Young Sami return to reindeer herding despite climate fears

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Nuorgam (Finland) (AFP) – In the snowy arctic darkness, Suvi Kustula throws bundles of lichen at her herd of excited reindeer, their antlers lit by the headlights of her van.

“I was barely a few months old when I fed my first reindeer,” the 24-year-old laughs, saying she “almost always knew” she would follow her father and grandfather in breeding.

“I lived for a week and a half in a city before moving on to reindeer herding college,” Kustula told AFP.

“It’s a way of life. Reindeer first and foremost.”

Twenty years ago, the ancient tradition of herding reindeer for meat and fur seemed to be in decline in Lapland, the vast area of ​​forest and tundra that stretches across northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Russian Kola Peninsula.

The youngsters felt they had to move south “to have a good life”, said Anne Ollila, head of the Finnish Reindeer Herders Association.

But today almost a quarter of Finland’s 4,000 herders are under the age of 25, as more and more young people choose to stay or return home to Lapland.

The number of women entering the traditionally male-dominated profession is also at an all-time high.

“People learned to appreciate freedom, nature and tradition better,” Ollila said. “Even if you can’t make a lot of money.”

Instead, ranchers live an outdoor life dictated by the seasons and weather in the often breathtakingly beautiful Arctic wilderness.

But the new generation faces a series of emerging challenges, including global warming and pressure from industries keen to exploit Lapland’s resource-rich landscape.

Revival of Indigenous Culture

A shepherd needs intimate knowledge of the landscape and the behavior of his animals to keep an eye on his reindeer, which roam freely in the plains and forests.

A young Sami girl wearing traditional snowshoes. More women are getting into reindeer herding Jonathan NACKSTRANDAFP

And asking how many animals a shepherd has is a big no-no.

“It’s kind of like asking you how much you have in your bank account,” Kustula laughed.

Most young herders were born or married into reindeer herding families, Ollila said.

Many belong to the indigenous Sami community, who have herded reindeer in northern Lapland for centuries.

Oppressed for years by Nordic governments, many Sami have in recent decades begun to reclaim their traditional culture and language.

“Some previous generations were ashamed of being Sami,” says Ollila. “But I think the young people who choose reindeer herding are very proud of it.”

Long periods of absence

Breeding has been passed down from generation to generation in the Lansman family, who live on Finland’s northern border with Norway.

At the end of November, as the sun set at 1 p.m. – not to rise for seven weeks – Anna Nakkalajarvi-Lansman and her two children got on their snowmobile and drove to the enclosure where the two reindeer of their families live. children.

“The lightest is mine, called Golden Horn,” said Antti Iisko, six, as he and his sister scatter lichen for the animals to feed on.

He wants to be a shepherd when he grows up, while eight-year-old Anni-Sivia would like to be a veterinarian.

“I can get the reindeer vaccinated,” Anni-Sivia told AFP.

“Our daily routine depends on the season and whether we help with the herding,” explained their mother Anna Nakkalajarvi-Lansman, a Sami musician.

Herder Anna Nakkalajarvi-Lansman and her two children on their snowmobile in Finnish Lapland
Herder Anna Nakkalajarvi-Lansman and her two children on their snowmobile in Finnish Lapland Jonathan NACKSTRANDAFP

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Two hours away, Father Asko Lansman had just spent a fortnight in a meat-packing factory.

Demand is skyrocketing, Lansman told AFP, standing in front of stacks of vacuum-packed cans of reindeer meat ready for delivery across Finland.

“It’s my biggest hope for the kids to continue the work, just like it was my father’s hope when I was young,” he said.

New challenges

The job has changed a lot, Lansman said, with quads, helicopters and now drones making it easier to herd reindeer.

But with temperatures in the Arctic warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, climate change poses new challenges.

Shorter winters can turn snow to ice “and cause reindeer watering holes to freeze,” Lansman said, while making their food inaccessible.

Many proposed mining and energy projects across Lapland also threaten animal grazing lands, herders warn.

“The more the land use changes, the less space we will have for reindeer,” Kustula said.

“I am hopeful for the future, she insisted, but the government should listen to us more”.

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