Freedom and loss in a human landscape

Multinational oil exploitation and the survival of reindeer herding in north-eastern Sakhalin, the Russian Far East

in Sibirica

Sakhalin's multinational offshore oil and gas projects signify hope for the region's economic regeneration. They also pose an environmental threat to the livelihoods of local natural resource-users, including Sakhalin's few remaining reindeer herders. For the herders over the past century, industrial development, particularly in relation to the domestic onshore oil and gas industry, has been associated with environmental degradation and loss of pastures, family cohesion, language and culture. The herders contrast the physical and mental freedom they enjoy living on the land to the constraint of village life. Their survival strategies are based on a certain freedom from authority and the formal law. Their desire for freedom is also manifested in a reluctance to engage with outsiders who could have a significant influence on their future. This paper explores the survival strategies of reindeer herding households and enterprises and the ways that they engage with outsiders such as state officials, NGOs and oil companies. The offshore oil and gas projects could result in further loss of important pastures and pollution of water sources, while project benefits may not reach some of Sakhalin's communities that are more isolated. However, the projects have catalysed global interest in the fate of Sakhalin's native peoples, oil company consultations have enabled herders to voice their concerns about the projects, and oil company-sponsored programmes may provide opportunities for the revival of herding and the reinforcement of native identity. This article considers some of the tensions between economic independence and security, between the democratic right to participate in planning processes and the desire to be free from state regulation, authority and outside intervention.

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