Climate Tapestry 1: The Nenets of Siberia
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
The Nenets are a migratory people, native to Russia’s northern tundra. There are only just over 40,000 of them, their population having been massively reduced during the Soviet era as a result of forced integration into the authoritarian state system. Each spring, they migrate the one thousand miles up the Yamal peninsula so that their reindeer herds can graze, spending their winters further south in the Taigas of the Russian mainland. The Nenets way of life is heavily adapted around this annual migration: Nenets live in movable homes called chum, which are a little like wigwams, with wooden radial beams collected at a point overhead, covered over with multiple layers of reindeer skins to keep out the Arctic chill.
The most important things to know about the Nenets is that they are inseparable from their reindeer. It is a kind of social contract, running deep in their psychology and culture – the Nenets protect their herds from predators such as the Arctic wolf, and in return, a reindeer is killed every now and again for their meat and skins. The Nenets, for reasons of long-term survival, never kill more than the reindeer population can replenish through breeding, so the practice is completely sustainable. The Nenets are notable for eating their reindeer raw and uncooked, including the blood; this is a vital tundra survival practice, as it results in minimal energy loss from the carcass, in terms of both nutrition and the body heat of the still-warm animal when it is consumed. This practice led to widespread persecution of Nenets by Russians, who frowned upon the practice as barbaric and primitive. In fact, the Nenets used to be called The Samoyed, or “self-eaters”, due to an entirely false rumour that Nenets were cannibals. ‘Nenet,’ thankfully, is a much more neutral term, simply meaning ‘man.’
Across the globe, indigenous peoples following ancient ways of life are often vulnerable and persecuted, and sadly the Nenet people are no exception. Siberia is extremely oil and gas-rich, and the heavy industry that now dots the landscape, connected to civilisation by industrial railway lines thousands of miles long, often proves extremely disruptive to the Nenets as it obstructs their natural migration routes. Worse still, the climate crisis is causing ice to melt much earlier and freeze much later. As reindeer find it difficult to cross snowless tundra, Nenets tribes are having to alter their migration routes accordingly, often by great distances. Climate change also affects availability of lichen – the reindeers’ food source – and this has hugely impacted reindeer numbers amongst both wild herds and those protected by Nenets families.
Permafrost melt is an even more terrifying prospect for the Nenets than heavy industry and longer summers. In the 20th Century, anthrax outbreaks in the Russian tundra killed a million and a half reindeer, and many of these corpses were subsequently frozen intact under layers of permafrost, the anthrax pathogens dormant but still alive within them. Permafrost melt subsequently carries with it the risk of further anthrax outbreaks as these long-dead corpses are exhumed, and it is believed that this has already resulted in an outbreak in 2016 which hospitalised 72 Nenet reindeer herders. This is likely to continue as ever more permafrost melts, revealing even more reindeer corpses infected with anthrax.
In 2013, over 15,000 reindeer starved to death as a result of unexpectedly warm weather which thawed and then refroze the surface ice, trapping the lichen that reindeer rely upon underneath it. Over sixty Nenets families lost their livelihoods that year – they lost their source of food, clothing, shelter and transport in one fell swoop. But perhaps the real tragedy lies in what those Nenets families had to do next in order to survive. Simply to get food on the table and wood in the stove, young Nenet men were forced to work in the massive reindeer slaughterhouses of Siberia, being paid to kill thousands of reindeer using industrial processes that are a grave insult to the methods of the Nenets, whose bond with their reindeer is more than just practical – it is spiritual. Severe depression and even suicide are common amongst Nenets who have lost their ancient livelihoods and are forced to work to survive in this way.
The Nenets are a tough people, but in the years to come, the hardships that they face are only set to grow as the climate of the Russian tundra becomes more chaotic. But when it comes to an uncertain future, the Nenets are certainly in good company, as it were. Indigenous peoples are usually on the frontlines of the unfolding climate crisis, but ultimately we all stand to lose everything if we do not step up and begin to tackle it with everything we’ve got.