when environment changes, tradition struggles to persist

While climate change has resulted in some welcome opportunities, indigenous Sámi communities stand in front of the possible loss of some practices that have defined them for centuries



Despite being spread in the Arctic parts of Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway; and having different languages and organization methods, Sámi indigenous communities have based their cultures in hunting, berry picking, fishing and especially reindeer herding, the most significant.

At the end of every spring, reindeers migrate to the coast where they can find food more easily and also give birth to the new calves. 

That is why Asuna (24), now gets now to be with her other animals at her home in Karasjok, a mostly Sámi populated town in the northern province of Norway, Finnmark. One of the reasons she likes living there is because nature is everywhere. “Of course I think climate change is the reason for all the weather drastic changes we are living. Especially reindeer herding is going to change a lot. It has already change”, she said.

Unfolding a three-page map that showed the few roads and the municipalities of the province, Asuna dragged her finger over its surface until she finds the “summer lands” where the reindeer her of her family usually migrates. “The journey used to be hard, but now it’s almost impossible. Season have changed so much, they aren’t predictable anymore, and weather science doesn’t match up with how we learned them from our grandparents”, she said.


"We, Sámi people have been through a lot: racism, loosing our religion for Christianity, the governments trying to make us more of what they consider is "normal", and now, changes in nature.

We hang to our traditions but int he end, we have to adapt"

128km west in that map, in the also Sámi populated town of Guovdageaidnu – Kautokeino, Anders Oskal directs The International Center for Reindeer Husbandry, that works to represent and give competences to the 24 groups of indigenous reindeer herders spread across 10 states.

He points out in a different direction. “The largest changes that reindeer herding is undergoing for Sámi are not climate related”, he said, remarking that their culture has been formed in conditions of constant climate variability, for what they must wait to say recent events are not also variability. After that, he added “I don’t doubt reindeer herders see something is out of the ordinary, but there are concerns much more severe on an everyday basis”

Simultaneously to the Norwegianization process back in the 1970s which led to a restructuration of agriculture and alteration of the herding system, industrial and infrastructure development made its entrance in Fennoscandia, and their growing rhythm has proved to be – almost – unstoppable.

On the other hand, young Sámi locals like Tor Emil Hansen (20) or Ingá Káre Márjá Utsi (18) were born in reindeer herder families when this process ongoing. When asked, they would not see climate change in the background, getting slowly closer and closer. “I disagree with people saying climate change is not affecting us right now”, she said with no hesitation, and then explained:

“We have warmer winters making the snow melt and when on the next day it freezes again, ice layers cover the snow. For the reindeer it is harder to get the food from the ground, which makes them weaker and the herders have to go and buy food. This is expensive and the animals don’t get as fat, which leads to lower prices when we sell the meat, so we get less money”.

Anders Oskal is not the first one to claim how threatening and harming for reindeer herding the current management of land is. “Cabins, roads, drillings, power plants… what they are doing is fragmenting the land to the point reindeer cannot find space in between. That is the reason for what the Barens report was made”.

This assessment, updated in 2019 and developed together with UNEP, is one of the most recent studies that shows how drilling, mining and other forms of development are going to impact the ability of communities to adapt to climate change. This is why land encroachment and climate change are connected, the correlation of the both is what causes a bigger concern for Sámi livelihoods

According to the report, over 25% of grazing land in Norway has already being lost by development, and it is estimated to increase up to 78% by 2050 if no new policies and changes are made by regional and national governments. Special focus is placed in the unprotected coastal zone, that being the Barents Sea projected to become a petroleum region.

Small group of reindeers grazing over the tundra near Smalfjord, Finnmark


“We could talk about Global Change, as it encompasses both land use and climate change”, afirmed Bruce Forbes, who currently leads the Global Change research group in the Univeristy of Lapland.

He assured all the reindeer herder areas in the Arctic countries are affected by the same synoptic. “The short term threat come mostly in the form of land use, representing an immediate impact on migration. Over the long term, what we expect is more frequent rain and snow events together with the reduction of sea ice in the Barents Sea, he explained.

Nevertheless, he emphasized it is hard to characterise Sámi people as equally threatened, as it depends on what you do for a livelihood and you geographic area, reason for which perceptions can differ and, in this case, no one is wrong.

Arctic regions are encountering climate change faster than other regions in the world, impacting in wildlife on which entire communities depend. Gunn-Britt Retter, Head of the Arctic and Environment Unit at the Sámi Council, has expressed the need to act fast and understand the priorities of those suffering the biggest challenges of climate change, as they are the symbols and advocates of it.

Cooperation between states for a more sustainable development has improved, being the Arctic Council a clear example of it. "We try to contribute with indigenous perspectives and knowledge. But it is not enough, we need to be involved in decision making concerning our home land”, she said. Sámi Council is one of the 6 indigenous people organizations that are permanent participants in this intergovernmental forum, together with the 8 Arctic states.

 “Anyone practicing something for generations, no matter the ethnicity, should be listened to because they are the ones engaging in the practice”, added Forbes. Recognizing their knowledge, would also help validating their claims. “But because of the decades of not being listened to there is a big level of mistrust from both sides”.

“Enough is a very important word. We are heard but are we listened? One thing is all the knowledge that we can gather together, but how do the states implement the findings?”



Lisbeth Jertsen belongs to one of the very minorities of the state, Kvens. Kvens, Sámi and Norwegians cohabitate together in a region with a long fishing tradition. The river she lives next to is the same as her grandparents used to live from, and yet today it seems so different to her.

She noticed something new, over the past ten years more houses have been built on the riverside. The main reason, she said,  is catch and release fishing. She insisted locals do not understand the activity, which harms the fish and pushes them away from the river and has already changed traditional jobs for tourism-related activities.

















"Last year, we lost a lot of customer too. There was no water in the river until July, and we start the fishing season in the beginning of June. Fish need a concrete temperature also, if it is too warm they don't come", she mentioned when reflecting about climate change.

However, tourism is not the only business noticing its impacts in northern waters, as fish farms in the areas of Troms and Northland are currently facing significant loss of monetary value, according to the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries.


 The reason is a big blossoming of algae caused by conditions of warmer water and higher acidity. The algae makes salmons, without possibility to scape, suffocate.

Britt-Gunn Retter worries that if the same happens in Finnmark's coastal areas, local fishermen will struggle to fish, as they don’t have proper boats to go into deeper seas where wild salmon will go to evade algae.









































"Language is connected to the things you do. If you build a boat, you have names for each part of the boat. And when this action dies, so does the language".

On the other side, Sámi Council, in behalf of other Sámi organizations, have identified a dilemma in climate change politics. "We call it green colonialism, when we are more threatened by the secondary effects than climate change itself. Like windmills fragmenting the grazing grounds", explained Gunn-Britt.

New opportunities for developers, like the new mining project of Nussir company for copper extractions in the fjord region of Kvalsund, announced to be needed as part of the green shift from fuel to electric batteries and other green technologies.

It has already created a debate and division among inhabitants of the area, although majority of Sámi inhabitants, including environmentalists, reindeer herders and fishermen do not approve since it would imply a new big infrastructure that will impact on the grazing grounds. Anyhow, project got the operating license from the Ministry of Trade last February. Norwegian Sámi Parliament voted against it and will appeal the government. 



"The question is not whether it should be development, but how this takes place. What usually happens is that reindeer herders are involved in development processes at a too late stage, as they don't have right over lands.

Developers should consult us before, as the ones making the change, they have the moral responsibility to make sure our voice is heard", said Anders Oskal from the International Center of Reindeer Husbandry.


Fjord and river fishing are two traditional livelihoods Indigenous people of the Arctic that have been altered by external actors.

Although most Sámi live with mixed economies, to this day they still base their daily life on reindeer herding in Finnmark. Jovna Vars Smuk says his reindeers have migrated earlier this year.

"There is nothing to do but wait and see what happens", he expressed, looking at the dry trees near his house in Nesseby town. "I am a little worried my daughter cannot experience nature the same way as we used to", he continued before explaining how surprised he was a 9-year-old from a neighbour town did the first climate strike in the area weeks ago.

As a minority that have lived in harsh conditions for centuries, Gunn-Britt Retter trusts they will manage to adapt and protect their culture. "If we don't believe in that, we can just stop working now. I just hope it is not only memories in the museum, because we are much more than stories, we are still here and vital".

"I am 35 and the moment I realized  something was wrong was 5 years ago, when it rained during January. That was out of the ordinary"

The future for Sámi communities then, as a result of the uncertain natural and political environment, might be increasingly influenced by concerned youth. It is the case of the student Ingá Káre Márjá Utsi, who is also the president of the young Sámi association Noereh in Kárášjohka - Karasjok. 

The association has tried for years to be present in public meetings and one of their priorities is trying to get the government's attention, “we are here, we are actually going to die if you don’t do something”. And they would be as a dismissal parent like: “yes, yes,I hear you". Then we would go to UN asking for help and they would say go talk to you mother. So we go back to the Norwegian government",she said expressing displeasure.

The growing student movements advocating for climate change in Europe though, is seen as a relief for the young association. From the Sámi Council, Gunn-Britt agrees EU citizens are a strong power in addressing related matters, and so the organization just established a EU unit to engage in European issues. "It is important to inform European communities of what is affecting minorities. It all comes down to reduce our consumption, but we have to enforce it by law”.

"As young Sámis, we would like to keept our traditions that have been the same for 200. We don't want to be that generation that made it stop"

A reindeer, separated from its herd, rushes to cross the road  near summer grazing lands

Alicia Corpas Pinós, 2019

Photos by Alicia Corpas Pinós

This site was designed with the
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now