Under Pressure: Traditional Land Use in the Post-Soviet Sakha Republic
Sebastian F. H. Bouma

April 25, 2024
The Republic of Sakha, also known as Yakutia, is, by area, the largest republic in the Russian Federation. It is very sparsely populated, with only around one million inhabitants (2021 Russian census). When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic became the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). The new name, which refers to the Sakha people, also called Yakuts1 – the largest indigenous community in the region — was supposed to signify a shift from an outsider to a local (Indigenous) perspective and governance of the region (Sirina 2005, 198).

The Indigenous way of life in the Sakha Republic, and especially the traditional land use, has faced increasing pressure over the last decades (Brandišauskas 2020; Burtseva et al. 2022). Indigenous groups have traditionally practiced reindeer herding using alaas – permafrost ecosystems with which the Sakha and the other Indigenous peoples in the republic have a strong physical and spiritual relationship (Crate 2022). Given this special bond between the ancestral lands and the peoples, factors that exert pressure on traditional ways of life have been particularly impactful: post-Soviet Russia’s extractive economy and development policies have been damaging to the environment throughout the country, and pastoral tribes in Sakha, directly affected by extensive mining and global warming, have been especially vulnerable.
The coat of arms of the Sakha Republic.
Sakha: A brief introduction

The history of the Sakha Republic is intrinsically intertwined with Moscow’s territorial expansion to the east in the fifteenth century, as well as the subsequent colonial subjugation of Indigenous peoples, settlement by ethnic Russians, Russification, resource mining, gulag systems, and the formation of national groups seeking to regain control (e.g., The Arctic Institute 2022). The region was and continues to be especially attractive to settlers and industry because of the region’s vast diamond deposits. Additionally, Sakha is home to large industries focused on mining gold, antimony, coal, and tin, and oil and gas development (Burtseva et al. 2022, 2).

The large-scale migration of workers to the Yakut Autonomous Republic during the Soviet era brought about significant demographic changes that put pressure on traditional life. In 1979, the percentage of Sakha decreased from 81.6% in the early Soviet period to only 36.9%, while that of Russians increased to 50.4% (1979 Soviet census). Currently, the Sakha people constitute 55.3% of the population, with Russians (32.6%), the Indigenous Evenks (2.9%) and Evens (1.6%) as the main minority groups (2021 Russian census).
Young people in national folk clothes. Photo by Tatiana Gasich, 2015.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sakha saw an explosion of ethnic and nationalist expression, much like other ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. However, Sakha’s relations with the center in the 1990s were not characterized by clashes and possible secession; rather, it was one of political support in return for economic privileges. Remarkably, in the 1990s the Sakha Republic “seized numerous opportunities to pursue autonomy, and […] asserted its right to a share of its wealth and the ability to make decisions in the interest of the republic” (Young 2000, 187), even striking an agreement in 1992 to keep 20% of the profits from the diamond industry in the republic. This was a major step away from Soviet extraction and exploitation policies. Furthermore, in the 1990s Sakha adopted several laws that protected the Indigenous communities by, for example, ensuring Indigenous landownership and the right to traditional occupations. By 1997, the republic saw the establishment of 207 decision-making and independently operating clan communities dedicated to preserving traditional life (Sirina 2005, 197).

Nonetheless, center-periphery relations have remained driven by industrialization, development programs, and exploitation. The unequal power dynamics have disadvantaged the Indigenous pastoral peoples. Under Putin’s regime, this top-down trend has only intensified, and the republic’s autonomy was curtailed under centralization policies; the central authorities have revoked many regional privileges, such as the Sakha Republic’s veto powers over issues of economic development (Parlato et al. 2021, 16).
An advertisement of the "Far Eastern Hectare" initiative".
Emptying lands: Traditional land use in the face of urbanization

In 2016, Putin initiated a state program called “Far Eastern Hectare” that would give Russian citizens plots of land if they decided to migrate to the Far East. This attractive program aimed to increase the population in the Far East, secure the workforce, and attract foreign investment (Yakovlev 2021, 229) but brought with it immense demographic changes and challenges for the regions concerned. As of 2019, in the Sakha Republic alone some 88.5 million hectares were allocated for the “Far Eastern Hectare” program (Yakovlev 2021, 229). The increase in worker migration is planned to be managed by forming three new cities and building the necessary infrastructure (Yakovlev 2021, 229).

For the Indigenous people whose practices are strongly related to the physical space in the form of the alaas, this means that less space will be available for traditional life. Dissatisfied with this unilateral decision, the Sakha Republic protested and devised a series of legal countermeasures. By invoking its autonomy and the federal constitutional rights provided for Indigenous communities in Russia, Sakha authorities were able to create so-called “Territories of Traditional Nature-Use”, which were excluded from the “Far Eastern Hectare” program (Parlato et al. 2021, 13).
A dog sled and a musher near the city of Yakusk. Photo by Tatiana Gasich, 2015.
Additionally, the abundance of (industrial) work in and near cities is a factor that increases the urbanization of Indigenous peoples. The capital of Yakutsk is home to one third of the total population of the Sakha Republic. Whereas Yakutsk had around 186,000 inhabitants during the last Soviet census in 1989, by 2018 the population had grown to a staggering 338,000 (Sukneva and Laruelle 2019, 10). Notably, the majority of the new citizens belong to Indigenous groups like the Sakha and were attracted to Yakutsk because of the potential for work (Sukneva and Laruelle 2019, 11). Combined with a broad exodus of ethnic Russians to western Russia, this results in a situation in which the overall population of the Republic is declining while the population of its capital is increasing.

Urbanization has consequently affected the relationship between the Indigenous groups and their lands. When Indigenous people of working age move to cities, rural areas are destined to decline faster. The changes create challenges, such as a “depopulation of rural regions that can no longer meet their inhabitants’ expectations regarding living conditions, education, health care provision, and employment opportunities” (Sukneva and Laruelle 2019, 24).
The Mirny mine, an open pit diamond mine located in Mirny, Sakha Republic; it is one of the largest in the world.
Precious lands: Traditional land use in the face of mining

In 2019, the mining industry accounted for 50.6% of the Sakha Republic’s gross regional product (Tabata 2021, 13). A recent statistical analysis of the contribution of the mining sector to the economic development of the Republic revealed that: (1) the oil sector has sharply increased its share in the gross regional production, rising from 1.4% in 2006 to 17.0% in 2015; (2) the mining industry has unevenly benefitted or disadvantaged districts, as just five districts account for more than 70% of the mining gross regional production, while other municipalities account for less than 30%; and (3) the diamond sector accounts for much of the Republic’s budget revenues – it produces more than 90% of all diamonds in Russia, while Russia’s share of world diamond production was 32.8% in 2019 (Tabata 2021, 2).

The effect of the large-scale mining on traditional land use in Russia’s Arctic regions has been devastating, especially for the livelihood of Indigenous people. Recent research on the social and environmental consequences of the mining industry in Sakha found that “the current state of the environment [in the Sakha Republic] is characterized by an increase in the technogenic load and further deterioration of the state of the environment” (Burtseva 2022, 8). A survey among 90 Indigenous households found that 99.1% expressed concerns that the new urban centers and their infrastructure that are to be built as part of the “Far Eastern Hectare” plan “would violate the natural ways of animal migration, reduce the area of reindeer pastures, and worsen environmental conditions, with revenues from traditional industries falling, and the social situation worsening” (Burtseva 2022, 14).
An example of a small alaas.
Vanishing lands: Traditional land use in the face of climate change and forest fires

Global climate change has equally affected the relationship between the Indigenous peoples and the alaas, and constitutes one of the most pressing developments. Densely populated areas put more pressure on the environment. A study by Kirillina et al., for instance, relates an exponential decrease in boreal forest fires to anthropogenic, i.e., human, factors, and argues that forest fires “may be attributed not only to farms, hunting, and recreational areas but also to increasingly populated and industrialized areas [and] [t]he same goes for new industrial sites and development areas” (2020, 8). Flash floods have also been particularly devastating over the last decade. Climate change in this part of the globe is bound to cause enormous environmental damage and is likely to leave an undeniable mark on Indigenous ways of life in the Sakha Republic.

The alaas, the cultural keystone of indigeneity in the Sakha Republic (Crate 2022, 32-33), are threatened due to rising temperatures around the Arctic. The rising temperatures result in an intensive thawing of the permafrost by up to four centimeters a year; as a result, the permafrost boundary in the Republic is constantly shifting to the north (Popova et al. 2023, 169). The thawing of the permafrost also physically changes the land: it becomes muddy and unfit for reindeer herding and travel between Indigenous settlements. The winter roads – i.e., major ice and permafrost highways that serve as the primary logistical connections between Indigenous communities throughout the republic – become unusable even in milder winters, as the ice on the rivers that were once used as ice roads is not strong enough (Kirillina et al. 2023, 2).

The physical degradation of the alaas due to climate change threatens the symbolic representations, the material practices, and the emotional ties that Indigenous groups have developed with their lands. The future of Indigenous land use is thus highly dependent on the federal and regional authorities to initiate, fund, and support policy changes to mitigate the effects of global warming on the Indigenous nomadic way of life. Such dependence on decisions made at a higher level undermines Indigenous groups’ ability to plan for adaptation in the long term. To counterbalance the unequal power structures, it is therefore important to devise climate adaptation policies that take into account the nomadic way of life of Indigenous peoples; only by considering the position and experience of these peoples can realistic and effective climate adaptation strategies be developed and adopted (Solovyeva et al. 2020, 262).


While the Sakha Republic effectively negotiated its position vis-à-vis Moscow in the 1990s and adopted several laws protecting traditional land use, this success has been curtailed by Russia’s centralization and development policies in the Far East, such as the “Far Eastern Hectare” program. Russia’s extractive economy is damaging to the environment throughout the country, but pastoral peoples, directly affected by mining and global warming, are especially vulnerable. As economic considerations continue to dominate over ecological concerns, the interplay of climate change, urbanization, centralization, migration, and industrialization is likely to continue undermining traditional land use in the Sakha Republic.
Galina Belolyubskaya, “The Far-Eastern Hectare Law and land in the Sakha Republic (Russia),” Polar Science 29 (2021): article 100683.

Donatas Brandišauskas, “Living with Reindeer Thirty Years After Socialism: Land Use and Large Reindeer Herding Among the Evenki of Southeast Siberia,” Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics 14, no. 1 (2020): 65-84.

Evdokia Burtseva, Anatoliy Sleptsov, Anna Bysyina, Alla Fedorova, Gavril Dyachkovski & Alevtina Pavlova, “Mining industry of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and problems of environmental and social security of Indigenous peoples,” Land 11 (2022): article 105.

Susan Alexandra Crate, “Sakha and Alaas: Place Attachment and Cultural Identity in a Time of Climate Change,” Anthropology and Humanism 47, no. 1 (2022): 20–38.

Kiunnei Kirillina, Evgeny G. Shvetsov, Viktoriya V. Protopopova, Lynn Thiesmeyey & Wanglin Yan, “Consideration of anthropogenic factors in boreal forest fire regime changes during rapid socio-economic development: Case study of forestry districts with increasing burnt area in the Sakha Republic, Russia,” Environmental Research Letters 15 (2020): article 035009.

Kiunnei Kirillina, Nikita Tananaev, Antonina Savvinova, Vladimir Lobanov, Alla Fedorova & Aleksei Borisov, “Climate change impacts the state of winter roads connecting indigenous communities: Case study of Sakha (Yakutia) Republic,” Climate Services 30 (2023): article 100356.

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Lena Popova, Svetlana Avelova, Alena Gerasimova, Julia Lutz, Svein Disch Mathiesen, Anisiia Moiakunova, Alexandra Petrova, Mikhail Pogodaev, Vyacheslav Shadrin, Anna N. Shishigina & Anatoly V. Zhozhikov, “Trends and Effects of Climate Change on Reindeer Husbandry in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia),” in Svein Disch Mathiesen, Inger Marie Gaup Eira, Ellen Inga Turi, Anders Oskal, Mikhail Pogodaev & Marina Tonkopeeva (eds.), Reindeer Husbandry: Adaptation to the Changing Arctic (New York City: Springer, 2023), 149-185.

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Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev, “Implementation of the State Program ‘Dalnevostochniy Hectare’ and the Regional Aspect of ‘Yakutskiy Hectare’ in the Territory of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia): The First Results (2016-2020),” in Nurgun Vyacheslavovich Afanasev (ed.), Proceedings of the conference on current problems of our time: The relationship of man and society (Paris: Atlantis Press, 2021), 228-232.

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  • Sebastian F. H. Bouma

    Independent researcher
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