Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 44,640 Nenets in the Russian Federation. Nenets are the most numerous of the Samoyedic peoples and speak a language of the Uralian division of the Uralo-Altaic language family. The Nenets literary language was created in 1932 using the Cyrillic script.
Nenets are mainly shamanist. They live in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (AOk), the Nenets AOk and the former Taimyr (Dolgano-Nenets) AOk.
The Nenets are an indigenous Siberian people, whose traditional economy was rooted in nomadic reindeer herding, fishing and hunting. They came under Russian influence from the sixteenth century onwards. Under Soviet rule they were forcibly collectivized and the Nenets’ shamanist religion was attacked. A number of Nenets rebellions took place in the 1940s. The Nenets were subsequently largely sedentarized in the 1950s, and the region later saw a large influx of Slavic settlers employed in industry.
In March 1993, encouraged by the secession of the Chukchi Autonomous Okrug from Magadan Oblast and by the prospect of controlling the oil resources of the area, Yamalo-Nenets and Khanti-Mansi, also within Tyumen Oblast, decided to press for the status of separate republics but neither was successful.
In 1990s the Russian energy company Gazprom initiated preparations for one of its biggest oil projects, the Yamal Megaproject, aimed at exploiting the peninsula`s gas reserves. In 2012, the first gas supplies were produced from the vast Bovanenkovo reserve, and billions of cubic meters of gas are now currently piped to Western Europe. As a result of this exploitation, many of the 13,000 indigenous inhabitants have had to leave the Yamal Peninsula for fear of being forced to live in permanent settlements.
The main problems confronting the Nenets are ecological damage deriving from exploitation of the Yamal region’s natural gas deposits, unemployment and alcoholism. The construction of gas pipelines has disrupted annual migration routes and herding now contributes only a small portion of the region’s economy. The Nenets reportedly suffer from high death and suicide rates. Nenets activists have called for the protection of traditional economies in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, but political nationalism among the Nenets remains weak.
Their nomadic lifestyle is now threatened as their migration routes have been disrupted by mining infrastructure, pollution and the effects of climate change. As a result, many young Nenets are forced to migrate to cities, where they frequently struggle to integrate and face a range of social problems.
As with other indigenous communities in the Russian Federation which depend on reindeer herding for their cultures and livelihoods, a further key threat to the Nenets’ future is climate change. Warmer summers bring higher and denser shrub growth across the tundra, making it more difficult to gather and move reindeer herds. Rapid shifts in temperature can cause freezing rain which in turn causes the lichen that reindeer depend on to be covered by a thick and often impenetrable layer of ice. And the untimely melting of lake and river ice can make it difficult for Nenets to follow their reindeer’s traditional migration patterns. Nenets can adapt by continuing to roam widely in search of pastures; the issue is whether mining and natural gas extraction will hamper their access to the necessary range of habitats.
Updated December 2020
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Kabards and Balkars
- Karachay and Cherkess
- Khants and Mansi
- Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks
- Russian or Volga Germans
- Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs