19.12.2011 - Natural Sciences Sector

On the frontlines of climate change: Sami reindeer herders

© Marie RouéThe reindeer dig through the snow to feed primarily on lichens in the winter. The changes in the weather create a crust of hard ice over the lichen, preventing them from feeding.

The Laponian Area World Heritage Site, in the Arctic Circle region of northern Sweden, is the home of the Sami, or Lapp people. It is the largest area in the world (and one of the last) with an ancestral way of life based on the seasonal movement of livestock, now threatened by global change.

'The mild period arrived suddenly, and in one week the temperature was +10°C. Most of the snow melted and then froze again, and the ground was covered in ice. Only two weeks before we thought the guohtun (lichen) would be good, and now it was completely inaccessible, locked away under the ice' observed a Sami herder.

Sami reindeer herders have lived with severe winters due to climate change for over a decade. The deer feed primarily on lichens in the winter, which they obtain by digging through the snow. The changes in the weather create a crust of hard ice over the lichen, preventing the reindeer from eating. The Sami call this  ‘tjuokke’ – the locking away of pastures under an impenetrable sheet of ice. According to a Swedish government report, difficult winter conditions will become increasingly common as climate change advances.

A collaborative Climate Frontlines research project involving the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle and Sami reindeer herders focused on their nomadic livelihoods, the impact of climate change on the forests and animal species of the North and potential solutions that different stakeholders, especially farmers, are advocating.

The research has contributed to an understanding of the impacts of climate change on Sami reindeer herders and different coping strategies available. Sami have tried to adapt in a few ways, most commonly to gather the thousands of reindeer into an enclosure and feed them with livestock feed. This solution, however, has its own complications including the cost in time and money as well as the risk that the reindeer will not want to eat artificial food.

Ironically, despite broad recognition that small island, Arctic, high altitude and other vulnerable communities are on the frontlines of climate change, their voices have remained largely on the sidelines of climate change debates. Indeed, this exclusion has generated discord and protests by indigenous peoples and community representatives at recent international conferences and meetings on climate change.

The grassroots Internet forum On the Frontlines of Climate Change was launched by UNESCO in response to this outcry, in partnership with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue (SPFII) and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). The work carried out with the Sami is one of many such Climate Fontlines projects around the world.

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