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Sweden's Saami: Balancing Environment and Tradition

A way of life that has been lived the same way since time immemorial is under threat as reindeer herders in Sweden struggle to strike a balance between protecting the environment and maintaining their livelihood.

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Reindeer in Sweden: Running for their lives

Life has changed a lot for the Reindeer herders in Northern Sweden in the past century. The Saami, Europe's only indigenous people, have given up their nomadic life and settled down. In times of increased economic and environmental concern, reindeer herding is facing new challenges.

For thousands of years, the lives of the Saami, the indigenous nomadic people of Northern Scandinavia, were based on following the path of the reindeer. Every year, the herds migrate hundreds of kilometers: from the summer grazing land up in the windswept mountains where the calves are born, down to the lowland forests in winter.

The main business of the herders remains the same - reindeer for human consumption - although now it is more for business than personal survival. More than 80,000 reindeers are sold for meat annually. The lean meat with its characteristic game taste is mostly consumed in Scandinavia. A male reindeer fetches around 300 euro and it's a well-known fact that the local people don't get rich on reindeer herding. That's why most modern reindeer herders have a second job.

Life has changed a lot for the herders in the past century. The Swedish government suppressed the Saami for a long time, treating the indigenous people as second class citizens. It has only been since the 1950's that the Saami have been allowed to live in houses instead of tents. Now the former nomads have settled down, only spending part of the year with their reindeer. But their lives are changing in many other ways.

Changing landscape threatens herders livelihood

See in Schweden

A Swedish lake

Dams, Hydropower plants and mining have had a big impact on the land, destroying traditional reindeer migrating paths along dammed rivers. Railroads, streets, forestry and settlements have cut off old migrating trails between the lowlands and the mountains, causing severe problems for the herders.

Because of the fragmentation of land, in some areas, even trucks have to be used to transport reindeer between different grazing areas, which is costly and not environmentally friendly. Yet with growing environmental concern, there's increasing demand on the Saami to use sustainable herding methods and protect endangered species.

Agreement limits number of grazing reindeer

To prevent overgrazing damaging the existing wilderness and threatening the habitats of indigenous species, the Swedish government together with the Saami has agreed to limit the number of reindeers depending on how much grazing land a particular area can sustain. But the problem remains that the herders have lost large tracts of their pastures in the last few decades through commercial forestry.

Commercial forestry is one of the biggest export industries in Sweden. Maintaining the industry is making it more and more difficult for the Saami to feed their reindeer in wintertime. When the animals move down to the lowlands for shelter and grazing, it's the forest lichens under the snow they're feeding on. Yet clear-cutting and plowing, the legacy of the timber trade, destroys the lichens.

Forest owners and Saami in court

Renntiere in Schweden

Reindeer in Sweden

What's even worse is that many forest owners don't want the reindeer in their forests at all. According to Swedish law, the Saami are entitled to let their herds graze in so called customary grazing lands, both private and state-owned. But the law does not define any clear boundaries. That's where another big problem starts. Hundreds of small forest owners have filed lawsuits against the Saami. The forest owners claim that the reindeer damage trees by rubbing their antlers on the bark. Yet biologists argue that the damaging impact of reindeer is very small compared to the much bigger damage done by moose.

In fact, the reindeer movements have a positive impact on the forests and ensure bio-diversity, according to Lotta Samuelson from the World Wildlife Fund in Sweden. "I think that is one of the areas where conservation and Saami interests have a common perspective. Because we from the conservation side think about forests, in order to keep diversity, we have to keep out the multi-purpose use of the forests. And in this specific space then having reindeer winter grazing in the forest is one of the purposes that a forest conserves and one of the impacts that actually makes a forest diverse."

Predator control illegal by law

But the ancient traditions of the Saami have other environmental implications. Thousands of reindeer are killed by natural predators every year which prompts the Saami herders to resort to shooting bears, lynx and wolves in a bid to protect their stock. However, this practice is seen as poaching by law and puts the government, environmentalists and the Saami on another collision course.

Despite the conflicts involved, the ability to adapt to changing conditions without losing one's identity is very typical of the Saami who seem at ease bridging the gap between the nomadic live of their forefathers and a modern world with cell phones, helicopters and computers. But as history has shown, the Saami could never imagine a life without reindeers despite the changing world around them.