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Finnmark 2007 Diary » Blog Archive » Meetings in Karasjok and Kautokeino Districts

Meetings in Karasjok and Kautokeino Districts


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More than any other region in Norway, these two districts have been renowned as “traditional reindeer-herding” sites.

Climate change: Most of the herders we have met situate the climate shift within the last 10 years, but understandably they tend to be more concerned with weather than climate change. I.e. the event rather than the pattern as it refers directly to their livelihood… Thus they perceive the essential changes as providing for a rainy January, later winters and early springs, with more snow, warmer winter and spring temperatures. This shift has a significant impact, especially on the spring migration to calving grounds and summer pastures that in the traditional Sami calendar has taken place in mid-to-late April. Nowadays herds start migrating as early as March 20. This is because of early snow melting and ice flow: for reindeer need frozen rivers and lakes, and calves need hard snow in order to reach the summer pastures which are usually on the sea coast some 200 km North of the winter areas. Migration usually starts when daily temperatures go over +10 degrees Celsius, and night temperatures over -10 Celsius. Still, most herders confirm that 2006 has been a “normal” or “rather good” year for the herds as there was little ice on the pastures and temperatures were not very low. This seems to be the optimal combination -: mild temperatures with no rain (and consequently no icing). Herder’s problems with global warming do not concern the temperature rise but the nature and dynamics of precipitation in the autumn-winter season.: Most problems seem to start with rain in January followed by cold weather which then guarantees: ice! As one of the herders put it; the snow-covered winter pasture is like a “fridge”. Reindeer can easily “open” the “fridge door” by digging through the snow to the lichen, but they cannot cannot go through ice: a frozen pasture is like a “locked fridge”.

Social drivers of change: Herders’ perception of “change” looks even more at government policies on agriculture and on environment. For example, the dramatic increase of some reindeer predators such as the lynx is attributed to the recent government strategy on wildlife protection. This particularly bothers the reindeer herders as they often perceive themselves as victims of urban-based animal-protection political lobbies. Another issue is the comparatively recent government regulations on slaughterhouses. All herders agree that it is far better to slaughter reindeer “in the corral”, close to pasture, instead of transporting them long distances in trailers to town-based big slaughterhouses. The mobile slaughterhouse appears to be the best option for them, but it is almost impossible to run a small slaughterhouse with economic profit because of excessive health requirements from the government. Actually the health rules on slaughterhouses are the same in Norway as in EU but the general feeling is that the interpretation of these rules is far more restrictive than in Sweden or Finland. For example, reindeer owners in the latter two countries are allowed to castrate male animals in order to protect their shape and weight after the autumn (copulating season) but herders in Norway are not allowed to do so! They are required to ask specialized veterinarian services which are so expensive that actually no one officially does performs animal castration (although we have heard than Ellen-Anne, our Sámi translator’s personal teeth have been used on occasion.. People in the area were accustomed to using small or mobile slaughterhouses… until the government health inspectors appeared 7 years ago.

International politics have also had significant impacts on reindeer-herding in the region. Since 1950s, the Finish-Norwegian border has been fenced against reindeer border crossings.. Previously, herds had moved to well-protected (against cold, wind, and predators) wood areas in Finland for winter grazing. But after the border-fencing, they had no choice but to stay throughout the winter in the Norwegian mostly treeless tundra and highlands areas. The only exception we saw was the Pasvik valley in the Northeast (see the first expedition days) which is a naturally protected woodland area similar to the winter pastures in Finnish Lapland and Karelia.

Cost of living, mass consumption, and technological pressure on lifestyles are other significant drivers of change. 30 years ago, herds were definitely smaller because families had less material needs. As Per Ailo Logje, one of the most respected herders in the Kautokeino area, put it “Even twenty years ago one family could live with a herd of 400 animals. Today even doubling that size won’t provide the same standard of living.”. A small house close to the winter area and good reindeer sleds for transport were quite enough material support for human happiness. Today, such material status would be unacceptable for a reindeer-herding family. Social and economic competition impose the use of powerful energy-consuming snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles. Expensive gasoline, houses for both winter and summer areas (but not of similar quality it’s true), are among the basic requirements for a decent social status. Technology increases the needs, and demands for more cash. This puts pressure on herds as they have to be both bigger in size and more productive. Finally, this pressure is expressed in the pastures themselves and their plant distribution, and thus overgrazing occurs, although not one herder will refer to this. Nevertheless, all herders agree that “life is easier” today and older herders are happy to see their grandchildren developing life and work enhancing opportunities beyond the reindeer herding. Such opportunities, we noted, tend nonetheless to be taken up by the girls more than the boys on whom greater pressures are exerted to follow their fathers into herding immediately.

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