On the Front Lines of Climate Change

FSC / Bablu Virinder Singh
Climate change is an emotional topic, and often divisive. It’s portrayed as an issue which will primarily impact future generations.
A man and woman in Sami traditional clothing walk in snow alongside bridled reindeer
FSC / Bablu Virinder Singh
August 19, 2019
Category : Stories

But for communities such as the Sami in Sweden, who have already battled the effects of climate change for two decades, it’s not a matter of preparing to face a future threat. It has already claimed their loved ones, threatened their livelihoods, and put intolerable stress on their already high pressure lives. Their story is one of incredible resilience, and of the toll that climate change will take on countless other communities if we fail to take decisive action.

We at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) believe that the Sami are the best spokespeople to draw attention to the impacts of climate change, as they have experienced it first-hand.

It’s a crisp and clear morning in early February when we arrive in snow-drenched Harads, about 50 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. Rubbing gloved hands together, we set off in search of our guide. In a small filling station we encounter one of the town’s 500 inhabitants clad in only a T-shirt and jeans. He responds to a comment about his bravery with a shrug and a flippant, “It’s almost spring.”

reindeer in snow bridled looking at camera
FSC / Bablu Virinder Singh

Sitting at a folding table sandwiched between packing shelves and the check-out counter, we meet Lars Evert Nutti, our guide and a member of the Swedish Sami community. The Sami are Indigenous Peoples who have lived along the coasts of the Arctic Sea and inland for generations. Today they live scattered across Sweden, Norway, Finland and parts of Russia. Many of the approximately 20 000–35 000 Sami in Sweden live in villages in the arctic and maintain their traditional ways of living, including hunting, fishing and reindeer husbandry. As such, they rely on forests for their livelihoods and represent important stakeholders in the FSC system.

Lars is a quiet man, but has an air of calm determination. He sits back in his chair, observing us and sipping his coffee. His bright blue eyes flit across our notebooks and cameras, not missing a single detail. Observation is more than just a skill for a man who has spent much of his life in the forest. In these arctic conditions, overlooking details can be deadly. We gulp down our coffees and head out into the forest with Lars, to catch a glimpse into everyday life for a Sami reindeer herder.

In the forest it is freezing, the kind of cold that burns, creeping into grooves and scalding our skin even under multiple woolly layers. Eyes and noses water, then freeze. We stand stiffly watching the reindeer, careful not to spook them. The tiny icicles clinging to our noses and lashes remaining undeterred even as we furiously blink and sniff. Everything up here struggles with energy depletion: people, batteries, smartphones…

Reindeer migrate naturally across the country, seeking better grazing to survive the unforgiving winters. They feed on ground and tree lichens, at times digging deep into the powdery snow to find sustenance. Reindeer herders follow the natural migratory routes of the reindeer using snowmobiles to ensure that none of their reindeer wander off too far or fall prey to carnivores such as bears. This can be difficult to do and requires constant vigilance. Reindeer can smell food at a distance and in some instances a few individuals may wander off together, losing track of their herd in the pursuit of a tasty bite. Isolation can mean death, as only the strongest reindeer survive the winter.

reindeer lined up with sleds and man at the helm standing in snow
FSC / Bablu Virinder Singh

We cross a frozen lake and arrive at a small wooden shelter nestled in the snow like a gingerbread house in sugar mounds. Here Lars deftly chops wood for a fire and prepares a pot of coffee. Lars’ father was a reindeer herder, just like his father before him. Like most adults in the Sami community, he grew up in a system where his family was marginalized. Children were forced into boarding schools with limited exposure to their culture or traditions, and to broader society. Today, visible progress has been made in terms of recognizing the Sami and their culture. But it will take many more years to eradicate centuries of oppression, relics of which lurk beneath the surface in everyday interactions.

Lars patiently explains the logistics of reindeer herding to us. “Every village has its own migratory routes and grazing areas.” But changing weather patterns and land use is putting pressure on resources. “The competition for grazing is fierce,” Lars explains. “It’s causing rifts between Sami villages, between families… brothers are turning on each other.” The implications for this already small community could be devastating.

With Lars as our guide, we arrange to meet Bertil Kielatis, a wiry man of 80 going on 30, who greets us warmly before sharing his years of experience and memories. “Life has changed a lot,” he says. “When I was a child, the whole family made the journey with the reindeer. I was very young, probably only 3 or 4 years old, and my legs would eventually get so tired I couldn’t walk anymore. My mother would bundle me up and secure me on a reindeer’s back. I remember rocking gently back and forth and pretty soon I would be sound asleep.” He was forced into a boarding school, despite his family living in close proximity. Being separated from his parents was trying, and the teachers became parental figures for him. “Everything was in Swedish,” he remembers. “Everything except the Bible.” He finished school at 12, choosing to pursue a career in reindeer husbandry. “I wanted to continue my education but reindeer herding is very intensive work, so I made a choice,” he explains. “And I got clever regardless,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

Bertil has seen the change in climate and the associated impact on his community first-hand. We talk about the wild fires that ravaged Sweden’s forests in 2018. Bertil shakes his head and says, “I have never seen a wildfire like that in my lifetime. It was terrible, thousands of hectares of forest were affected, and all the lichens were destroyed.” He stares off into the distance as if looking into the future. “It will take a long time for the lichens to return, long after all the grass has grown back. Many Sami villages will be affected in the years to come.”

He folds his hands and continues. “When I was young there was a slim possibility for warmer weather in November or early December, and after that winter was secure and we could start the migration. Now, the temperature can spike at any time and we never know what to expect.” He adds that the reindeer have also changed their behaviour over the years. “In 1998, the reindeer were still taking the exact same migratory paths. Now, they are losing their instinct to migrate. It’s almost like they are shell shocked.”

Lars takes us to meet his cousin, Mikael Kuhmunen, who leads an association of 100 reindeer herding companies. Mikael joins his father, Per Olof Kuhmunen, every year as they prepare their reindeer for the annual winter market in Jokkmokk. Once an annual gathering to pay tax to the Swedish monarchs, the market has evolved to become a space where Sami communities gather every year to reunite with family members, to trade, or to discuss and solve shared problems.

Mikael also comments on the unpredictability of the weather. “My father told me about a few bad winters long ago when the temperatures would spike, but we have had bad winters for 15 years now. In the past, you could be sure that the snow would be gone by mid-summer. Now, it’s hard to plan because you can’t be sure of anything.” He recalls a particular year when the mid-summer temperatures were lower than those on New Year’s Eve. “We had to delay marking the calves. And when the warm weather finally came, it reached 30 degrees.” Temperature spikes can make migrating very dangerous, especially since frozen rivers and lakes must be crossed to reach winter and spring grazing areas. It costs many lives as people and reindeer fall through melting ice and drown. A few years ago, the ice on a frozen lake collapsed as a number of herders were crossing, killing 200 reindeer.

traditional sami hats hand from hangers
FSC / Bablu Virinder Singh

With the push for renewable and clean energy sources as a solution to climate change, the Sami community faces a unique challenge: They are detrimentally impacted not only by climate change itself, but by its proposed solutions. Wind farms fragment the migratory routes for reindeer, and hydroelectricity also puts strain on the herding communities. “The water is pumped really quickly, especially when it’s cold and the rivers and lakes are frozen,” Mikael explains. “When the water is moving that fast the ice cracks, melts and becomes unstable. It’s our biggest fear when we’re moving the reindeer, that it’s only a matter of time before somebody falls through the ice and drowns.”

Mikael glances at Lars. “That’s how Lars lost his father.” It is an emotional moment, punctuated by a great loss shared between two proud men, though neither dwells on the statement for longer.

“Everyone in Sweden thinks we say no to everything, so we try hard to pick our battles. But we are facing so many pressures, from mining, roads, railways, forestry, wind farms, natural predators… climate change is one more added pressure and it’s too much. We can’t cope with it all,” Mikael says.

Camilla Labba is a close friend of Lars, and another reindeer herder from the area. We meet her and her partner Stig Persson in their kitchen, a cozy space with three dogs scattered around the room. The young woman talks animatedly, explaining why the extreme weather patterns are harmful to the reindeer. “Climate change is a big problem. For example, the consistency of the snow is different now. Where you once had snow, there is 3-6 cm of ice. The reindeer can’t dig through the ice to reach food, and they starve.” She continues, telling us that many reindeer herders are forced to buy supplementary feeds for their reindeer. “But this is not a good solution, because reindeer have sensitive stomachs, and some get so sick from the feed that they die,” she says. Stig explains that it also costs a lot of money to buy the feed, and to hire additional help to monitor the reindeer and feed them daily. Some support is provided by the government to cover these costs, but it’s not guaranteed and sometimes it arrives too late, when winter has long gone.

Camilla pours another cup of coffee. “Sometimes people don’t understand the impact the extreme weather has. Recently we still had snow when it was all supposed to have melted already, and my little niece was so happy to see the snow. And I had to tell her that when she has her own reindeer she won’t be happy anymore.”

The stressors on this tight-knit community, including the ever-growing threat of climate change, has had a noticeable effect on the younger generations. We meet with Sanna Vannar, who hails from the same village as Lars and leads the Sami Youth Association, and her friend Anja Fjellgren Walkeapää. The young women share inside jokes that crinkle the corners of their eyes, and command the room with their spirit of rebellion. They refuse to conform to a system that has historically oppressed them. Sanna is part of a lawsuit brought before the European Central Court aiming to force the EU to increase its 2030 climate change targets. She was raised by activist parents. “It’s been a part of who I am since I was born,” she says. Anja wanted to be a reindeer herder but her parents pushed for her to further her education. After finishing high school, she studied forestry, but her heart never stopped calling her to reindeer herding. Today she works as an expert in reindeer herding matters within the Swedish Forest Agency.

herd of reindeer running through forest
FSC / Bablu Virinder Singh

The women talk openly about the struggles they face, both externally and internally. “Everyone here knows of a friend or family member who has committed suicide,” Sanna says.

“My best friend took his life in 2010,” Anja adds. “Young people have trouble seeing a future worth living for.” She pauses for a few moments before continuing. “One death affects our entire community. Everyone feels it.”

“We just want to survive,” Sanna says. “We’re trying so hard to protect our culture and our future. If I didn’t believe it was possible, I would lie down and just give up right now.”

Both women hope that each generation brings a shift in attitudes, towards climate change but also towards the Sami community.

“We see some positive change, but there are days when I am discouraged,” Anja says. “A few days ago I received a phone call from a grandmother in tears because her grandson was chased around the school playground and taunted by the other children for being a Sami.”

As we say goodbye to Lars and the rest of the community, Bertil’s words linger in our minds. “In society today, everyone cares only about their own interests. When I was young, we worked side by side with farmers to withstand the elements. We worked in solidarity, because we faced the same threats. If we are all going to survive, collaboration is a must.”

It is hard not to be struck by the strength of this community, fiercely protecting their traditions despite numerous pressures.

Their stories are not myths, and neither is climate change.

snowy marketplace sami people
FSC / Bablu Virinder Singh