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Last Updated: Monday, 13 February 2006, 23:38 GMT
Russian gas reserves change indigenous lives
By Alexander Koliandre
BBC World Service reporter on the Yamal peninsula in Russia

Gas production
Almost all of Russia's gas lies below this ice

Everything on the Yamal peninsula is covered by a thin crust of icy, brilliant white snow.

The permafrost-covered strip of land is twice the size of France and home to half a million people.

About one in ten of them are indigenous people - mostly the Khanty, the Nenets, and the Mansi. They have always lived here, hunting, fishing and breeding reindeer.

But the peninsula also provides Russia with 90% of its gas.

Recovering traditions

An old man in a fur coat is sitting on a sledge near a Nenets camp fire, smoking. A toddler is smiling shyly next to him, and there are reindeer, hundreds, thousands of them.

Traditional lives go on here on the tundra

They all belong to a large clan of three families, living in three chums - traditional tents made from larch poles and reindeer hides, a bit like Native Americans' wigwams - in a remote camp that can only be reached by helicopter during the long winter months.

It is a nomadic life, explains Alexi Khorolia, head of one of the large families.

"We set up camp for about three days and then after the reindeer have eaten all the grass they find under the snow, we move on.

"In a year we cover about 1500 kilometres. That's how we've lived since the beginning of time."

It is bad luck to tell a stranger how many reindeer you own, Mr Khorolia explains.

"About three thousand" is the nearest I can get to an exact figure.

In the early 1930s following Stalin's vision of socialism, the Soviets forced reindeer breeders to work on kolkhozy, collective farms, and prosecuted the richest owners.

Deprived of their land rights, and reindeer, most Nenets came to work at state reindeer breeding state enterprises.

Now up to 1,000 families own their private stock.

Their herds are a source of meat, clothing and wealth.

Hostile reception

The nearest place where this wealth can be converted into cash is the small town of Yar-Sale, an hour's flight from the camp.

Nenets with reindeer
Reindeer flocks' sizes are rarely divulged

The state-owned meat processing factory in Yar-Sale pays about 60 roubles ($2.10; 1.20) a kilo for reindeer.

In Moscow, restaurants charge ten times that for a small reindeer steak.

For now though, and for the foreseeable future, Yamal's main export is gas.

The problem is that the gas lies beneath land the tribes consider to be theirs.

As more gas fields are found and more reindeer bred, the land issue is becoming more acute.

Back in the Soviet era, gas production came first without any questions asked.

But it is not like that any more, according to Rusalim Dimukhamedov, chief geologist at the Ritek oil and gas company.

"With every family and every tribe we sign an agreement, which stipulates how much cash we pay, how much petrol we deliver to their camps, and how many snowmobiles we buy them.

"For that they give us certain plots of land.

"But sometimes it doesn't go smoothly. There is one ... chief of clan who refuses to let us drill. This is the fifth year we've been trying to get her permission."

Basic life

Back at the camp, two orthodox icons stand peacefully next to the Sacred Sledge, which protects the souls of the ancestors.

Attempts to bring Christianity to the northern tribes were almost as futile as attempts to teach them communism.

Many indigenous children go to boarding school

Oxana Khorolia, a young Nenets woman, shows off her home.

There is not much inside.

A wooden floor covered with skins. An open stove, mattresses, a chest.

Everything is immaculately clean.

Almost all the food supplies are kept outside, frozen. "Bread, for example, is bought in town in the summer and then kept under the snow. When you need it, you dig out a frozen loaf and take it inside to thaw. Then all you have to do is bake it."

"There are four of us living here in the chum - me, my daughter, my husband and his mother," says Ms Khorolia.

"My other three children are at boarding school, but when they have holidays - two weeks over the New Year and three months in the summer - they too live with us."

Unusual pupils

The boarding school in Yar-Sale is new, bright, warm, well equipped and full of children.

The only way to get around is by helicopter

In the theatre, young girls on a catwalk act out a fashion parade to the tune of local pop music.

Alena, a 14-years old student proudly talks about here life: "A lot of us take theatre and fashion design classes. I go to music classes after lessons. We sing there, and play the piano. We perform in local cities and in our town as well".

Thanks to gas exports the local authorities are able to send children to the Black sea during the holidays and even support their future education in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

As gas revenues are high, the region can attract teachers from warmer, but less wealthy, regions.

Natalia Kamishova, who teaches Russian language and literature, came to Yar-Sale a year ago from the city of Kurgan, literally on the other side of the country.

"My pupils are unusual," she says.

"All my three classes are children from the tundra. I used to teach Russian-speaking children, but now they are not, they are Nenets.

"I'm trying to adapt to them as this is something completely new for me, but I like it here," she says before hurrying to her next class.

No compulsion

In Soviet times, boarding school was compulsory for all tundra children.

Every August, a helicopter flew from one camp to another, collecting them.

But those days are over, observes Andrei Kugaevsky, mayor of Yar-Sale.

"It's total freedom now," he says.

"It's up to the parents to decide.

"We're trying to give the children skills that they can use if they decide to stay in town and look for work. But we don't force anyone, and many of them prefer to go back to their parents in the tundra".

The local authorities prefer not to meddle too much with the way the Nenets live.

The governor of the Yamal region, Yuriy Neyelov, promises to help those who choose to change the way they live.

"We, the administration, never try to revolutionise their lives," he says.

"We think it must be a process of evolution. When they are ready to settle down and live in towns then we will encourage and help them, but until then we shouldn't force them."

But for those who prefer to stay on the tundra, all the fuss about gas and money is just a means of making their traditional life in the permafrost a bit easier.

For them, life is lived in much the same way as it was by their ancestors, in an unbroken line over hundreds of years.

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