Histoires Continentales
Lebensform Russland Umwelt

Ecosystems and Indigenous People of Arctic Siberia in the Context of Global Change

Russia is popu­la­ted not only by Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and other lar­ge eth­nic groups but also by indi­ge­nous mino­ri­ties such as Yakuts (or Sakha), Eveny, Evenki, Chikchi, Yukaghirs, to name a few. Majority of the indi­ge­nous peop­le inha­bit vast ter­ri­to­ries of Arctic and sub-Arctic regi­ons of Siberia. One of the­se lar­gest regi­ons in Siberia is the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Despite its exten­si­ve size which fits almost 73 Switzerlands, the popu­la­ti­on is scar­ce: only one mil­li­on peop­le live in the regi­on. Sakha are the Turk-speaking titu­lar nati­on of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and com­pri­se 49.9% of the total popu­la­ti­on. Eveny and Evenki are indi­ge­nous Tungus-speaking peop­le lar­ge­ly inha­bi­t­ing Arctic are­as of North-Eastern Siberia. In the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) the popu­la­ti­on of Tungus peop­le is 3.86%. Indigenous peop­le in Yakutia are high­ly depen­dent on their eco­sy­stems for food, eco­no­my, soci­al cohe­si­on and cul­tu­ral well-being. The tra­di­tio­nal eco­no­my of the indi­ge­nous peop­le encom­pas­ses hun­ting, fishing, gathe­ring and rein­de­er her­ding. They hunt water­fowls, rein­de­er, Arctic fox, sable and other fur ani­mals, fish Arctic char, Siberian cis­co and others, gather blu­e­ber­ry, cow­ber­ry, cloud ber­ry. Reindeer her­ding is a cru­ci­al eco­no­mic prac­tice for indi­ge­nous peop­le as a food, medi­ci­ne, shel­ter and trans­por­ta­ti­on. Indigenous peop­le rely on their eco­sy­stems for several rea­sons asso­cia­ted with health, eco­no­my and cul­tu­re. First of all, local food is deemed to be healt­hi­er than store food. Store food is main­ly of low qua­li­ty due to long deli­very time as well as fre­quent delays asso­cia­ted with the wea­ther. Store food is expen­si­ve becau­se of high trans­por­ta­ti­on fees as a result of long distan­ces, acces­si­bi­li­ty main­ly by air­pla­ne and scar­ce popu­la­ti­ons in the Arctic. Secondly, eco­sy­stems have a high spi­ri­tu­al and cul­tu­ral value for indi­ge­nous peop­le to main­tain their cul­tu­ral as well as spi­ri­tu­al iden­ti­ties through their tra­di­tio­nal prac­tices.

One of the cru­ci­al ele­ments of the indi­ge­nous peop­le in Yakutia (and in the Arctic gene­ral­ly) is main­tai­ning soci­al rela­ti­ons and cul­tu­ral well-being through various tra­di­tio­nal cere­mo­nies. Nimat is one of them. It is a tra­di­tio­nal custom of man­da­to­ry prey sharing. After each har­ve­sting prac­tice, be it fishing or hun­ting, every nomad sha­res har­ve­sted game with the mem­bers of a com­mu­ni­ty. It is not only sup­port of under­pri­vi­le­ged fami­lies, but also estab­lish­ment of soci­al rela­ti­onships with the com­mu­ni­ty, natu­re and spi­rits. Furthermore, nimat pro­vi­des an oppor­tu­ni­ty for mar­ria­ge as a con­se­quence of joint land use, enhan­ces ter­ri­to­ri­al and eco­no­mic rela­ti­onships, and sup­ports eth­nic iden­ti­ty. It is belie­ved that vio­la­ti­on of this custom may dis­plea­se Buga– a spi­rit of natu­re – and bring bad luck in hun­ting or fishing. However, over the last deca­des the custom of nimat is facing serious chal­len­ges due to envi­ron­men­tal and cli­ma­tic chan­ges, urba­ni­za­ti­on and glo­ba­li­za­ti­on, and asso­cia­ted soci­al-eco­no­mic as well as poli­ti­cal trans­for­ma­ti­ons. Decline in ani­mal and plant spe­ci­es has cau­sed chan­ge of sharing rules and today nimat takes place only in a fami­ly rather than among com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. In addi­ti­on, new rea­li­ties of mar­ket eco­no­my force house­holds to cea­se employ­ing nimat and sell their spoil for ear­nings to be able to live on.

Environmental and cli­ma­tic chan­ges in Yakutia

Environmental and cli­ma­tic chan­ges in the Arctic are more inten­se in com­pa­ri­son to other regi­ons of the world. This is due to the sea ice loss which occurs as a result of tem­pe­ra­tu­re increa­se. When the bright ice melts it does not reflect the Sun’s heat back to the space any­mo­re, and thus the dark oce­an sur­face absorbs more heat from the Sun which in turn warms up the atmo­s­phe­re. As a result, the Arctic is expe­ri­en­cing signi­fi­cant chan­ges in its eco­sy­stems: sou­thern spe­ci­es shift their habi­tats nor­thward and force out local spe­ci­es, or cold-adap­ted nort­hern spe­ci­es migra­te away to col­der envi­ron­ments. This has nega­ti­ve impli­ca­ti­ons for local indi­ge­nous peop­le. Moreover, Arctic eco­sy­stems are con­si­de­red to be the most sus­cep­ti­ble to envi­ron­men­tal and cli­ma­tic chan­ges, and indi­ge­nous peop­le are among the most mar­gi­na­li­zed and poo­rest.

Local fishers are rea­dy for fishing. Kyusyur, Sakha (Yakutia). 2014.

Climate chan­ge in Yakutia is as seve­re as in the ent­i­re Arctic. Over the last deca­des indi­ge­nous peop­le in Arctic Yakutia obser­ve win­ter tem­pe­ra­tu­re increa­se and sum­mer tem­pe­ra­tu­re decrea­se. These fluc­tua­ti­ons may nega­tively affect tra­di­tio­nal activi­ties of indi­ge­nous peop­le. Thus, hig­her tem­pe­ra­tures warm up water bodies which force fish to go deeper to a col­der river bot­tom and result in fish catch decrea­se. Furthermore, tem­pe­ra­tu­re alte­ra­ti­ons increa­se the rate of acci­dents with fishers and hun­ters due to shifts in free­zing and thawing peri­ods. In addi­ti­on, varia­ti­ons in thawing may make it dif­fi­cult for rein­de­er to cross open waters sin­ce streams may sweep them away. Winter tem­pe­ra­tu­re varia­ti­ons may hin­der food access of rein­de­er sin­ce they feed by dig­ging snow to access grass under­ne­ath. Many peop­le repor­ted about hea­vy pre­ci­pi­ta­ti­on over the last years. Heavy snow­fall may block food access of rein­de­er and the­re­fo­re cau­se star­va­ti­on and die-off. Additionally, hea­vy snow­fall results in seve­re floods in spring­time dama­ging infra­st­ruc­tu­re con­struc­tions important for tra­di­tio­nal activi­ties. Heavy rain­fall cau­ses water level increa­se which in turn makes fishing dif­fi­cult becau­se it is impos­si­ble to catch fish at hig­her water levels. It has been revea­led that in recent years the num­ber of ali­en sou­thern spe­ci­es has increa­sed. Expansion of pre­d­a­tors such as bears and wol­ves may disturb local com­mu­nities by prey­ing on dome­sti­ca­ted rein­de­er and dama­ging fishing nets. Northward migra­ti­on of the Sandhill cra­ne may force out local Siberian cra­ne which is a sacred bird and this may chal­len­ge spi­ri­tu­al well-being of indi­ge­nous peop­le. Waterfowls such as ducks and gee­se have also decrea­sed in num­bers. This has a nega­ti­ve effect for local people’s diet and health. However, new spe­ci­es may also have posi­ti­ve impli­ca­ti­ons for indi­ge­nous com­mu­nities. Habitat shifts of sable have ope­ned up com­mer­ci­al oppor­tu­nities for local peop­le beco­m­ing an addi­tio­nal inco­me source. New plants and ber­ries from sou­thern tai­ga regi­ons have health bene­fits: Astragalus is good for heart disea­ses, Baikal skull­cap tre­ats can­cer and black cur­rant is rich in vit­amin C.

Socio-eco­no­mic and poli­ti­cal trans­for­ma­ti­ons in Yakutia

In addi­ti­on to cli­ma­te chan­ge, indi­ge­nous peop­les’ live­li­hoods are chal­len­ged by socio-eco­no­mic and poli­ti­cal trans­for­ma­ti­ons. Soviet Union col­lap­se, tran­si­ti­on to mar­ket eco­no­my, new regu­la­ti­ons, high trans­por­ta­ti­on fees are among the myri­ad of issu­es that local com­mu­nities have been facing over the last deca­des. During the Soviet regime, indi­ge­nous peop­le have expe­ri­en­ced dra­ma­tic poli­ci­es of collec­tivi­za­ti­on, when the indi­vi­du­al herds were forced to con­so­li­da­te into collec­tive farms; seden­ta­ri­za­ti­on, when the nomads were forced to sett­le down in vil­la­ges; “unpro­mi­sing vil­la­ges”, when smal­ler vil­la­ges were shut down and relo­ca­ted to big­ger ones; Russification, when indi­ge­nous peop­le were not allo­wed to speak their nati­ve lan­guages in favor of Russian. New fishing regu­la­ti­ons intro­du­ced in the begin­ning of 2000s brought fishers cons­traints such as tem­po­ral limi­ta­ti­ons, limits of using fishing gear or quo­tas. Indigenous peop­le com­p­lain that the­se regu­la­ti­ons have been estab­lished and imple­men­ted wit­hout taking into account con­di­ti­ons of the local envi­ron­ment which dif­fers from regi­on to regi­on. For examp­le, fish spaw­ning time does not cor­re­spond with the fishing ban when the locals are not allo­wed to catch fish becau­se fish spawns at this time. Or, fishers are allo­wed to employ only small nets, with which it is impos­si­ble to catch big­ger fish.

Indigenous peop­le have been adap­ting to seve­re Arctic envi­ron­ment for mill­en­nia and have deve­lo­ped adap­ti­ve stra­te­gies to cope with cli­ma­tic and envi­ron­men­tal chan­ges. However, when it comes to exter­nal socio-eco­no­mic and poli­ti­cal trans­for­ma­ti­ons, their live­li­hoods, tra­di­tio­nal prac­tices, customs and cul­tu­ral well-being are signi­fi­cant­ly chal­len­ged.



Ksenofontov, S., Backhaus, N., Schaepman-Strub, G., 2017. “To fish or not to fish?”: fishing com­mu­nities of Arctic Yakutia in the face of envi­ron­men­tal chan­ge and poli­ti­cal trans­for­ma­ti­ons. Polar Record. 5 (3), 289–303.

Ksenofontov, S., Backhaus, N., Schaepman-Strub, G., 2018. “There are new spe­ci­es”: indi­ge­nous know­ledge of bio­di­ver­si­ty chan­ge in Arctic Yakutia. Polar Geography. 42 (1). 34 – 57.


Cover Picture:

Evenki lady sin­ging at the ope­ning cere­mo­ny of fishers day. Chekurovka fishing ground, Sakha (Yakutia). 2014.


About the aut­hor:

Bildergebnis für stanislav ksenofontov

Stanislav Ksenofontov is an anthro­po­geo­gra­pher and indi­ge­nous activist from the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Eastern Siberia. In his rese­arch Stanislav focu­ses on the spe­ci­fic issu­es indi­ge­nous peop­le from the Arctic Regions face in a glo­ba­li­zed world. He holds a doc­to­ral degree in Geography from the University of Zurich. Since February 2019 he has been working at the Korean Polar Research Institute in Seoul on a pro­ject on South Korea’s sci­en­ti­fic and poli­ti­cal inte­rests in the Arctic.