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Finnmark 2007 Diary » Blog Archive » Dr Dessislav Sabev on the reindeer herders’ fight for survival

Dr Dessislav Sabev on the reindeer herders’ fight for survival


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Here we have attempted to describe the general conditions under which Sami reindeer-herders tend to work, the difficulties that they face, and some aspects of the future which faces them. Conditions are precarious, not only for reasons of weather or climate change, but also because of government policies, competition with countries producing cheaper reindeer meat, and in-fighting amongst the Sámi themselves.

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In Sweden we noticed very different reindeer-herding practices from those we have seen in both the Kirkenes, Karasjok, and Kautokeino districts. We can summarize as follows:

Kirkeness District and Pasvik Valley: winter pastures in the well-protected forest areas of the Pasvik Valley, summer pastures usually on the Sea islands up in the North. Mostly domesticated reindeer, “tamed” through intensive year-round herding, feeding, given forage by herders during the winter, who move with the herd to the calving and summer areas. Low concentration of herds. ie no great competition. One herd is usually managed by several families in a “reindeer-herding district”.

Kautokeino: winter pastures usually in open or semi-open tundra, close to the Swedish border (where there are conflicts with reindeer herders from the Swedish side regarding over-use of shared pasturelands); summer pastures close to the sea. Almost year-round herding but less intense than in the Kirkeness district. Bigger concentration of herds, and owners. One herd is usually managed by one extended family, and grazing territories are organised in “reindeer-herding districts”.

Sweden: winter pastures in the woods, summer pastures up in the mountains, often on the Norwegian side of the border (conflicts with reindeer herders from Kautokeino regarding overuse of shared pasturelands). Reindeer migrate by themselves to calving areas and summer pastures in March-April, and run free (so “free grazing”) until the calf-marking corral in July. Herds and reindeer-herding territories are lined up on almost parallel grazing areas (some areas of 5 km wide and up to 150 km long) belonging to “Sámi villages” (Sameby).

Investigating the differences in reindeer-herding practices within this region, must be, to some extent, an attempt to explain the differences between peoples on our planet. What we call “culture” is a particular relationship of a human group to its environment. The three different reindeer-herding cultures outlined above are based on different types of environment where people from a similar ethnic background (i.e. the Sami), and involved in a similar economy (i.e. reindeer herding), live and work. Pasvik Valley is an almost ideal place for winter grazing, but is the least comfortable place for summer grazing because of high temperatures and abundance of mosquitoes, factors of disturbance for the reindeer. Reindeer need open and windy places with an abundance of grass during summer. Mountain or sea provide such conditions, so reindeer do a long migration from Pasvik to the islands in the Sea. Such a long migration requires strong human control as the herd has to travel across various territories, and can easily get lost. This environmental structure for the reindeer herding requires a close human-reindeer relationship, as the herder applies strong control to the herd. When the herder feeds his reindeer during the winter, he sets up this strategic close control over the whole herd: feeding reindeer is the best way to “domesticate” them, i.e. to keep them closer to the owner. Such a herd is more easily managed through long migration routes.

In Sweden we experienced a totally different type of environment and consequently noticed different types of reindeer management. Reindeer move from birch forest up to the mountains on much shorter distances and thus can be easily left free to migrate and to graze in Spring and Summer. This allows herders to have a “second job” in the area, related to the tourist business, community life, and the local economy. This was the case of all the reindeer owners that we met in Sweden. But problems come with the political structures, and more specifically with the border difficulties experienced by herders between Sweden and Norway. These borders cut the migration route of the herds that have winter pastures in Sweden and summer pastures in Norway. Such areas has been under dispute between reindeer owners from this part of Sweden and from Kautokeino. Kautokeino is the most reindeer-populated of the four regions we have visited throughout this expedition, and the good pastures to the Swedish border are an attractive winter place for some of the Kautokeino herds.

Kurt Magge feeding his herd (Neiden area).

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Per Jun Ante, reindeer herder and manager of his Siedda’s mobile slaughter house. “The meat’s better of course, because the reindeer are not stressed,” he tells us. “We come to them.”

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Ellen-Anne Siri with her aunt Karen - two generations of women herders from the Kautokeino area.

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One Response to “Dr Dessislav Sabev on the reindeer herders’ fight for survival”

  1. Prish Hawkes Says:

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    It has been incredibly interesting to follow your journey and to share the experience in a very small way, I envy and congratulate you all!!

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