Climate change: Arctic reindeer herders on thin ice
Sami reindeer herders in Norway fear climate change could force the abandonment of a thousand-year way of life.
Raisjavri, Norway – On a dark, chilly November evening in northern Norway, Jonna Andreas Utsi and his colleagues dragged out one reindeer after another from their trailers.
With a firm but gentle grip, Utsi laid the reindeer down on the frozen Raisjavri Lake, and began untying the ropes around their feet. He occasionally made herding sounds at the reindeer, who stared back with large, dark, fearful eyes.
Utsi and his family are Sami reindeer herders in Norway’s northern Finnmark region, close to the Barents Sea. The Sami are an indigenous group living in northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – a region known as Sapmi.
Their traditional means of livelihood are fishing and reindeer herding. Historical records show the Sami people have been herding reindeer since 800 AD while sustaining a nomadic way of life, moving annually between their summer and winter pastures. About 10 percent of the Sami still herd reindeer.
That evening, Utsi and his fellow herders fetched about 20 of their roughly 2,500 reindeer that had wandered away from the herd and joined another one.
“That happens quite often. It is a big loss if we lose our reindeer to someone else,” Utsi said.
He pointed towards a reindeer’s earmark, a few cuts notched on each ear while they are still calves. “This mark is mine. That means the reindeer belongs to me. My cousin has his own ear mark, and my friend has his own. That helps us differentiate our reindeer from the others.”
Utsi began herding in his late teens after his father, also a reindeer herder, passed away.
“It was a bit hard, losing my dad at a young age. It wasn’t easy to find advice or someone who could tell me how to do things. But I was connected to the reindeer; they taught me herding. I also had grandparents and relatives who helped me to learn more,” he said.
Today, Utsi herds along with some members of his extended family – a common practice among Sami herders.
“Being Sami and being indigenous is our identity. Reindeer herding has been in Sami community for hundreds of years. Sami people and reindeer are like one, we are connected together,” Utsi said proudly.
“Even the months of the year in Sami calendar are named according to reindeer herding cycles.”
However, in recent years, Utsi and other Sami reindeer herders have faced an external threat to keeping their centuries-old tradition alive: climate change.
According to scientists, the Arctic region is warming at a rate 2.5 times faster than the global average. The United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that last winter, there was less ice in the Arctic than in any previous year since the beginning of satellite monitoring.
The following morning, Utsi rode his all-terrain vehicle (ATV) across Raisjavri Lake towards his herd.
He stopped over a partly frozen spot and said: “This is climate change. We see it every day in our work and life. Normally during this time of the year the temperature is between -20C and -30C. But it’s really warm this year: it’s -4C. We have had warm autumns previously, but never earlier were they so long.”
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Utsi got off his ATV, walked a bit further and knelt down. “Look here,” he said, clearing the snow on the ground. “There’s snow on the surface and then ice at the bottom, above the ground. The reindeer can get through the snow but not through the ice. They can’t get to the food.”
Lack of forage is one of the biggest effects of climate change on reindeer herding. Increased precipitation because of warmer temperatures is leading to harder ice on the surface close to the ground, locking away the lichen and other plants on which reindeer feed. In the past, this has led to reindeer starving and even dying.
“It doesn’t matter if your refrigerator is full of food but you can’t open the door,” said Anders Oskal, executive director at the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry in Kautokeino, a town in northern Norway.
Oskal mentioned another symptom of climate change: “We have seen shrubs entering the tundra in ways it hasn’t done before. There are a lot of traditional migration routes that families here have used for centuries. We can’t use these migration routes any more – the reindeer refuse to go there because there are too many shrubs. This tells us that something beyond the ordinary is happening.”
That evening, Oskal pulled out a poster that explained how traditional Sami knowledge can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
“You can design your reindeer herd. Male castrates are the biggest and strongest animals in the herd. It calms the herd down and more importantly, they are stronger and able to dig through hard snow and face difficult conditions in wintertime. This is important because the climate is not just being warmed, but also more variable,” he said.
Herders across Sapmi have begun castrating more male reindeer as a result.
The warmer temperatures are also making traditional reindeer herding grounds more appealing for other uses, Oskal said. “Studies suggest that in the past 50 years, reindeer husbandry has lost 25 percent of land in the Barents region to encroachment,” he explained.
As mining, infrastructure, renewable energy and tourism businesses sprout up in and around Sapmi, the younger generation no longer feels bound to traditional occupations. Thirty-four-year-old Johan Ailo Haetta, who comes from a reindeer herding family, runs a car rental company in Kautokeino. “I feel sad about not continuing the tradition, but on the other hand I have the option of going out in nature and spending time there as long as I want, and returning when I feel like,” he said.
“My business is really successful – a lot of kroner,” Haetta joked as he stood outside of his garage on a snowy morning. “There isn’t any other car rental company around here, so my cars are always rented out. Moreover, I employ a few young guys, so I am generating employment here.”
Just decades ago, Sami reindeer herders lived nomadically in tents called lavvus. But today, most have permanent residences. This is partly owing to the so-called “snowmobile revolution” of the 1970s, which made Sapmi herders more mobile. “My grandfather would be skiing to herd, and they used reindeer for transportation to get food to the tents. They also faced hard conditions in the winter. They just had one little bag of food, the dog, a gun to get reindeer, coffee and bread – hard, old bread,” Jonna Utsi recalled.
Utsi lives on the outskirts of Kautokeino, and divides his time between the herd and his family. One Wednesday afternoon, Utsi prepared a lunch of fried redfish and salad with his fiance, Briita-Marja Nutti, as their two-year-old son Jonna-Isaak played with a board game on the floor.
“A lot of knowledge is gone because we aren’t living with the herd and following it always,” said Nutti, a 29-year-old massage therapist.
“Already when I was growing up, this changed. My father was always with the herd and coming to visit us – I don’t know how often he was away.”
Jonna brought out a reindeer game for his son, and together they built a toy fence and arranged miniature reindeer inside it. Jonna-Isaak took out his toy knife and marked a calf.
“I hope my son will be a herder too,” his father said. “I hope the climate gets better. But the change is happening very fast… And that is pretty frightening. If there’s going to be so many changes, maybe we have to give up herding. That is going to be a punishment for our culture, and language – and everything.”
Research for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network