- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

SALEKHARD, Russia

Russia’s last reindeer herders are making an eleventh-hour attempt to stop Kremlin-backed plans for a proposed gas pipeline on the edge of the Arctic.

They fear digging trenches for pipelines could cause a fresh outbreak of anthrax, a deadly bacterial disease that claimed lives in the region until World War II. The bacteria can survive for generations buried underground.

Gazprom, which provides a quarter of Europe’s gas, is planning to exploit new fields on the Yamal Peninsula, heartland of the Nenets, one the biggest nomadic tribal groups left. The Russian gas giant will lay pipelines and build roads and housing in potentially infected zones, the Nenets warn, and in the process, could make the bacteria resurface.

“The disease could come back,” said Dmitry Khorolia, a Nenets who heads Russia’s Association of Reindeer Herders. “And if it does, we don’t know how we will stop it.”

Nomads lack health care

Nenets reindeer herders live as nomads in the Arctic, and lack ready access to doctors and medicine.

Gazprom promises to be extra-careful when scooping up land. “We have conducted extensive studies to determine how best to proceed,” said a local Gazprom representative who asked not to be named.

The real problem is that no complete maps of infected zones exist.

“It is possible that the disease will return, which is why we need to control carefully where work is being conducted,” said Vitaly Leyutsky, head of the Yamal region veterinary laboratory, run by Russia’s Agriculture Ministry.

The Nenets say Gazprom is threatening their lives and those of its workers. Anthrax carried by reindeer can kill humans and reindeer in a matter of days if not treated on time.

“Anthrax bacteria spores can live for a very long time, and if they resurface and are released into the air, they can easily contaminate people,” said Michele Mock, head of research at the toxins and bacterial pathogenesis unit of the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Ms. Mock said isolated cases of anthrax carried by cows and sheep are occasionally reported in Western European agricultural countries such as France and Italy, but the disease is quickly eradicated. In northern Russia, she said, the cold helps preserve the spores.

The Nenets, who are animists, also feel that digging the earth is not right. Evil spirits live underground and should not be disturbed, they say.

But Gazprom has already begun construction at Bovonenkovo, a soon-to-be developed giant gas deposit on the Yamal Peninsula, part of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District.

The region is home to about a third of the world’s domesticated reindeer and provides 90 percent of Russia’s gas.

A fight for survival

The Nenets worry the Gazprom project will shrink their reindeer’s pastures and threaten their traditional way of life. The animals provide food, shelter, clothing and transport and have helped the nomads remain relatively independent from the Russians. To this day, some Nenets continue to live in self-sufficiency, cut off from the outside world and unaware of what is brewing in warmer climes.

“We strongly oppose that [Bovonenkovo] project. It is our land, and they are going to rip through it like a knife through a reindeer’s belly,” said Yegor Laptander, a father of nine and one of 30,000 Nenets living on or near the Yamal Peninsula, where temperatures dropped below minus 136 degrees Fahrenheit last winter.

The Nenets’ calls for help have mostly been ignored, but a few nongovernmental organizations such as the Copenhagen-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) are trying to help the herders.

“The development of oil and gas is the most pressing problem for the Nenets. But they lack the legal means to defend themselves and the mechanisms to make their voice heard,” said Maja Hojer, responsible for the circumpolar north at IWGIA, which participates regularly in U.N. meetings on issues involving indigenous groups.

‘Not a priority’

The international group works with the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North (RAIPON). The IWGIA has been trying for more than a decade to help push through the Russian parliament a bill to protect reindeer herders’ rights inspired by one protecting the Sami people of Scandinavia.

“We cannot come to an agreement with the [Russian] authorities. Our problems are not a priority for them,” said Sergei Kharyuchy, chairman of RAIPON and a deputy in the Russian parliament.

“People in Moscow don’t know what the north is about and how reindeer herders live, so why would they help them,” Mr. Kharyuchy asked.

Many Nenets have written letters to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, but so far they have gotten no response. They know they cannot turn to local authorities, who support oil and gas projects because they bring much-needed revenues for the region.

The Kremlin sees energy development as a top priority and a key plank of its foreign policy, as it made clear during the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg in July.

Agencies get paid

Gazprom has paid and will continue to pay compensation for using the land of the Nenets, but the money goes to local and regional budgets, not to the nomads.

The authorities argue that the money is for schools, hospitals and other public facilities the nomads use. Gazprom says on its Web site that it is sparing no effort to minimize the impact of gas production on the environment and nomad populations.

“We regularly consult with natives and make sure they agree with our plans,” said the Gazprom representative who requested anonymity. “We very much value their cultural heritage.”

But even without Gazprom, the pastures are shrinking.

The number of reindeer has reached a critical point, rising to 600,000 from 500,000 in less than 10 years. Overgrazing is destroying the vegetation and precious moss and lichen on which reindeer feed. Ruslan Vanuyto, another Nenets, says he has noticed that the reindeer have been growing thinner and weaker in recent years. “Now, with capitalism, everyone wants to have as many reindeer as possible,” he said.

With his extended family of 12 and 600 reindeer, Mr. Vanuyto is leading a long caravan through vast marshes, rivers and the tundra’s wind-swept plains. The ancestors of his reindeer followed the same natural migration route for centuries: north in the summer to escape the heat and mosquitoes, south in the winter to seek shelter from blizzards in the taiga forest.

But as for how much longer this trek can continue, he does not know.

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