Mother Russia, Father Oil

A reindeer herder stares in dismay at the slick rainbow liquid suffocating the grass. It signifies another unreported spill by the oil and gas company that infiltrated the land some years back. The community has something of a partnership with the oil and gas company, despite the unfortunate outcomes for the local environment. Executives receive land access in exchange for investment into community development projects. The downside is that this reindeer herder now has to travel even farther to find food for a herd that gets smaller and smaller each year. Soon enough, there will be none, and the knowledge of this way of life will be lost for generations to come.

“A Group of Bulls in the Morning Light”. Image by USFWS Mountain Prairie is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Although NGOs or for-profit industries may offer community development in exchange for community-owned grazing lands, and community members may even agree to the exchange, this tradeoff has its issues. Take the case of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Russia. Land in the okrug is populated by the Russian and Komi ethnic groups and Indigenous Nenets and is highly sought after by the oil and gas industry. Continued use of land in the okrug by the oil and gas industries is predominantly upheld through socioeconomic partnerships, or community development projects. Oil and gas industries in the okrug have provided financial support for cultural events, a public health program, and local transportation. They have also built schools, a cultural center, museum, health care facilities, sports halls, and butcheries. This seemingly magical relationship in which corporations are responsible for maintaining the infrastructure and social welfare of entire communities is termed neo-paternalism, because it is a new governance system through which autonomy and responsibility are shifted from people and their governments, to extractive industries. Think of the position of the oil company relative to the community members as “fatherly” or “patriarchal” – they hold most of the control over political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property.

“Russia is the third largest producer of oil worldwide, accounting for over 12 percent of global crude oil production. Rich in natural resources, the country concentrates its energy production in the West Siberia and Volga-Ural oil and gas provinces. The oil industry was privatized after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but largely moved under the government control in the middle of 2000s. The country’s economy is strongly dependent on its energy exports. Russia was the second largest oil-exporting region worldwide in 2019.”

D. Elagina, Statista

The exchange of land for community development projects leaves Indigenous Nenets people without one of their traditional and most economically significant activities, reindeer herding. Oil spillage, drilling, and pipeline construction from projects in the okrug damage the same land on which reindeer graze and local residents subsistence fish and hunt. Although regional law protects Indigenous peoples, awareness and application of those laws is lacking. Protecting land use rights for local communities in Russia is especially important given their status as the third largest producer of oil worldwide, after the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Do you see community development as a fair trade for industrial land use? If not, in what ways do you see communities improving without the help of industries and neo-paternalism?

Hope you found this interesting! Have a great week,


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