Industrialisation on the Yamal Peninsula


Everyone knows that the world’s biggest oil reserves are in the Middle East. But fewer would be able to tell you that the largest gas deposits are on the Yamal Peninsula in Western Siberia. The area is isolated from the rest of the world, both by its lack of road and rail connections and by the fact that it is “closed”, that no one is allowed there who is not a permanent resident or who does not go through the laborious two-month process of getting a permit.

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Nomadic Nenets reindeer herders on a misty morning in the far north of the Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Siberia

Nomadic Nenets reindeer herders on a misty morning in the far north of the Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Siberia

Gas-extraction villages not found on any maps, populated by shift workers brought in from other parts of Russia, leap out of the pristine tundra as you fly over it by helicopter. Ships cling to the coastline around Baydaratskaya Bay, some small, some enormous, one with a giant metal arm as large as the vessel shooting off at right angles and plunging into the sea, the waters around it frothing violently over an area half the size of the ship itself. The jewel in the crown is the Bovanenkovo gas field in Northern Yamal, a grim village of shift workers visible on the horizon from 10km away that has recently grown up around the world’s largest estimated gas deposit. A pipeline shoots south from it, tearing up the tundra and delivering gas to Europe. Even before it went into operation for the first time in June 2012, even without these gargantuan deposits being put into use, Yamal was already producing 23% of the world’s gas. Now the race is really on, the timer ticking. But the area is kept sercet, closed off from the outside world.

Forgotten by all, a nomadic people called Nenets roams this far flung corner of the world, migrating thousands of kilometres on reindeer-drawn sledges with their herds, their clothes and their conical tents sewn from the furs of the animals they drive through the tundra.

Following the Nenets on their migration, one might imagine that the tundra is a vast empty wilderness unscratched by the modern world. But avoiding the pipelines and gas fields is becoming harder and harder. Twelve thousand nomads roam the peninsula and their migration routes are being pushed closer and closer together as pastures are spoilt and difficult-to-cross pipelines are built. For reindeer, animals that need to graze over a vast area of pastureland, this is potentially diastrous. For a culture entirely based on reindeer, the future may also not look bright. What will come of it all only time will tell. There are well-informed optimists out there, among foreign anthropologists and settled Nenets, who consider that it is namely due to gas revenue that reindeer herding has remained an economically viable way of life. However, only pessimists to be found among the reindeer herders themselves. For my part I can relate only what I saw with my own eyes, the conversations I had and the statistics I found out during my summer in northern Yamal.

These days around half of the Yamal Peninsula’s Nenets people live non-nomadic lives in villages that were built in the 1920s and 1930s at the beginning of the USSR’s collectivisation and sedentarisation campaigns. On 24th July 2012 I found myself packing my bags in one such village, Yar Sale. I had travelled for two and a half days by train and 17 hours by river boat to get here from Moscow. I had then waited for two weeks for a helicopter organised by the local government that they now promised would arrive the next day to take me to the encampment of my nomadic Nenets friends hundreds of miles up the Peninsula near the northernmost extremity of their migration route.

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