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Squeezed for Space in the Vast Arctic

Saami reindeer herders hard-pressed by the conflux of rapid climate change and rapid human development

Where are you camped?” asks Mikkel Sara, an elderly Saami reindeer herder as I sit with him watching his family’s herd of some 2,000 reindeer graze.

“On Rypefjell,” I reply.

“Aha. On the Northwest end of the lake, in a shallow dug out?” he asks.

“Exactly,” I remark, a little surprised. I had understood that the Saami were intimate with the land, but this was uncanny.

Reindeer silhouettePhoto by Jonathan Frænkel-Eidse The reindeer silhouette has been a fixture on these mountain ridges for millennia. Their chances of enduring the next century now hinges upon both the herd's and the herder's adaptability in the face of rapid climate change and human development.

“A beautiful spot,” he says somewhat nostalgically, and continues to consider the herd for a long moment in silence. His nine-year-old grandchild dodges adeptly amongst the reindeer, chasing and catching the calves by the antlers. His son stands to the side giving pointers, passing on the ancient knowledge of the trade.

“That campsite you are staying on was my father’s and grandfather’s summer camp. I grew up there,” Sara says, returning from his quiet reflections. “But we don’t use it anymore, there’s too much development.”

I’ve made my way to this northernmost region of Norway to meet with indigenous Saami herders like Sara, who have subsisted in this unsympathetic Arctic environment for generations by fishing, hunting, and herding reindeer. Although their way of life is in many ways dissimilar and incomparable to the societies to the south, I’ve travelled here hoping that their story will provide some insight into the challenges that may lie in wait for the rest of the world in the face of climate change.

Much of the research and media reports we read about climate change talk about the dire, not-so-far-off effects of changes that are unprecedented in human history. A constant barrage of this information can lead to the nerve-wracking experience of “eco-anxiety” — a feeling of being perched upon the precipice of ecological calamity, peering into the dark unknown. I feel that we need something more tangible, a real-world taste of what lies ahead, in order to cope with this kind of eco-anxiety. What if we could locate a unique geographic area that is undergoing dramatic climate change right now — one that is home to a group of people who are facing these challenges head on? 

The Arctic is one of the world’s so-called climate change “hotspots.” Here, temperature increases double the global average and has, among other things, resulted in a rapid reduction in sea ice, thawing of the tundra permafrost, expansion of the tree-line both in latitude and elevation and growing disruption of indigenous human communities. Perhaps people here could teach us a thing or two and shed some light on where our own destinies may be heading. 

This was the theory anyway, which soon found me camped overlooking the most northerly city in the world Hammerfest, Norway. Initial interviews with locals in the region found that most respondents were acutely aware that the last 10 years have been abnormally mild, a trend that is also confirmed by meteorological data. This had resulted in both the jubilations of those who envisioned a future of sun-tanning and swan dives into the Barents Sea and trepidation for those whose livelihoods were already being adversely impacted.

Among the latter are the Saami herders, who are already experiencing worsened grazing and migration conditions as a result of much milder winters and expanding tree-lines. I decided to meet up with a group of Saami herders on the Barents Sea coast as they made preparations to take their herds and families on the annual migration — across 300 kilometers of rugged terrain — to their winter mountain grazing range.

***

young Saami herderPhoto by Jonathan Frænkel-Eidse Saami children are taught the trade from an early age. Here, a ten-year-old seeks out his family's calves, single-handedly catching, subduing, and removing them from the throng.

The Saami’s ancestors are believed to have been the first people to inhabit Arctic Scandinavia, arriving on the scene some 14,000 years ago, with a retreating 4-kilometer-thick ice sheet as a backdrop. Scored down to the granite bedrock, this would have been a virtually sterile land where only moss and lichen could grow — a reindeer’s two favourite meals.

The Proto-Saami were likely hunters who followed these reindeer herds from Siberia into Scandinavia, over time developing a means of semi-domesticating them. In the millennia that followed, reindeer husbandry has endured through climates both warm and cold: from the Medieval Warming Period — that witnessed deciduous forests replacing glaciers atop Scandinavia’s highest peaks and Norse agriculture in the valleys below — to the Little Ice Age that saw the re-glaciation of the Scandinavian mountains, and a wide scale abandonment of neighboring Viking Arctic colonies.

The Saami’s nomadic way of life underwent major changes during the seventeenth century when they got hemmed in by political boundaries as a result of nation building in the Arctic regions they occupied that today fall within the northernmost areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola peninsula. These boundaries led to the Saami becoming subject to multiple, sometimes contradictory, governing bodies and tax authorities and consequently caused many Saami to abandon their hunter-gatherer traditions, move to the Arctic coast, and take up grain farming and fishing. Yet many others carried on with reindeer herding, albeit on an increasingly fragmented grazing range, and it remains to this day a cornerstone of their culture, identity, and economy.

The Saami’s perseverance over the ages, through both shifting climates and persistently oppressive interactions with outsiders like the Vikings, Tsarists, and assimilation projects of the modern state, is a testament to both the adaptability of the Saami and the tenacity of their cultural identity.

In some ways, the herders’ adaptation challenges today may be seen as a continuation of what has been their historical norm. Indeed, the temperature changes they have previously endured are within the variation predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change over the next 100 years. But given the speed with which global warming is changing the natural environment in the Arctic, as well as the increasing pressures of human development, even the long-resilient Saami are finding it hard to adapt.

As we sat watching the autumn sun’s hasty descent towards the tundra horizon, Sara expressed his concern that they were teaching their children in vain; leading their herds into a dead end as they now faced a unique challenge where dramatic climate change meets unprecedented human development.

***

men and womena corraling reindeerPhoto by Jonathan Frænkel-Eidse The larger herd is composed of smaller family-owned flocks that each family is responsible for. Yet when it comes time to move the herd, everybody pitches in communally.

The key to the Saami’s historic success with herding and its future viability rests in the herders’ two primary adaptive strategies. One involves altering the composition and size of the herd. For example, adjusting the male to female ratio or adjusting the overall number in the herd depending on whether it is a time of scarcity or time of plenty.

The second, more crucial strategy, involves using the geography of the land itself. This tactic is believed to be based on a replication of the natural, seasonal movements of the herds before they became semi-domesticated, using the folds of the landscape to shelter them from the harsh elements and following the seasonal nutrient cycle of the land in their annual migration routes.

Since the herders follow the same migration paths every year, the Saami have developed a deep and detailed knowledge of their vast Arctic landscape. They can read the weather patterns, identify native plants and animals and their specific dietary uses, and have a historical memory of sheltering nooks and crannies.

Knowledge of the local environment, is embedded in their cultural practices and language. The Saami’s rich vocabulary for describing snow, for example, is a valuable tool that helps them make key decisions about what routes to take and where to set camp, especially during winter when different snow conditions make it easier or harder for the reindeer to get to the lichen buried under the snow. Seanas, for instance, means the dry, large grained and water-holding snow closest to the ground surface found in late winter and spring that’s easy for reindeer to dig through. Skarta is the hard, but thin, ice-like snow that fastens to the ground when there has been rain and causes poor grazing conditions. ÄŒuohki is the ice sheet on pastures formed by rain on open ground that subsequently freezes and causes the worst grazing as the reindeer are unable to dig down to the lichen. Depending on the snow conditions, herders always have to be prepared to move the reindeer to alternative grazing sites in case they can’t access their winter staple.

Rapid climate change will certainly challenge the strategies the Saami have developed over millennia, yet they have demonstrated that they can manage variations of this magnitude in the past. But their adaptive strategies have been premised on the use of the vast landscape, virtually absent of human settlement. And that’s something that can no longer be guaranteed.

A quick glance of satellite images of Arctic Norway reveals human developments as mere specs, individual pixels on the seemingly infinite canvas of brown tundra and blue sea. Yet the miniscule area these structures inhabit belies the threat they represent to the Saami.

The heart of the problem lies in that the Saami’s so-called “tame” reindeer are in fact extraordinarily skittish, and will avoid an area surrounding an intrusion by sometimes up to several kilometers. Human developments now sprawl across the Nordic coastlines. Homes, power lines and large mining operations dot the landscape. A handful of cabins may be enough to scare a herd out of an entire valley, and a power line can divide an island as effectively as an electric fence.

Mining activities especially have taken a large toll on the Saami and their way of life. Their traditional territories contain many mineral riches, including iron, gold, silver, platinum, copper, lead, zinc, and even diamonds. Most of the mining activity in Norway occurs within traditional Saami territory and the large infrastructure, including roads and railroads, which supports the industry, has impacted reindeer herding activities. Open grazing land has slowly been sectioned off and overgrazing of certain areas is becoming a major problem.

Within the past 50 years it is estimated that up to 35 percent of the Norway’s coastal reindeer range has fallen into disuse due to herd avoidance of infrastructure. This number is projected to reach 78 percent by 2050, according to a 2001 Arctic Council and UNEP report. The reindeers and the herders depend on the land, and they now have less and less of it.

Sitting there by the reindeer herd with Sara, I consider his words and the sense of loss he feels for his childhood home. Sure enough, a brand new shopping center was placed just below the hill I was camped on, complete with an oversized parking lot. A summer cabin village was slowly edging up the hill slopes. A huge new harbor and fish processing facility lay on the other side. Electric lines followed the lake’s edge. Reindeers wouldn’t want to come anywhere near this place.

In fact, reindeer herders are not the only ones who require space to adapt. Local fishers here are fighting the Nussir mining project that would dump millions of tons of toxic waste annually into the ocean – effectively destroying the local salmon stock and the fjord’s role in their own spatial adaptation strategy. (The mining facility is also located precisely in the middle of the reindeer’s migration route.) Meanwhile, the tourism industry, which also sets a premium on pristine undeveloped land, is constantly at odds with the oil and mining industries’ infrastructure developments, and also with the Saami who require that huge swaths of land remain off-limits during calving season.

Ultimately what I found was that even here — in one of the largest and most depopulated places on Earth — conflict is the status quo between peoples and industries as they vie for territory.

The Saami are likely among the most time-tested climate adaptation savvy people in the world. There is little they have not experienced, and found a way to get through. Yet when asked about what their greatest struggle is when faced with climate change, the first thing they say is “Give us space!” The problem, it seems, is that everybody else is crying out for the same thing.

Jonathan Frænkel-Eidse
Jonathan Fraenkel-Eidse is a freelance writer who covers Nordic environmental issues. He is a graduate of the Norwegian Center for Environment and Development’s MA program, and also works as editor for several publications.

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