? Yes in so far as herders try to minimise their going to town for their big spring shopping. I have seen them ordering supplies to be delivered to the road side by car, from where they would pick up their supply and pay for them on the spot through mobile banking, as close to the road there is a phone signal.
There seems to be general agreement that not going to town any more is a good way from preventing the virus to spread to the tundra. This brings, however, a conflict of interest to light: migration should be ideally good for the reindeer, and not for the people. The elders agree that now for the reindeer it is better to not move too fast towards the Yamal Peninsula. However, my host’s son Andrei thinks that where they are now, close to Nadym, even though there are lichen-rich pastures, it’s dangerous to be in the vicinity of a big town with corona. So they decide to move northwards earlier.
Before doing so, we get a lot of petrol for them to carry with them on their migration. The reason: this year the winter road to the main village Yar Sale on the Yamal Peninsula was so unstable that no fuel-trucks delivered anything to the village.
So the price of petrol there is twice higher than in the gas town of Nadym. Some herders are reported to even have traded fuel from Nadym to people in Yar Sale as a business. The warm winter has made the winter road undriveable – a toll to climate change?