Reindeer herding in the Russian Arctic: Making tradition profitable
Ensuring social stability for indigenous peoples16 october 2023
The reindeer meat harvesting campaign kicked off in Chukotka in early October. In 2023, the plan is to produce around 400 tons, primarily destined for socially significant institutions such as kindergartens and schools. Additionally, environmentally-friendly meat will be accessible through regional retailers. This is a beneficial tradition across all Arctic regions, providing reindeer herders with a stable market for their products and offering children access to environmentally-friendly meat. As per the draft 'Strategy for the Development of Northern Reindeer Husbandry in the Russian Federation until 2030,' created by the Federation Council, this sector is a cornerstone of sustainable development in the AZRF regions, particularly for the indigenous peoples of the North.
In Russia, northern reindeer herding is practiced by 18 ethnic groups, 16 of which are officially recognised as indigenous reindeer herders. Typically, ownership within a farm is either municipal or communal, and they are composed of 'brigades.' These are several families bound by kinship who collectively graze a reindeer herd throughout the year, then lead a portion of the animals to be slaughtered. They either migrate together or reside in the same village, benefiting from livestock products and monetary compensation. The brigade system was instituted in the Soviet Union as the primary administrative unit within traditional reindeer husbandry and continues to this day.
Reindeer herders are equipped with modern technology: radios, satellite phones, snowmobiles and rifles coexist with reindeer harnesses, lassos and other traditional lifestyle elements. In recent years, the government has been implementing reindeer chipping, conducting veterinary control and supplying medicines for the herds. However, the universal use of mixed feed and other industrial methods to boost animal productivity is still far off—reindeer graze on lichen in the pristine tundra, which ensures the meat is environmentally-friendly. Nonetheless, in regions where mining companies are active, a certain quota of mixed feed is provided to reindeer herding families to offset the reduction in grazing lands.
However, as stated in the Federation Council document, control over the industry's production has significantly diminished since then. The reindeer population on farms has dropped by a factor of 4–5, with profitability being sustained only in the Murmansk Region and YNAA through exports. In recent years, this market too has been on a downward trend, necessitating the establishment of a robust infrastructure for processing and selling products from reindeer farming within the country.
As per the reindeer farming development project until 2030, the decrease in domestic reindeer has resulted in an increase in wild animal populations. This, in turn, has led to a rise in the number of hunters seeking the more 'affordable' meat. However, this resource will be quickly depleted with any level of intensive exploitation, prompting the senators to choose a different approach. By 2030, plans are in place to establish an infrastructure for comprehensive processing of the entire deer carcass: high-quality meat, deer blood-based products, antlers and hides for industrial use, among other things. According to expert estimates, only 5% of the potential of northern livestock farming is currently being used, while existing waste could be converted into products that could account for up to 95% of the industry's total revenue.
Furthermore, oversight from local and federal authorities over business practices is required. For example, some domestic reindeer herds in the Arctic are afflicted with brucellosis, a disease that poses a threat to humans as well. Disease outbreaks necessitate the culling of animals—owners often fail to recognise the importance of preventive veterinary measures until it's too late. Attempts were made to address this during the Soviet era, but the remoteness of the territories and inadequate communication, coupled with the inertia of some administrative bodies in later years, hindered the effective implementation of a control system.
Currently, active work is being carried out to establish necessary laws and standards that will enhance and structure local and federal legislation.
A crucial aspect of the Federation Council's proposal is the seamless integration of regulatory measures and efficient resource utilisation into the traditional lifestyle of indigenous communities. Simultaneously, the economic effectiveness of the suggested measures is expected to exponentially boost the prosperity of both the indigenous communities and the AZRF regions—fostering new industries, job opportunities and potentially even settlements, thereby creating an additional sustainable development pathway for the region.Read more Deer transportation battalions: how reindeer herders defended their homeland The Red Army's unique units