Sami reindeer herders struggle against Arctic oil and gas expansion

Reindeer herders

Herders have had to become used to a fierce and unpredictable climate in the Arctic

Climate change and a rise in oil and gas exploration are bringing a host of problems for the indigenous Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic regions
I like to call it the climate super tanker – it was easy to get going, but it is very hard to stop it

It’s almost midnight when the sun finally disappears and the snow begins to harden. Here in the distant stretches of northern Norway, two herders are preparing to move almost 2000 reindeer to their summer pasture. In the back of their snowmobiles are the essentials: a bottle of vodka, an axe, some rope and several knives.

Inside their portable cabin, empty beer bottles and dirty plates lay at the end of the beds. For the main herder, Isak Mathis Triumf, this tiny space is his home for several weeks at a time. A foldout table and a small fire separate the men. There are no photos or pictures on the walls – it’s where they sleep and eat. 'If I didn’t spend most of my time out with the reindeer, I’d go crazy in here,' he said.

Isak’s three young daughters are joining the migration tonight. He leads them to the edge of a frozen lake where he knows the reindeer are feeding on lichen. Despite the loud clattering if the snowmobiles, the sounds of bells hanging from the reindeer’s necks echo through the air. The eldest daughter follows slowly behind, using her iPhone to take videos of her sisters racing each other across the snow. 

Every so often, Isak scans the mountains with his binoculars, looking out for predators like wolverines and lynxes. On the back of his snowmobile is a gun, but he isn’t allowed to use it because the predators are protected. Just yesterday, he watched on from the mountains as an eagle killed one of his pregnant reindeer. 'Predators have become a big problem for reindeer herders,' he said. 'There are quite a lot and they take at least one reindeer everyday of the year.'

But a life in the Arctic means the herders have also had to become used to a fierce and unpredictable climate. Ask any local person here in the village of Kautokeino and they will say that for centuries, the Sami people have adapted their lifestyle to environmental change. But the Sami are beginning to worry that their traditional knowledge might not be enough to survive the changing climate. Sit down with the herding families and they’ll tell you stories of melting ice, soggy herding tracks, early springs, mosquitoes and other insects where there once were none.

Arctic's rapidly changing climate

In the last ten years, scientists have been flocking to the Arctic to study how the Sami have used their traditional knowledge to overcome severe cold, famine and isolation. Dr Robert Corell is one of the world’s leading scientists on the Arctic climate. In 2004 he chaired the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which he says was one of the first reports to meld the traditional knowledge of the herders, with the physical data of climate change. 

This year he has been working with local herders in Finnmark, following them on their migration routes between the winter and summer pastures. 'We were mostly observing them, the people, and about how they manage the herd, how careful they are… we were observing how they manage this enterprise, rather than taking physical data, because we’ve got lots and lots of that,' he said.

Many of the herders have noticed that warmer temperatures have brought rain at times when they would expect snow. When the temperatures drop overnight, the water freezes, sometimes locking the reindeer’s food under a lens of ice. Scientists call it a ‘rain on snow event’ and for many herds it can mean the female and younger reindeer starve. Dr Corell found that many of the herders are castrating the male reindeer so they are strong enough to push through the ice and provide for the other reindeer.

'This past winter has been quite good for the reindeer, because it has been quite cold, consistently, so there was very little rain on snow… so the feeding for the animals is much better,' he said. 'We’ve had some periods that were so devastating that thousands of animals were lost – you could lose 40, 50 percent of your herd.'

Seven years ago, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment concluded that the rate of climate change was happening much faster in the Arctic than in other parts of the world. Dr Corell now says those results were conservative. 

'Just take the melting of the ice in the Arctic Ocean,' he said. 'We projected it would probably be the end or beyond 2100 when you might have a wide open Arctic Ocean.'

Sea ice in the Arctic is melting at a record pace this year and some scientists are predicting that the summer months of the Arctic will be ice free in 30 years. Less sea ice will mean a warmer ocean, as more sunlight is absorbed by the open Arctic Ocean.

'I like to call it the climate super tanker – it was easy to get going, but it is very hard to stop it,' Dr Corell said.  

Carving up the Arctic

The rapid retreat of sea ice is not only a strong indicator of change occurring in the North, it is also part of a global race to 'carve up' the rich deposits of Arctic resources such as oil and gas. With the Arctic’s shallow waters thought to contain some the largest remaining untapped oil and gas reserves, countries such as Russia, Norway and the US are all pushing to stake a claim. Private US embassy cables released earlier this year reported the Russian ambassador to NATO, Dmitriy Rogozin, as saying: '…the 21st century will see a fight for resources and Russia should not be defeated in this fight.'

This bitter dispute for territory and resources is something the reindeer herders have been battling with for years. The rise of oil and gas exploration in the North has brought with it a range of rewards and dangers for the people in the region. But the herders say the development is threatening their way of life.

Former President of the Sami Parliament, Ole Henrik Magga, says loss of land has become the single biggest threat to reindeer herding. 'Development has brought with it roads, pipelines and railway tracks, cutting our land into pieces,' he said. 'It used to be whole, where the herd could move freely, but now the area is being reduced more and more.'

Sami people say they see time when reindeer herding will no longer be a part of their life. Mikkel Nils Sara, who teaches reindeer herding at the university in Kautokeino, says more land is being lost each day. 'Reindeer is based on renewable resources, so it could last for thousands of years,' he said. 'But with all of this mining and resources, in 20 years there will be nothing.'

A gravel road that carves the way towards a local mining site borders Isak’s herding route. While it does make it easier to access his land by car, he’s concerned that in two to three years, more sites will appear across his land. With his herd making up only a small portion of the quarter of a million reindeer in Norway, many people’s livelihoods rely on the future of this cultural tradition.

The Sami way of life

With lower wages and a demanding work schedule, the nomadic herding lifestyle is struggling to maintain its force in numbers. Parents are seeking jobs in the villages and very few youths have the option to become a fulltime reindeer herder. 'Many parents now have ordinary jobs, they don’t have the ability to bring their kids up the way our parents did,' Mikkel said. 'Maybe the things we learn as ten year olds, they now learn as 18 year olds.'

'The sudden decay of their rich oral heritage feeds into the stories of the younger Sami people. Ante Siri, 26, spent his childhood herding reindeer with his nomadic parents. 'Everyone expected that I would continue with reindeer herding,' he said. 'I thought that if I didn’t become a reindeer herder, I would disappoint a lot of people, but you learn to see that it’s not quite like that anymore.'

To be a reindeer herder, Ante explains, you need to be ready to make it your entire way of life. 'I didn’t have that interest. My brother, who is really passionate about reindeer herding, it was easy because the knowledge just stuck with him,' he said. 'For me, it was harder because I thought that other things were more interesting.'
Staying with the herd

At this time of year, the Arctic nights are so short that the sun disappears only for an hour. Even with the sunlight it is easy to lose sense of your direction, as the planes of snow and ice seem to stretch forever. Isak raises his hand, signaling for his daughters to stop at the edge of the frozen lake. At last, he switches off the ignition of his snowmobile and the gentle rumble of the reindeer fills the air as they make their way across the frozen lake.

With only 15 kilometres left of the migration, the reindeer are moving slowly. The young girls sit back on their machines and marvel at the herd, watching as clouds of heat tumble from their backs. With the temperature now below minus 20 degrees, Isak passes around the plastic bottle of vodka: 'Two sips. That’s how we do it,' he says.

It is early morning when the heard reach the summer pasture – a place that despite its name is still barren and covered in snow. Over the next month, Isak will live here with the herd, making sure the calves survive the next winter. 

I like to call it the climate super tanker – it was easy to get going, but it is very hard to stop it
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