Climate change impacts on Indigenous peoples of the Russian North

This is Section 12.3.4 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
Lead Author: Mark Nuttall; Contributing Authors: Fikret Berkes, Bruce Forbes, Gary Kofinas,Tatiana Vlassova, George Wenzel


This case study is based on the ongoing work of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), together with the NorthSet project of the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences. This work concerns the assessment of climate change impacts on the indigenous peoples of the Russian North within the context of broader social, economic, and political changes. This case study is based on the preliminary results of initial research, but is included here because it illustrates the tremendous challenges faced by indigenous peoples throughout the Russian North.

The indigenous peoples of the Russian North have depended on traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering for thousands of years and, for several hundred years, many groups have practiced nomadic reindeer breeding. Human impacts and environmental transformation in the Russian Arctic have intensified over the last few decades. Significant climate change is also becoming evident, as is the destructive impact of industry. The biggest sources of pollution are the oil and gas industries, as well as mineral extraction and processing, aggravated by poor purification facilities. The main negative impacts of industrial development threatening the livelihoods of indigenous peoples include:

  • the destruction of reindeer pastures and widespread degradation of ecosystems, especially due to the construction of industrial infrastructures and industrial pollution;
  • massive toxic pollution of marine and freshwater environments, affecting the habitats and spawning grounds of fish and causing the destruction of fisheries;
  • deforestation due to the timber industry using concentrated methods of clear-cutting, leading to the destruction of the non-timber forest resources of high cultural and economic importance;
  • large-scale landscape and soil destruction, erosion (especially thermokarst erosion), and the degradation of tundra and taiga vegetation as a result of air pollution from industrial emissions (especially emissions from the non-ferrous metal industry);
  • flooding of valuable subsistence areas due to the construction of hydroelectric power dams; and
  • forest fires, partly associated with poaching and partly with increased recreational pressure around the regions of industrial development.

These impacts have added to the tremendous problems faced by Russia’s northern indigenous peoples, which can only be understood by reference to Soviet and post-Soviet transformations. During Soviet times, public policies resulted in the resettlement of the inhabitants of small settlements into large villages. This coercive resettlement of indigenous peoples signaled the beginning of the destruction of the social and ecological relationships that characterized their subsistence lifestyles. Resettlement, the separation of children from their parents in favor of education at boarding schools, preservation orders on vital grasslands and reindeer pastures, and the reduced possibilities for engaging in traditional activities, together with many other changes, led to a spiritual and social crisis among the indigenous peoples[1]. Since the 1970s, unemployment and alcoholism have become widespread, family structures are breaking down, and traditional culture is being destroyed.

In recent years, the destruction of traditional subsistence activities, especially reindeer herding – the most important activity for many indigenous groups – has continued apace. The difficult period of transition to a market economy in post-Soviet Russia has brought sharp changes to the economic and social conditions of the indigenous peoples of the Russian North, to which they have had to adapt quickly in order to survive. In the 1990s, when the formation of the market economy and democratization of society in the Russian Federation began, the situation in reindeer husbandry changed dramatically. This period of transition has seen a rapid decay of collective reindeer husbandry and a partial return to the private ownership of reindeer herds. This has occurred without the introduction of sufficient legal reforms, particularly affecting agricultural and traditional lands. One major trend has been a significant reduction in the population of domesticated reindeer. Combined with a lack of approaches for the development of an alternative program for sustainable development, and faced with increasing climate variability and change, the situation for the indigenous peoples of the Russian North is increasingly bleak.

The indigenous peoples of the Russian North comprise a mere 2% of the entire northern Russian population and number approximately 200,000 individuals belonging to forty different peoples. The most numerous are the Nenets, who comprise around 35,000 persons; the least numerous are the Enets with about 209 and the Orok with 109. The subsistence area of the indigenous peoples is roughly 60% of the overall territory of the Russian Federation and their traditional subsistence activities include reindeer herding, hunting (including marine mammals), fishing, gathering wild plants and, to a certain degree, craft-making and traditional art. The specific activities of the different peoples vary significantly from region to region.

The indigenous communities of Russia are the most endangered social group in the current period of transition to a market economy. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of indigenous people employed on northern livestock farms, as well as in hunting and fishing, fell by 37%. In these years of market reforms, the actual rate of unemployment in the indigenous settlements of the Russian North is, on average, not less than 40 to 50% of the economically active population. The situation is worse for young people in remote areas. Some small villages of autonomous okrugs (e.g., in the Koryak Autonomous Okrug) face an unemployment rate of 75 to 80%; in some districts of Habarov Kray the unemployment rate among the indigenous peoples increased six-fold during the 1990s.

Social ills associated with unemployment – poverty, disease, family breakdown, crime, suicide, and alcoholism – are increasing in indigenous settlements. Mortality among indigenous peoples increased by 35.5% in the 1990s[2]. The nature of mortality has changed over the last few decades: the main risk group is no longer children, but young adults, and the main cause of death is no longer sickness, but death as a result of injuries, accidents, and suicide. The main cause of this situation is the destruction of traditional lifestyles[3]. For Saami living in Lovozero on the Kola Peninsula, whose health and livelihoods have been affected by pollution and ecological degradation, environmental improvement is an even greater priority than the improvement of housing conditions, which are extremely poor[4]. According to the Saami, the climate is becoming less comfortable, and they articulate this in terms of their livelihoods and health. The environment is one in which they dwell and comfortable housing will not improve their health if the climate is changing. During a workshop organized by RAIPON in April 2003 many Saami participants expressed concerns about a link between rapid and frequent climate/weather changes and the increase in cases of high blood pressure. As they spoke, they connected health and illness directly to climate variability and change.

Significant shifts have occurred in unemployment structure. The indigenous share in municipal positions, and in the service, educational, and cultural sectors has increased considerably while the participation of indigenous peoples in the traditional economy has decreased sharply. The highest levels of unemployment are observed in the areas where indigenous peoples retain traditional livelihoods. In larger settlements with a developed service sector, employment within the indigenous population is slightly higher. Yet, an increasing reliance on service sector activities does not always mean that harvesting renewable resources and production of traditional food for the household has declined in importance. As in other arctic states, hunting, herding, gathering, and fishing still satisfy important cultural, social, and nutritional needs, as well as the economic needs of families, households, and communities.

In this changing social and economic climate, indigenous systems of traditional resource use are under threat. Traditional land use areas are mainly located within zones of political and economic interest, particularly those concerning oil, mineral, and timber production, and military complexes with nuclear test sites. From the initial results of the research being conducted by RAIPON, a majority of indigenous people consider poaching, forest fires caused by humans, industrial logging, and clearing of forests for firewood to be some of the most significant issues that affect the physical environments and well-being of their communities.

  • Decreasing populations of animal and plant species are a serious concern and it may be that this is not due to climate and ecological changes alone, but is aggravated by poaching, which is a serious problem in several regions.
  • Fires, the frequency and scale of which have recently increased, are either natural or manmade. In the Tyumen region alone, which is now being intensively explored for natural resources, over 1.5 million hectares of reindeer pasture have been destroyed by fire. One of the causes of escalation of fires in the tundra, the taiga–tundra zone, and the taiga might also be climate warming, especially summer droughts.
  • In recent decades, commercial logging operations have advanced closer to the taiga–tundra zone across much of the boreal forest region. The transformation of the northern parts of the taiga zone into a taiga–tundra, or even tundra, as a result of human activity is occurring in Russia[5].
  • The fuel deficit in remote communities is one reason for illegal logging. Serious ecological problems arise with cutting of forests for fuel in Kovran, Loveozero, and Kuumba.

One of the causes of the decrease in reindeer numbers is the degradation of the treeline (taiga–tundra) winter reindeer pastures caused by industrial forestry, clearing of forests for firewood, and industrial pollution. The traditional ways of life of indigenous peoples are characterized by high adaptability to seasonal as well as to spatial differences in the physical environment. Climate changes may interfere with the human–nature cycle of reindeer herding, where herders follow the paths of reindeer between summer grazing lands in the tundra and mountains and winter grazing lands in the treeline. Winter pastures are of great importance for reindeer herding. During the long arctic winter, reindeer depend upon access to pasture rich in ground lichens, which are their basic food. In the autumn, reindeer start to move to forested areas that provide layers of soft snow that they can dig through to find the ground lichens. Epiphytic lichens on old trees are important reserve fodder when the ground lichens can not be reached due to ice layers on or within the snow. The lichens almost exclusively provide these animals with the carbohydrates required to maintain their body temperature in winter[6].

Another cause of the decrease in reindeer numbers is the overgrazing of tundra and taiga–tundra pastures. Increasingly fewer winter pastures are available for reindeer herding as large territories are being occupied by mining and petroleum industries. This increases the pressure by domesticated reindeer on the tundra and taiga–tundra ecosystems, and thus leads to further degradation. Ecosystems are completely overgrazed by reindeer in many areas. The overgrazing of reindeer pastures leads to deforestation of the taiga–tundra winter pastures, especially owing to the damage to trees and shrubs. This has the effect of pushing the treeline southward in many areas[7].

Fires are contributing to the degradation of reindeer pastures and to the decline in reindeer herding. Although their frequency and scale have increased, the interaction of fires with pastures and forest is complicated. For example, fires may play an important role in forest regeneration as they provide important minerals and free soils from leaf litter and ground vegetation cover, which under some conditions inhibit forest growth. Such interactions should be included in ecosystem management schemes. A decline in reindeer herding could also have a negative impact on reforestation as reindeer promote the removal of leaf litter and thereby the ability of new trees to become established.

It is within this extremely complex socio-economic and changing ecological situation that indigenous peoples in the Russian North must deal with climate change issues. RAIPON’s initial work on climate change impacts suggests an important way forward: indigenous observations of climate change must be examined together with greater emphasis given to the concerns of indigenous peoples in terms of environmental degradation and habitat loss due to other factors. A broader understanding of change and discussions on how to deal with this must be included in environmental impact assessments, in environmental policy, and in the elaboration of local programs for sustainable development.


Chapter 12. Hunting, herding, fishing, and gathering: indigenous peoples and renewable resource use in the Arctic
12.1 Introduction
12.2 Present uses of living marine and terrestrial resources
    12.2.1 Indigenous peoples, animals, and climate in the Arctic
    12.2.2 Mixed economies
    12.2.3 Renewable resource use, resource development, and global processes
    12.2.4 Renewable resource use and climate change
    12.2.5 Responding to climate change
12.3 Understanding climate change impacts through case studies
    12.3.1 Canadian Western Arctic: the Inuvialuit of Sachs Harbour
    12.3.2 Canadian Inuit in Nunavut
    12.3.3 The Yamal Nenets of northwest Siberia
    12.3.4 Indigenous peoples of the Russian North
    12.3.5 Indigenous caribou systems of North America



  1. ^ Vlassova, T.K., 2002. Human impacts on the tundra - taiga zone dynamics: the case of the Russian Lesotundra. Ambio Special Report 12:30–36.
  2. ^ Abdulatipov, R., 1999. The Aboriginal Face of Russia. The Independent Newspaper – Scenario N5, p. 7.
  3. ^ Vlassova, T.K., 2002. Human impacts on the tundra - taiga zone dynamics: the case of the Russian Lesotundra. Ambio Special Report 12:30–36.
  4. ^ Afanasieva, N., 2002. The socio-economic and legal situation of the Saami in the Murmansk oblast – an example to take urgent measures. In:T. Kohler and K. Wessendorf (eds.). Towards a New Millennium. Ten Years of the Indigenous Movement in Russia, pp. 139–144. International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, Copenhagen.
  5. ^ Vlassova, T.K., 2002. Human impacts on the tundra - taiga zone dynamics: the case of the Russian Lesotundra. Ambio Special Report 12:30–36.
  6. ^ Vlassova, T.K. and S.G. Volkov, 2001. Ecological condition of the reindeer pastures in Russia and abroad. Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences Review, 2:101–117. (In Russian)
  7. ^ Vlassova, T.K. and S.G. Volkov, 2001. Ecological condition of the reindeer pastures in Russia and abroad. Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences Review, 2:101–117. (In Russian)








Committee, I. (2012). Climate change impacts on Indigenous peoples of the Russian North. Retrieved from


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