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An Economic View from the Tundra Camp: Field Experience With Reindeer Herders in the Kola Peninslua
by Dessislav Sabev
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Looking for solutions

As the previous two chapters have shown, the complicated situation with the reindeer husbandry in the Kola Peninsula results from several interconnected issues involving different types of social and economic actors.

1. There is an urgent need of investments in order to (re)create the market for reindeer products: meat, antlers, skins. Because of the specific political and legislative climate in Russia nowadays, western investors are confronted to a “non-favourable” environment: rather reluctant to foreign investors (World Bank Report, 1996), Russian legislation has emphasised the “insider privatisation” by the “Workers’-and-managers’ collectives”. By helping the continuity of social relations and maintaining collective economic actors this privatisation scheme avoids painful social imbalance in remote communities. Therefore, for such a collective economic activity as the reindeer husbandry, it might appear as a “good” strategy for many social points of view, except for the most important one: the market. Indeed, the reindeer husbandry is condemned without markets for its production. Today, there is no internal market for reindeer products. Reindeer meat is practically absent from the formal market in the Kola peninsula out of the tundra. After surviving exclusively on reindeer meat in the tundra camps, I have never seen reindeer meat sold in Revda, Kirovsk, Apatity, or Murmansk. Lovozero is maybe the only settlement connected to the communication system where reindeer meat could be found, because of the sovkhoz “Tundra” and the Swedish slaughter-house there. The reasons for this situation are economic (people have no cash for the expensive reindeer meat) and cultural (the great majority of the population on the Kola peninsula are labour migrants from the south, so they have not habitudes to eat reindeer). The situation with other reindeer products (antlers, skins) seems to be even worse.

            On the other hand, potential western investors are confronted by the recently increasing “anti-western” public discourse, especially after NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia[1]. Despite all these problems, the Norfrys-Polarica  case shows that foreign investments are possible and could work in this complicated system.

            As for relying on local resources for recreating a market, this implies a kind of local initiative and entrepreneurship of which I have not seen (m)any signs so far. Therefore it would not be realistic to rely on a private initiative in the short term, but rather on more autonomic self-managed collectives based on a kinship-like structure and using the infrastructure of the former sovkhoz. I think this is a tendency bound to increase when favourable socio-economic circumstances will eventually appear. However, that higher level of autonomy could not be expected before the resolution of the following two points:

2. Regulation of the indigenous rights of the tundra-located people.
In my view, there is an urgent need of more appropriate regulation of the rights on the traditional reindeer-herding territory, actually threatened and maltreated by some powerful industrial enterprises, military and other smaller poachers. Even if there is a (blurred) legislation on this matter, it doesn’t actually work because of the informal character of the economic relationships based exclusively on barter deals. Corruption in the centres of power complicates the situation. According to the rumours in the tundra, “the inspectors of hunting and fishing are the greatest poachers”. Hunting permits are readily obtained especially for those occupying key-position in administrative centres. As for the industrial actors, they usually apply strong lobbying on the political powers at regional or central level. In these cases, the powerless herding collectives are not able to maintain the fight for tundra resources and are threatened with the loss of traditional territories for reindeer herding.

            Based on the above, I believe that these small and remote communities need extensive external assistance to give them both an effective infrastructure and more political power. Only then could one expect to see them become real economic actors. In that sense, the aboriginal property-rights experience from Scandinavian and North American Arctic could be useful for the economic development of the reindeer husbandry in the region.

3. Finally, the economic stabilisation of the urban centres is of a great importance for the solution of the problems in the tundra. As I mentioned in the second chapter, the massive loss of jobs after 1991 in the military complex and in the mining industry is the major cause of the poaching problem. It involved new actors in the tundra, some of them able to threaten whole herd(s) (according to the herders). For many of these actors poaching is a survival strategy. Therefore it is not expected they could change strategies in the present socio-economic context. Far from favouring the emergency of a market, this process only redefines the informal social relationships based on barter deals. The paradox is that the only imaginable economic growth in the Kola peninsula by now is related to the mining industry. So the question is: Would an adequate industrial revival in the region be able to help the reindeer herders in the tundra?

[1]The expedition on which this paper is based was held during the War in Yugoslavia (Spring 1999). Therefore I was witness to both herders’ and Russian hunters’ anxiety, based on the news of “Radio Russia” from the only transistor in the tundra camp. Despite their isolation, the increasing anti-western discourse of my informants corresponded exactly to what I had been heard in Moscow.

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An Economic View from the Tundra Camp by Dessislav Sabev.
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