The reindeer Sámi and sustainable development

The earliest written details concerning semi-domesticated reindeer date back to the year 499 AD in Baikal area. In the 800's, small scale reindeer husbandry existed also in Norway. Although further information is available from the 1300s, the fact is that the spread of reindeer husbandry into its present day region did not begin until the end of the Middle Ages. However, the roots of reindeer husbandry go back to the wild forest reindeer, which was caught by the Sámi in special 'deer traps'. Reindeer husbandry was practised in the early 1700s in the region traditionally considered Lapland, as well as in most of Northern Ostrobothnia, although in the southern parts of the latter area only as a gradually dwindling form of livelihood. In northernmost Lapland, right up to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the mode of life of the Reindeer Sámi included migrating along with the reindeer herds to the coast for the summer, and then returning for the winter to the inland fells and forests. In herding of this type, the size of the reindeer population and primary production by the grazing areas over the long term remained in a state of equilibrium. If the number of head exceeded a certain limit, the condition of the grazing areas began to weaken, with the result that the reindeer population often crashed due to exceptionally snowy conditions making it difficult for the animals to locate enough of reindeer lichen from under the snow cover. With the population at its lowest ebb, the pastures had time to recover, however, and the population then began to increase again.

The closing of the international borders with Norway and Sweden in 1852 and 1889 respectively had an enormous impact on the traditional reindeer husbandry as practised by the Sámi, who were forced to abandon their annual migrations between the grazing grounds on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and places inland and to adopt a mode of reindeer husbandry based on a system of what are known as 'reindeer herding cooperatives'. It can be said that the last five hundred years have also altered the Reindeer Sámi's view of their own history. The traditional Reindeer Sámi society, whose rhythm was governed by the changing of the seasons and rituals associated with birth and death, was geared to annual cycles. Development took place so slowly that the most important changes experienced in a Sámi person's lifetime were famine or war.

The industrialisation characterising this century has, however, also altered the Reindeer Sámi society, right down to its roots. The period following World War II has meant radical changes for the Sámi society as much as any other. As regards the reindeer husbandry practised by the Sámi it has meant shifting from a nature based economy to modern technology and the era of market forces. When we now, at the turn of the millennium, assess the past 500 years, it seems clear that our traditional understanding of history is still incomplete. The changes occurring at present are dangerous for our Reindeer Sámi culture overall; the process of change appears in many respects to be unstable.

Assisted by new technology, reindeer husbandry has become a modernised, specialised occupation, while being forced to adapt to regional changes caused by other forms of land use, like forestry, agriculture, hydroengineering, traffic and tourism. In conjunction with such changes, the reindeer's feeding and grazing habits have also altered. Owing to the limited carrying capacity of the grazing areas, many Reindeer Sámi have been forced to keeping their reindeer corralled, or supplying them with feed in the field. Again, many herdsmen have been obliged to invest in expensive snowmobiles and other equipment. Today, for many herdsmen the expenditure associated with carrying out reindeer husbandry has become a serious threat to the profitability of the occupation, and thus for its continuation as a provider of income. This also throws down a gauntlet to those responsible for preserving the entire Sámi culture.

Sámi reindeer husbandry is an unusual occupation in that it is able to take advantage under exceptionally barren conditions of renewable natural resources that other forms of livelihood are unable to derive benefit from. However, here lies the main weakness of this form of livelihood: production by the vegetation in the Arctic region is limited and easily disturbed. In many areas, overgrazing due to a surplus of reindeer has led to serious production disturbances in connection with which, instead of free food reserves, supplementary feeding has become necessary and ancient grazing traditions have been forsaken. Despite this, it is still not too late to change the course of development and to create a society for the Sámi that is ecologically sustainable. Reinstating the balance between people and their environment is a complicated process and this has to take place more rapidly in the Sámi region, if people desire to limit the damage. What, then does the creation of a sustainable society call for?

The Sámi must, together with other people involved in the scenario, determine the limits to environmental resistance and, aided by the other stakeholders, strongly defend these limits through both national action and international cooperation. Almost all the factors with an adverse impact on the environment - soil erosion, air pollution and climate change causing reductions in the grazing areas - at present also have an unfavourable influence on reindeer husbandry. At the same time, the unexploited opportunities available to the reindeer herdsmen for improving the productivity of their grazing lands have decreased. Together, these factors affect the amount of reindeer meat produced. Although many reindeer research specialists have for long been aware that the present economic reindeer husbandry system exceeds the natural carrying capacity of the environment, very few Sámi representatives have dared to admit this fact publicly.

What kind of system, therefore, would be ecologically sustainable from the reindeer husbandry perspective? The answer to this question is well known to every herdsman who was around during the era when there were no snowmobiles, ATV's, motor cycles, aircraft and helicopters; it is a system that respects the limits of natural systems, i.e. the carrying capacity of the grazing areas.

There is general awareness of the ecological principles of sustainability, which enjoy solid scientific back-up. Recognition of the limits set by nature is frequently interpreted, however, as a step backwards. I feel that this is not so. When food has been only sparingly availeble for reindeer, land use has become a major issue. Since there are no unused lichenous areas in existence in Finnish reindeer husbandry area, many people have begun either to look across the border as a source of lichen, or to approve supplementary feeding. The protection of the lichen lands has perhaps been most successful in the sparsely populated northern parts of Russia, where the lichen heaths have so far been spared from other forms of land use, and where the market economy has not so far affected the price of reindeer meat very much. But even in Russia the impact of factories and pollutants on the areas supporting a growth of reindeer lichen is evident. We should thus consider the matter of importing lichen from there very carefully indeed before embarking on such a course of action.

In association with reindeer, one cannot help but note that pasture management measures have become distanced from the way in which the grazing lands ought in fact to be conserved. Establishing political support is hampered by the fact that it is not easy to understand the interaction between the ecosystem and the economic system. At present, the state of the natural grazing lands used for reindeer husbandry in the Finnish Sámi region appears poor, so that in reindeer husbandry it will most likely not be possible to repeat the past for much longer. Altering a course of development that threatens the future calls for recognition of the present situation and the mustering of all available resources for bringing about a change.

The time has come for the Sámi reindeer herdsmen to take a step forwards and become aware that they themselves are responsible for achieving more than just short term economic gain. We Sámi can demonstrate through our own actions that we are capable of sustaining the dream of a better world. I do admit, of course, that the task of those Sámi engaged in reindeer herding is to practise an economically viable activity, while on the other hand admitting that it is to the reindeer herdsmen's own advantage to create an economy in which economic development can continue on a sustainable basis.