SHARE

Preserving the Reindeer Herd

Text and photos by Jonathan Frænkel-Eidse

“They’re always trying to make us change, as if what we do is just a lifestyle choice, like going skiing,” the matron explained with a wry grin as she welcomed me in. Surely this is a sentiment that has echoed over the millennia as Vikings, Tsars and modern governments have threatened the existence of her forbearers through subordination and assimilation. Her smile then faded suddenly, and while the words that came next were softly spoken, her eyes blazed fierce in the firelight: “A lifestyle you can change. We can’t just change; this is our life.”

As I settled onto the soft skins on the floor, I could feel my body sigh with relief that the day was over — catching reindeer by the antlers all day, it seemed, did not appear to be a part of my muscle memory’s repertoire. Not so for my aging contact Anders, who showed neither mental nor physical fatigue throughout the day despite being old enough to consider taking out his pension (to which he insisted he would put off as long as he could keep up with the herd). I had been invited into his kota (tent) for an interview and a warm drink as they made preparations for their annual 300 km migration across Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county. There, sitting semi-circle around the fire sat three generations of his family.

Hopping over pleasantries entirely, the various family members were tense — eager to know who I was and why I was here. I explained my purpose in the Arctic, that I had travelled to one of the most radically changing climates on Earth, a so-called “hotspot,” where temperature increases double the global average. This phenomenon 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 a growing disruption of indigenous human communities. Here I sought to meet with individuals who were most exposed to these changes, with the goal of gaining insight into what the rest of the global population may have in store when climate change’s effects become more pronounced. In other words, to use the Arctic as a crystal ball of sorts, to see what destiny may lie in wait for southerners.

With my intentions clear, their restraint dissipated and was replaced with a torrent of responses. I hastily took out pen and paper as they shared their story and their plight. Mild winters had become an increasing challenge for the herders. One of the most often cited challenges associated with this involved the increasing frequency of ice build-up on the rocks, which cuts the reindeer off from their primary winter forage of lichen. This has forced many herders to turn to expensive pellet feed to ensure their herd’s survival through the winter. A second problem involved winter’s delay: whereas once they could count on frozen ground for their migration, they now found themselves bogged down in marshy terrain. A more long-term concern related to the expansion of the treeline, that is slowly taking over grazing pasture.

As the challenges stacked up one upon the next, the dedication they held to their way of life and the conviction in their voices sent a shiver through my body despite the heat of the fire — a chill that I now imagine to stem from their ancestors’ fingers upon the frozen ice cap that once covered this land during the last great Ice Age, for it is already here that their story begins.

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 four-kilometre-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 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 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 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 place of today’s barren tundra — to the Little Ice Age, which saw the re-glaciation of the Scandinavian mountains and a wide scale abandonment of neighbouring Viking Arctic colonies.

Their persistence through shifting climates and numerous hostile regimes is a testament to both the adaptability of the Saami and the tenacity of their cultural identity. Yet despite this impressive history, the family I sat with now feared that they were leading their herds into a dead end as they struggled to cope with the double-threat of rapid human development and climate change.

Earlier that week I had been out trekking through kilometres of undulating virgin tundra, with the steel-blue expanse of the Barents Sea filling the horizon. As I plodded along, a white veil grew in the north and fell upon me with surprising speed. Taking shelter from the season’s first snowy squall in a primitive stone hut together with several other trekkers, the conversation quickly turned towards the Saami. Though respectful in tone, the negative implications of reindeer husbandry on the land-use rights of not only trekkers, but the oil, mining and fishing industries as well, became a central theme. I quickly took note after one respondent remarked, “They say ‘no’ to pretty much everything. They already have the whole island; can’t they just go some place else?” As it turns out, they cannot.

The reason for this requires some explanation of the herder’s primary adaptation strategy. One tactic 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 vast Arctic landscape to shelter them from the harsh elements and following the seasonal nutrient cycle of the land in their annual migration route.

Over time these routes became entrenched in Saami governance, whereby individual communities, or siida, were entitled to specific summer pastures along the coast, winter pastures in the highlands, and the migration corridor that connected the two. Though neighbouring siida may sometimes allow temporary access to their district (known as “trading snow”), by and large herders must work with the land they are allotted. 

While rapid climate change will certainly challenge the adaptive strategies developed over millennia, projected climate change is well within the historic range of what reindeer herders have demonstrated they can manage. In mild winters for example, they can skilfully move their herd away from icy mountainsides to terrain with better lichen grazing conditions, and manoeuvre around unfrozen marshes if needed. In the summer, they can move the herd to the coasts to graze on the nutrient rich grasses, even as the treeline continues to grow and claim more grassland. Access to a diversity of terrain will be all the more crucial as the Arctic continues to warm; however, this adaptive strategy has historically been premised on the use of the vast landscape — otherwise virtually absent of human settlement.

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 herders prepare to move their families and the herd on their annual 300-km journey from the coast to the highlands of Finnmark.
The herders prepare to move their families and the herd on their
annual 300-km journey from the coast to the highlands of Finnmark.

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 kilometres. 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. Within the last 50 years it is estimated by Jernsletten and Klokav (2002) and the United Nations Energy Programme (2004) that up to 35 per cent of Finnmark’s coastal reindeer range has fallen into disuse due to herd avoidance of infrastructure, and this number is projected to reach 78 per cent by 2050.

In order to secure their future, Anders and his family will need to adapt to rapid climate change. These changes are already adversely impacting them, and if their livelihood is to survive, the herders will need to employ their landscape-based adaptive strategy to the fullest — only now they have much less land.

Adaptation in Finnmark is unlikely to be a question of life and death in the near future. With substantial social and financial capital, its inhabitants will undoubtedly adapt and survive. This likely holds true for the Saami as well, who will, as always, find a way to adapt. But the question remains whether adaptation can be seen as successful when it is forced, either by environmental disaster or human intent, leaving individuals with battered identities? History is replete with examples where individuals and whole communities lose what they value and feel that their identity has been irrevocably destroyed. Whether it be the loss of a cultural symbol such as a traditional local industry that goes belly up, or the loss of the place itself such is the case in numerous dam constructions — the social consequences have been identified by several experts (i.e. TrudelleSchwarz 1996; Oliver-Smith 1991, Adger et al. 2009) as devastating, chronic, and long-lived.

Cultures are always in a dynamic state; the same is also true of the environments in which they are situated. Indeed, it is not a given how adaptation will or ought to proceed. Species have come and gone, new lands have been claimed and others abandoned, and livelihoods have risen and fallen, all to the ebbs and flows of opportunity and calamity.

In saying “no” to development, the herders are not simply being obstinate; the preservation of rangeland is essential to their way of life and their people’s future, one that becomes less and less certain with every road and cabin built.

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.