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On a dark, chilly November evening on the frozen Raisjavri Lake in northern Norway, Jonna Andreas Utsi and his colleagues dragged out one reindeer after another from their trailers. With a firm yet gentle grip, Utsi lay the reindeer down on the icy lake top and began untying the ropes around their feet. He occasionally made herding sounds to calm the reindeer, who stared back with their 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 in Europe that live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – a region known as Sápmi. Historical records show that Sami people have been herding reindeer since 800 AD while sustaining a nomadic way of life, moving annually between their summer and winter pastures. Only about 10 percent of the estimated 70,000 Sami people still follow the tradition of reindeer herding.
Earlier that evening Utsi and his fellow herders had fetched about 20 reindeer that had wandered away from their herd of about 2,500 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 on each ear marked 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 works alongside members of his extended family – a common practice among Sami herders.
“Being Sami and being indigenous is our identity. Reindeer herding has been in the 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.”
A new threat
However in recent years, Utsi and other Sami reindeer herders are facing an external threat to keeping their centuries-old tradition alive – climate change. According to scientists, the Arctic region, home to the Sami people, is warming at a rate 2.5 times faster than the global average.
The effects of increased temperatures are already visible on the frozen landscape. As Utsi rode his all-terrain vehicle (ATV) across the frozen Raisjavri Lake the following morning, he stopped over a partly frozen spot. “This is climate change. We see it every day in our work and life,” he said. “Normally during this time of the year the temperature is between -20ºC and -30ºC. But it’s really warm this year, it’s -4ºC. We have had warm autumns previously but never earlier were they so long.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there was less ice in the Arctic this winter than any previous year since the beginning of satellite monitoring. 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 impacts of climate change on reindeer herding. Increased precipitation due to warmer temperatures is leading to harder ice on the surface close to the ground, locking away the lichen and other plants that reindeer feed on. In the past, this has led to the herd’s starvation and even death.
“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 (ICR) in Kautokeino, a town in northern Norway. Oskal went on to outline another indicator of climate change. “We have seen shrubs entering the tundra in ways it hasn’t done before,” he said, referring to a type of vegetation that the reindeer don’t eat. “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.”
The ICR offers capacity building workshops to reindeer herders across the world. One of their areas of focus is promoting traditional indigenous knowledge that helps mitigate effects of climate change. “None of the 24 indigenous groups around the world herding reindeer has the term ‘sustainable development’ in our languages. Where did that term originate? To us it’s a given. We would like to see our children and their children to continue the life that we are living,” Oskal said.
He pulled out a poster that explained how traditional Sami knowledge and practices can help to 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 winter time. This is important because the climate is not just being warmed but also more variable,” he said. Herders across Sápmi have chosen to have more and more inactive male reindeer as a result.
But it’s not just warmer temperatures that are posing a risk to reindeer herding. “A warmer Arctic is also a more accessible Arctic, explained Oskal. “Loss of pastures due to encroachment and fragmentation of pasture land for reindeer herders is one of the most serious challenges that we are facing today. Studies suggest that in the last 50 years, reindeer husbandry has lost 25 percent of land in the Barents region to encroachment,” Oskal explained. Over the past 30 years, reindeer herders have lost pastures to military fields, windmills, power lines and road construction.
An uphill climb
With many of these industries sprouting up in and around Sápmi, the younger generation is shifting away from traditional practices. Thirty four-year-old Johan Ailo Hætta, who comes from a reindeer herding family, runs a car rental company Ailo Matki & Tourist 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,” Hætta joked standing outside 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,” Hætta said.
While decades ago, Sami reindeer herders lived nomadically in tents called lavvus, today they most often have permanent residences. In the 1970s, Sápmi experienced something called a “snowmobile revolution,” which allowed herders more mobility and easier herding. “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’s permanent home is located on the outskirts of Kautokeino town. A huge, red wooden building with rows of reindeer skin hanging outside. Utsi now divides his time between the herd and his family. On a Wednesday afternoon, while Utsi was home, he prepared a lunch of fried redfish and salad with his fiancé Briita-Marja Nutti. 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,” she said.
Utsi brought out a reindeer game for his son. Together they starting building the toy fence and arranging the miniature reindeer inside it. The boy took out his toy knife and marked a calf. “I hope my son will be a herder too. I hope the climate gets better,” Utsi said, “but the change is happening very fast.”
Changes that he never expected to see in his lifetime, he said, have taken place in only the last ten years. “That is pretty frightening,” Utsi acknowledged. “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.”