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Reindeer herding in the Yamal Peninsula

This study describes sources of adaptive capacity and socio-ecological resilience for Nenet communities in the Yamal Peninsula and how climate change and industrial development affect these.
Multiple Authors
Nathalie van Haren

Case study basic information

Location: Yamal Peninsula, Russia

Time frame: 1930 to date

Drivers: climate change, geopolitics and mineral/ oil extraction & infrastructure


Reindeer herding has been a traditional livelihood for many communities across the Arctic, including for the Nenets, an indigenous people living in Northern Siberia. The Nenets practice both nomadic and non-nomadic herding. Due to climate change and increased infrastructure development for natural resources exploitation, nomad Nenets herders in the Yamal peninsula are facing increasing difficulties in pursuing their traditional livelihood.

Nenets herders’ deep understanding of natural processes, their intimate knowledge of and relations with the landscape, as well as their exposure to a constantly changing physical environment have made them highly resilient to ecological change. The fact that the Nenets consider themselves as responsible stewards of the territories they live on has contributed to the maintenance of viable wildlife populations over a long period of time. The resulting diversity and abundance of food resources also has contributed to their resilience (4). However, rapidly increasing biophysical pressures, such as extreme and unexpected events, permafrost melting, rain-on-ice events and insect swarms are affecting reindeer populations (3, 5, 8). Besides, increasing temperatures modify feeding conditions for herds (9, 11, 12).

Within this context, Nenets nomads rely on flexible institutions to manage reindeer herding, which have allowed them to maintain their lifestyle in the face of change (4, 6). Decisions about herd demography, mobility and dynamics are taken in accordance to traditional knowledge and herders’ needs. For example, Nenets herders know that due to the specific individual characteristics these develop, smaller herds increase overall herd heterogeneity (4). This allows them to cope better with different environmental conditions (7). At the same time, Russia’s public institutions consider activities from traditional northern communities as belonging to the agricultural sector. Herders receive therefore subsidies, notably to regulate herd size (1, 6).

The land occupied by the Nenets belongs to the federal government, which has, together with regional authorities, a strong interest in developing and controlling hydrocarbon resources in the region. Northern hydrocarbon resources are not only considered essential for economic development, but also as a crucial source for secure energy supply for Russia up until 2030 (10).

The development of hydrocarbon exploitation in the region has had significant impacts on the Nenets livelihood. Extraction activities, such as the Bovanenkovo complex, are now interfering with seasonal herd migration along the Yamal Peninsula (4). This has contributed to Nenets communities’ sedentarization, a process that started already in times of the Soviet Union, when indigenous peoples were forced out of nomadism (13). Sedentarization has had strong implications on the generational transfer of traditional and local ecological knowledge on both herding practice and landscapes, which constitutes a significant source of adaptive capacity (1, 4).

The arrival of external populations linked to industrial activities has also triggered misunderstandings because of different traditions and worldviews (1, 3, 4, 5). For example, new-comers have been reducing food supply for the Nenets by poaching reindeer and fish (3, 5). Besides, competition between Nenets and the hydrocarbon industry for access to beneficial higher terrain has created new conflicts. There are, however, a few cases of reconciliation between Nenets communities and new-comers. For example, Nenets herders are now using mobile communication to co-ordinate migration through the Bovanenkovo industrial complex (2).

Methods and Tools

The methodology for this case study was desk study and expert interviews. Sources include mainly journal articles, which rely on both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The information collected for the case is organized according to a template specially developed to capture information from a socio-ecological resilience perspective (the template can be found at

This case is one of the cases compiled across the Arctic to inform a qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) that will be featured in the final Arctic Resilience Assessment. The QCA methodology allows for a holistic view of cases in an extended geographic region and for addressing multiple causality. The QCA analysis will contribute to identify patterns that will allow for further analysis across the cases.

Lessons Learnt

  1. Traditional knowledge and flexible institutions managing reindeer herding are key to Nenets’ adaptive capacity and resilience.
  2. Climate change and industrial development in the Yamal Peninsula are simultaneously affecting Nenets’ traditional livelihoods and eroding their adaptive capacity to socio-ecological change, both directly and indirectly.
  3. Competition for land and food resources between traditional inhabitants and new-comers has resulted in conflicts.
  4. In the case of the Bovanenkovo industrial complex, Nenets have adapted to the new socio-ecological conditions by coordinating and communicating with the developers to ensure the successful move of reindeer herds past the complex.


  1. Mathiesen S., personal communication, 2014
  2. Degteva, A. & Nellemann, C. 2013. Nenets migration in the landscape: impacts of industrial development in Yamal peninsula, Russia. Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice 3:15.
  3. Forbes B.C., Stammler, F., Kumpula, T., Meschtyb, N., Pajunen, A., Kaarlejärvi, E., and Turner, B.L. 2009. High Resilience in the Yamal-Nenets social-ecological system, West Siberian Arctic, Russia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:22041-22048.
  4. Forbes, B. C. 2013. Cultural resilience of social-ecological systems in the Nenets and Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs, Russia: a focus on reindeer nomads of the tundra. Ecology and Society 18(4): 36
  5. Kumpula T., Forbes B.C., Stammler F., Meschtyb N.. 2012. Dynamics of a coupled system: Multi-resolution remote sensing in assessing social-ecological response during 25 years of gas field development in Arctic Russia. Remote Sensing 4:1046-1068
  6. Eira, R. B. M. 2012. Using Traditional Knowledge in Unpredictable Critical Events in Reindeer Husbandry. The case of Sámi reindeer husbandry in Western Finnmark, Norway and Nenets reindeer husbandry on Yamal peninsula, Yamal-Nenets AO, Russia. University of Tromsø. Master of Philosophy in Indigenous Studies, 48
  7. Magga, O.H., Mathiesen Svein. D., Corell R.W., Oskal A.(eds). 2013. EALÁT Reindeer Herders’ Voice: Reindeer Herding, Traditional Knowledge and Adaptation to Climate Change and loss of Grazing Land. Arctic Council SDWG EALÁT- Association of World Reindeer Herders. Kautokeino: International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry Report.
  8. Macias-Fauria M., Forbes B.C., Zetterberg P., Kumpula T. 2012. Eurasian Arctic greening reveals teleconnections and the potential for structurally novel ecosystems. Nature Climate Change 2:613–618
  9. van der Wal, R., 2006. Do herbivores cause habitat degradation or vegetation state transition ? Evidence from the tundra. Oikos, 114:1, 177–186
  10. Oskal et al.2009, EALÁT Reindeer Herders’ Voice: Reindeer Herding, Traditional Knowledge and Adaptation to Climate Change and Changed Use of the Arctic. Arctic Council SDWG EALÁT-Information Ministerial book, International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry and Association of World Reindeer Herders. Kautokeino: International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry Report.
  11. Myers-Smith, I. (2007). Shrub Line Advance in Alpine Tundra of the Kluane Region: Mechanisms of Expansion and Ecosystem Impacts. Arctic, 60(4), 447-451
  12. Olofsson, J., Oksanen, L., Callaghan, T., Hulme, P. E., Oksanen, T., & Suominen, O. (2009). Herbivores inhibit climate-driven shrub expansion on the tundra. Global Change Biology, 15(11), 2681–2693
  13. Krupnik, I. 2000. Reindeer pastoralism in modem Siberia: research and survival during the time of crash. Polar Research 19:49-56.


This ARA case study has been elaborated by students from the 2014 Resilience Thinking course at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University): Svetlana Avelova, Anna Degteva, Jonas Gren, Vivi Mellegard, Hanna Ahlström, Linda Lindström, Ashley Perl, and Philipp Siegel.

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