Keeping Arctic animals makes sense!

The Arctic Ark team has presented their work of the last four years in human-animal relations in the Arctic at the Finnish Academy’s final Arktiko Seminar. Studying people’s relations to their domestic pastoral animals in the Arctic using approaches from anthropology and genetics has resulted in some surprising results:

Our work with reindeer, horse and cattle herders in Lapland, Arkhangelsk region and Yakutia has shown that

  1. people in the Arctic have long relied and still rely on more animal diversity than reindeer and fish
  2. a very similar set of properties of their pastoral animals is valued by the herders across regions and also across species: the independence, the autonomy of the animals, and the very low level of human care that the animals need in comparison to other more southerly animals are particularly valued. This also comes with the plus that all these animals can wander off and search for their own food, grazing
    ArcArk coordinators Juha Kantanen (genetics) and Florian Stammler together with Alexandra Grigorieva (Yurta Mira) in front of the ArcArk poster on the viability of horse-herding

    on sometimes very limited pasture resources. Imported breeds of pastoral animals, like Holstein cattle or Arabian horses would not be able to survive on such resources. And particularly, their would not be able to graze on pastures covered under snow. This is what Sakha horses can, which you do not need to feed at temperatures down to minus 60.

  3. that in different regions the same species of animals is used in a very diverse way, and this use is culturally determined. We find that the broader the use value of the animal is in the specific society, the more resilient the animal husbandry is to different socio-economic shocks on the human-animal livelihood. A good example for this is the horse: in Yakutia people value the horse as a source of meat, of transport, racing, prestige, milk, hair and spiritual connection to the land. This combination of broad use-application of the horse has led to a steady grow of horse numbers and steady demand for horse products on the market, making this an even economically viably livelihood. On the other hand, in Finland and in Mezen (Arkhangelsk), local horse breeds have lost their economic value almost entirely, since motorised transport replaced them in agriculture and forestry. In these cases, where people do not eat horse meat, the only use – value left for the horses is as a source for tourism and racing.

Continue reading “Keeping Arctic animals makes sense!”

International conference on “Local horse breeding in Russia in the past, present and future”, June 22-24, 2018

It is worth travelling north in mid June to experience one of the wonders of the Arctic. It is polar day when the sun disappears only for a very short time under the horizon and the sunset is fading into a sunrise for hours during the night colouring the horizon in a million different shades of blue, red and yellow.

Mezen mare with its foal in Lampozhnya, photo: Christian Vagt

I enthusiastically confirmed when I received an invitation to visit a conference on local horse breeds in Russia often threatened by extinction. Accompanied by my friend and photographer Christian Vagt I travelled the long road to the old Russian town of Mezen. Small workshop-like symposia in contrast to big international conferences allow for a more intense exchange of ideas. They enable to establish close contacts among colleagues that often grow into future collaborations or even friendship.

The author speaking about human animal symbiotic adaptation in the Arctic, photo: Christian Vagt

This conference was organised by the leading specialist on the Mezen horse breed Irina Borisovna Yur’eva of the Arkhangelsk Scientific Institute of Agriculture of the Russian Academy of Sciences. One of the main impressions left by the event was that around the local horse breeds in Russia you also always meet a special breed of people – real enthusiasts who fight not only for their cause, but are also amazingly communicative and social.

the conference organiser Irina Borisovna Yur’eva at the conference dinner, photo: Christian Vagt

People of different scientific institutions from Russia, Belorussia, Norway and Finland visited the conference in the regional centre – the town of Mezen – and on the second and third day of the conference travelled to the nearby village of Lampozhnya. Here, at one of the oldest settlements on the Mezen River they witnessed a two days horse tourism competition, where local people and guests compete with their own and their horses’ skills in riding and hiking.

Participants of the competition with their Mezen horses, photo: Christian Vagt

I presented the results of the Anthropology Team of the Arctic Centre Rovaniemi as the comparative research on human-animal relations in the Arctic Ark project. We contrasted the sociocultural significance and vernacular breeding practices of three different horse breeds and the forms of adaptation of the human-animal relationship in a changing Arctic.

Cultural program, photo: Christian Vagt

Colleagues coming mostly from agricultural sciences and biology were greatly interested in the insights in symbiotic adaptation of humans and horses and the idea of distance and independence as important for social relations in the North.

Theory and practice hand in hand, photo: Christian Vagt

We could witness a heated discussion between two conceptual factions of colleagues – one promoting maximum contact with animals as the goal of horse breeding and the other claiming that you neither have to ride nor manage the horses’ behaviour with that much scrutiny in order to understand and build relations with the animal.

The founder of the village Lampey brings the trophies, photo: Christian Vagt

Other, yet not much studied differences in human relations with horses involve gender aspects. We very well know the transition of horse breeding from am masculine domain in an agriculturalist context to the favourite hobby of girls in an urban setting. There seems to also be a distinction of between those riders and hobby breeders who favour mares and those that favour stallions.

Q&A after the presentation, photo: Christian Vagt

Russia is divided into regions where horsemeat is the most important economic asset of horse breeding but also of high cultural value, and others, where it is considered almost a taboo or symbol of economic and cultural decline to breed horses for meat. I was surprised to learn that Russia is an importer of horsemeat from abroad and often meat of low quality is brought into the country. While in Norway or Finland horses are mostly held for the growing business of breeding sports horses, the local horse breeding in Russia shows the full range of the different uses of horses from their role as working horses in agriculture and pastoralism, in meat production, recreation and tourism as well as hippotherapy, to its use in cultural events and sports.

River crossing to the village of Lampozhnya, photo: Christian Vagt

Some links to institutions, which took part in the conference (only in Russian):

The Arkhangelsk Scientific Research Institute of Agriculture of the Primorsky Branch of Federal State Budgetary Institution on Science (FSBIS) Federal Research Centre of Complex Study of the Arctic (FRCCSA) of the Russian Academy of Science (RAS) – the leading institution of research on the Mezen horse coordinated by Irina Borisovna Yur’eva.

The director Alexander Mikhailovich Zaicev and other staff of the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Horse Breeding which is the leading institution researching local horse breeds in Russia.

The Vavilov Institute of General Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Laboratory of Comparative Animal Genetics

The Russian State Agrarian University – Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy

The Scientific-Art Museum of Horse Breeding in Moscow:

The Zoological Museum of Moscow University, head of research Natalia Spasskaya

Sever – the information resource of the Mezen region

Animal breeding and genetics group of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, head of research group Gunnar Klemetsdal

The author with the heraldic animal of the town of Mezen, photo: Christian Vagt


Assessing damage to indigenous cultures by industrial development with maths?

I just read an interesting post by the Russian news agency TASS (in Russian) announcing proudly the launch of a new method for assessing damage to indigenous culture and livelihood during industrial development of the Arctic. Russian scholars in this field know that there has been long a discussion about how the only Russian law on the anthropological expert review (etnologicheskaia expertiza) in Sakha (Yakutia) does not duly consider damage to culture and instead has a clear focus on compensation of material damage to natural resources that indigenous people use, as Ivanova has shown (2016:1237).

Now it seems that the working group of scholars and parliament committee members that want to push ahead with a Russian-wide law on the etnologicheskaia expertiza want to focus on assessing impacts with a participatory method that bases on a mathematical model. However, from the one article that I found by one of the authors it remains unclear to me if there would be aspects considered such as loss of spiritual knowledge, language, values and other aspects where indigenous cultures differ from the dominant societies of the state they live in.

While this is certainly a timely discussion, I wondered from reading that news post how the new scientific method advertised there wants to reliably assess such damage using mathematical formula only? The text says that researchers from the Russian Economic University and Kuban University have developed a mathematical formula allowing to consider the interests of all stakeholders around investment projects in the Arctic. In the text, economics Professor Violetta Gassiy is quoted as advertising this new method as a good replacement, because the method according to which damage has been assessed so far considers 101 criteria and therewith would be “very complicated”. But I wonder, isn’t it dangerous to simplify impact on local and indigenous cultures according to a ‘one fits it all’ formula? Countless anthropological research has shown that cultures are hugely diverse and function in a very tightly integrated reciprocal relationship between people and their specific environments.

I don’t want to dump the method of our colleagues prematurely, but I want to raise awareness of the fact that just by considering what local people express as their immediate interest in an industrial project may not necessarily be the best assessment of its possibly detrimental effects to culture. So far I thought that one of the advantages of the etnologicheskaia expertiza model in Russia is that it actually relies on trained anthropologists to assess JOINTLY with local experts the long-term impact of an industrial project on culture. This, I think, goes BEYOND the hopes of members in a community to get one-off payments as compensation or employment in the industry during the project life-cycle. I am not arguing that the hopes and opportunities for local people from industrial development projects are not important to consider. It is great if colleagues in Russia have come up with a good formula to do so.

All I am saying is that by no means does this replace the need for thorough assessment of cultural impacts by trained anthropologists together with local practitioners using our main method of participant observation.

A fair impact assessment must consider hopes, opportunities as well as threats and dangers of industrial development for indigenous societies. It must not be limited to assessing compensation payments for damage that occurs on the way, but should show avenues for PREVENTING such damage to happen in the first place. Together with colleagues we have highlighted this need for going beyond damage compensation towards damage prevention in social and cultural impact assessment more than a decade ago. With continued exploration and extraction of energy and mineral resources in the Arctic, this need did not diminish but increase, but the prevalent extractivist approach to natural resource governance does not always consider this need, as we have shown recently in a special volume on the topic.

I really welcome if this new method in Russia, if it becomes applied, is going to be seen as a tool to meet the need for participatory action together with local people in assessing their immediate needs, but that it would not replace our longer term joint challenge of trying to maintain culturally specific lifestyles of local and indigenous peoples in the Arctic basing on their unique adaptation to the Arctic environment and their knowing how to use the renewable natural resources in it in a reciprocal and sustainable way.

How do non-Arctic actors’ interests matter the Arctic? – debates around Arctic Circle assembly

From October 13 to October 19, 2017, the Uarctic Thematic network “Arctic Extractive Industries” held a masters/Phd course on the topic of Security, Governance and Geopolitics in relation to Arctic Extractive Industries. This time the organizers invited participants to Iceland. The course brought together students and faculty from Arctic universities and research centers from 10 different countries. The program came in three stages:

Continue reading “How do non-Arctic actors’ interests matter the Arctic? – debates around Arctic Circle assembly”

Women as guardians of Human Security in the Arctic?

11 September, talking about Human Security. Is that by coincidence or a slight hint at the terrible events in New York in 2001? It was not quite a usual group of people for a scholarly conference who had gathered in Helsinki in the Foreign Affairs Institute to explore security beyond armies, military and sovereignty questions. I was told that there will be people from governments, embassies and the like.

Yuranebe Khada, Nenets guardian of a hearth on the Yamal Pensinula. She is the source of human security for the people who live on Gazprom’s largest terrestrial gas deposit (Foto Stammler)

When preparing the talk, I realised that the main argument that I thought was lacking from the point of view of an anthropologist on human security in the Arctic, is that humans feel secure there if they have a sense of home, of belonging, and of emotional-spiritual warmth and stability at their place. This fundamental condition of  human security is quite well epitomised by the symbol of the hearth, the fireplace in the middle of a nomadic tent, tended physically by the housewife, and spiritually guarded by the myad pukhutse, which is the Nenets word for the spirit that guards the tent and the hearth in it. Now notice: both of these figures, the housewife and the the guardian spirit are female. This means that the main guarantors of human security as a general condition in the Arctic are women! In all the male politician talk, or military talk, or industrialisation talk, or adventure talk, or reindeer herding talk – this fundamental condition about gender is not enough emphasized. This was my argument in the talk in Helsinki to these ambassadors. Of course, as everything, this is not new. The volume edited in 2010 by Thomas Hylland Eriksen emphasized already that we need to consider more immaterial notions of human security

After the talk I was a bit surprised to have seen, among others,  the ambassadors of countries that might have a bit different view on gender in the audience: Iran and Morocco 🙂 . To be honest, I was a bit surprised myself seeing myself talking like this about gender – considering that I am not at all a specialist in this field, and have never published on it. But it’s never too late…

At least there was no open outbreak of opposition in the audience, rather slight shaking of heads when they were listening to that argument.

If you are interested, you can listen to talks on that seminar here in the podcast, and comments are welcome of course!

Arctic Abstractive Industry

Colleague Arthur Mason sent around a link to the collection of popular short essays that many anthropologists contributed to a theme around extractive industries in the Arctic, but also asking a bit more behind the scenes what are the principles behind such economies and livelihoods.

All of this should be open access.


New Forms of Law and Governance for and from the Arctic

This in an invitation to a seminar on adaptive law and governance in the Arctic.

Researcher Ivanova (left) studying native fisheries governance with the Lariny family in the Russian Far East, Kamchatka

On August 17-18, 2016, Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland ( will organize a seminar, which will look at research approaches to explore the role of law and other institutions in governance of natural resources in the Arctic. We will also explore how institutions coping with Arctic challenges have evolved, how changes in Arctic law and governance influence Arctic residents’ life and Arctic societies as collectives, and whether these developments and Arctic governance experiences could provide lessons for other regions. A detailed background paper can be found here and on our “lectures and events, Rovaniemi” page.

Distinguished Prof. J.B. Ruhl from Vanderbilt University Law School, will be with us and share his experience on adaptive law and governance.  (

We invite abstract proposals (max. 500 word) for presentations from interested scholars from all disciplines. After the seminar, papers based on selected presentations are aimed to be published together as a special issue in high-level international journal.

Expenses: Thanks to the support from Academy of Finland Strategic profiling funding, there are no seminar fees and the Center will pay for participant’s lunch, coffee and dinner in seminar days. Participants are responsible for travel expenses and accommodation.

Send submissions: Raija.Kivilahti(at)

Deadline: 1 June 2016

Notifications of acceptance: 15 June 2016

Registration is open until 17th June. To register, send an email to Raija’s email above.

Organising committee

Jukka Similä                                  Florian Stammler                               Soili Nysten-Haarala

Prof, Adaptive Law                      Prof, Anthropology                             Prof, Russian & treaty Law

Arctic Voices: Expectations, Narratives and the Realities of Living with Extractive industries: new publication

Arctic Voices: Expectations, Narratives and the Realities of Living with Extractive industries in the Far North (Edited by Emma Wilson and Florian Stammler ) is the name of a new special issue.
It has been ages ago that we ran a conference session “People and the Extractive Industries” and a doctoral course in Rovaniemi in December 2013 in our Uarctic Thematic Network with some very good presentations on local perceptions and impacts of extractive EXIS_coverimageindustrial development in the Arctic. Out of this we thought we could publish a good volume as a special issue in some journal. It was mostly thanks to my colleague Emma Wilson that this actually happened, and “only” two years after the initial conference and course took place, we now have a full special section of a dedicated extractive industries journal, volume 3 issue one of “The Extractive Industries and Society”. I think that’s not too bad a turnover time for an entire publication process from scratch to published, including numerous editorial tasks, reviews, improvements, corrections, and negotiations with the journal and the authors. We ended up bringing together a whole set of really interesting papers, including on Greenland, on Norwegian extractive industrial settings, on Arctic Russia, on the Canadian Arctic, so we sort of reached the aim of “circumpolarity” at least to some extent with this collection. All of the articles in one way or the other address the relation between large scale governance and local situations on those places where big industry meets local livelihoods. That’s why we called the publication “Arctic Voices“. Many of the articles are open access, so we hope and aim for a wide distribution of the collection. If you have problems accessing papers, please let me know. And of course comments and discussions on any of the topics raised are warmly welcome!

Paper call: Engaging with treasures of the subsurface between extractivism and spiritualism, 20-23 July 2016

Dear colleagues

at this year’s European Association for Social Anthropology congress in Milano, we got a session accepted on extractive industries where we want to go beyond the usual social impacts of industry evidence – as important as this is. Acceptance of our session proposal was already a success, because there were WAY MORE session proposed than the organisers actually accepted.

You are warmly welcome to submit paper proposals to this session, from whereever field in the world you are. The conference is from 20-23 July 2016.

The deadline for submission of presentation abstracts is February 15, and for this purpose you need to go to the webpage of the panel:

Looking forward to many interesting submissions.

Short Abstract

Beyond the anthropology of oil and indigenous peoples, this session explores cultures of relating to the subsurface. Papers analyse the relation of different resource users’ engagement with resources, their worldview, their environment and how these relations influence resource extraction

Long Abstract

People’s corporeal, spiritual, and cultural engagement with subsurface resources are the subject of this session. Many indigenous people worldwide associate taboos, notions of death, darkness and dangers with the subsurface. On the other hand, human life – including indigenous life is dependent on the extraction of subsurface resources (most notably energy and mining). Underlying these processes is the worldview of extractivism (Acosta 2013), the idea that only through processes of extraction can resources become valuable and acquire meaning for humankind. The meaning of resources in extractivism is being used for the good of humans, whose goal is in turn ‘open up’ more untapped resources in a “big carbon” approach (Klein 2014). This is in stark contrast to many indigenous and local cosmologies where the underground is a sacred (albeit maybe dangerous) sphere that must be left in peace for the spirits. This session aims to overcome such a dichotomy by inviting papers on extractive industries focusing on the corporeality and spirituality of the resource(s), and on the lived experience of people living on top of subsurface resources. Rather than reifying the distinction between indigenous and incomer-people, or between traditional indigenous economies and extractive industries, we encourage papers to analyse the complex mutual influence between people’s cosmologies, their relation to the environment, their way of life and their way of relating to and extracting resources. In doing so, we hope to break new ground in the theoretical positioning of an anthropology of extractive industries and the environment.

Florian Stammler (University of Lapland) (chair)
Dmitri Funk (Moscow State University)
Vladislava Vladimirova (Uppsala University)
Hugh Beach (Uppsala University) (discussant)

Gatekeepers for fieldwork?

Our colleagues in Estonia will host a really interesting workshop this year – focusing on the role of gatekeepers. I think they are very right that these people are so important for any anthropologist (not only in the Arctic), but we know very little about them, yet we all have our own very diverse experiences with them. This workshop will be a great opportunity to discuss this underrepresented topic.

I just wonder, if the workshop organisers also could have thought to specifically invite scholars TOGETHER with “their” gatekeepers to this workshop? I remember that at the ICASS in Fairbanks one workshop did that, and I brought two friends from Yamal (Mikhail Okotetto and Alexandr Yuzhakov). And David Koester was there with his great gatekeeping friend from Kamtchatka (and many others whom my  bad memory 11 years ago remembers less well). And there they called this “research partnerships” rather than gatekeeping. I wonder if that term sounds more equal and respectful to both sides than gatekeeper? I’m happy to discuss some of this already here on the blog, maybe as an anticipation to get somebody going for the workshop in Tartu?

Here is the call for papers: Continue reading “Gatekeepers for fieldwork?”