Norway’s Sami communities battle to maintain traditions
Reindeer herders claim wind farms, roads and rail threaten their ancient livelihood
Two reindeer in a snow storm in Tisnes, Troms county, Norway. Photograph: Stephen Starr
Aleksandersen family father and daughter butchering a reindeer. Photograph: Stephen Starr
Reindeer have been herded by the Sami people for over a 1,000 years. Photograph: Getty
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen: one of a Sami family of reindeer herders. Photograph: Stephen Starr Sara Katrine Aleksandersen: one of a Sami family of reindeer herders. Photograph: Stephen Starr
This winter, Sami reindeer herder Risten Aleksandersen and her family are facing a major threat to their age-old way of life. The Aleksandersens have raised, herded and slaughtered reindeer as a central part of their indigenous culture for generations. But now a huge wind farm and property developments are encroaching on the land their reindeer use for grazing on the island of Kvaloya in Norway’s far north.
“They are using explosives to carve out a road, and we’ve had to gather and fence in the reindeer so we don’t lose them in the wild,” she says. “And because they can’t roam around, as they normally would, we have to buy food for them, which is an additional cost for us.”
The loss of grazing land, she says, is the biggest threat to her livelihood and to broader Sami culture today.
Sami reindeer herders have enjoyed the largely unencumbered and sanctioned use of state-owned land across the mountains and tundra of Arctic Scandinavia for more than 1,000 years. Their unique culture sees them follow an eight-season calendar, and is centred on reindeer husbandry that involves migrating hundreds of kilometres twice a year to seasonal grazing lands.
The loss of land access facing Risten Aleksandersen’s reindeer herd, which are camped close to an area known as White Mountain, a 54km drive west of Tromso, is just one of several challenges facing Norway’s 60,000-strong Sami community. Fewer employment opportunities in the north have led to many moving 1,150km south to Oslo, where links with their traditions and languages are often lost in the capital’s urban environment.
The community is also struggling with the legacy of forced integration that involved the attempted “Norwegianisation” of Sami children in past decades, as well as, increasingly, climate change.
The killing of about 120 migrating reindeer in eight separate train strikes in Norland county last month made international headlines, but it was not the first time such a tragedy has struck. Nor was it altogether surprising: members of the Sami community say herders in Norland county have been calling on the authorities to build a barrier along that section of track for the past five years, but believe the government views it cheaper to compensate herders than build a lengthy fence.
Events such as these have led tensions to spiral between the state and Sami communities. A set of procedural guidelines released in 2005 and agreed to by Oslo and the Finnmark county-based Sami parliament states that the former is obliged to consult the Sami parliament on “land ownership rights and rights to use lands, matters concerning land administration and competing land utilisation”.
But for Risten Aleksandersen, whose family owns between 250 and 300 reindeer, such statements mean little. “The wind farm project has already started even though we have a legal complaint in against it. The government in Oslo is looking at the case but the owners have already started to build,” she says.
The 200-kilowatt wind park will include 67 giant turbines and cover 10.5sq km on the neighbouring Kvitjell (White) and Raudfjell (Red) mountains. Siemens Gamesa, the company behind the project, says that, once operational, the wind park will provide clean electricity for up to 50,000 Norwegian homes.
Clash of interests
“Much of the land [used by herders across Norway] is still state land – herders don’t have private ownership of it,” says Henrik Olsen, a member of the Sami parliamentary council. “This, and the various resources [such as wind power] available in these areas mean they are of interest to the national authorities, and as a result there is a clash of interests. But we [in the parliament] are doing as much as we can to protect Sami peoples’ rights.”
A 45-minute drive east of the wind park in the tiny hamlet of Tisnes, a herd of about 30 reindeer wanders happily along public roads and through snow-covered fields. Local residents say the reindeer are not their own, but belong to a Sami herder (only Sami can own reindeer) who lives dozens of kilometres away, and who checks the herd only occasionally.
The local residents say there is nothing unusual about herds being left unsupervised for weeks since reindeer have roamed the area for centuries. But the recent spread of human activity and suburbs – the population of nearby Tromso has surged from about 12,000 in the early 1960s to 70,000 today – is leading to inevitable conflicts.
Some say the pressure to modernise, together with threats to land access, have contributed to a suicide rate among Sami communities that is 50 per cent higher than the national average. Alcohol abuse is prevalent, while a major sexual abuse scandal revealed in November and involving Sami and Norwegian communities in Norland county shocked the country.
However, in a wealthy country with one of the highest standards of living in the world, some Sami are angered that mainstream society can’t support a way of life that is compatible for Norwegians and Sami communities alike.
“We don’t want to live as Norwegians,” says Aleksandersen.
“We need people in Norway to think in a different way.”