Nothing goes to waste: sustainable practices of re-use among indigenous groups in the Russian North

Do the main inventions in current environmental sustainability practices always come from the metropolitan research centres? Could they also be of ‘non-Western’ origin? To answer and challenge these questions, Siragusa and Arzyutov explored waste practices among two indigenous communities in the Russian North – Nenets and Veps as part of ethnographic fieldwork since 2009. They highlight the local practices of waste management that have been outshined by the ‘innovative’ practices like 3Rs scheme – re-cycling, re-using, and reducing.

Like many other rural communities in Russia, Veps and Nenets have long engaged in creative re-use practices, because of the recurrent periods of deficit in late-Soviet Russia and common respect towards the environment. The sustainable initiatives have been also supported by the Soviet state, and the DIY tips of re-use were easily found in such magazines as Yunyy tekhnik (A Young Technician) [since 1956] or Ochen’ umelye/OchUmelyeruchki (Very skilful/crazy hands) that began to be broadcasted on TV in 1992.

Veps are an indigenous community with 5936 and Nenets 44,000 people. Carrying the experiences from the Soviet era, Veps continue to create new life to their waste. For example, car tires are used to decorate the gardens (Image 1), oil barrels to collect the rain to irrigate the soil, and plastic bottles as vases. Textile leftovers are often used to make carpets, pillows, cloths, and dolls. Although these textile practices could be found elsewhere, the Vepsian dolls are unique objects of symbolism (Image 2). These dolls are not painted on the face; what is more, the remaining of cotton threads are burned in a stove, to realize one’s wishes. The skill of crafting the dolls is passed on to the children through classes at schools.

Image 1. Garden decorations made out of tires in Pondal, a central Vepsian village (Siragusa, 2015).
Image 2. A master-class on how to make Vepsian dolls at the school in Kuya (Siragusa, 2013).

The Russian Arctic has always been an area that is hard to get to, and this has challenged people to deal with scarcity through re-use practices. For example, one way to counterbalance the lack of firewood has been the use of driftwood, collected by Nenets families along the seashores. Access to driftwood is regulated by kinship-based rules and family/clan land ownership. This practice is a part of those gift-giving relations that sustain nomadic economies. ’The collection of driftwood—a natural waste of the Arctic Ocean—has recently been accompanied by the collection of plastic (e.g., containers, nets, and ropes), which is equally washed up onto the seashore. Nenets use plastic containers to store the petrol for their ‘snowmobiles’ (Image 3). As such, going to the seashore has become as going for shopping (Image 4).

Image 3. A bundle of plastic cans found on the seashore near Bugrino village on Kolguev island. (Arzyutov, 2018)
Image 4. Collecting driftwood and plastic waste along the coastline. Kolguev Island. 2010. Courtesy of Ivan Varnitsyn (Kolguev Island).

This research aims to spotlight these unique yet discredited practices to bring an understanding how waste management and sustainability do work on the ground, in the country like Russia with its diverse environment. Siragusa and Arzyutov hope to see more recognition of local practices in both research and politics. They also suggest considering the multi-ethnicity of Russia in environmental debates.

Original source: Siragusa, L., & Arzyutov, D. (2020). Nothing goes to waste: sustainable practices of re-use among indigenous groups in the Russian North. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability43, 41-48.


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