Threat to life on Arctic frontline

Sami family A changing climate and developing industry threaten traditional lifestyles

As the days lengthen with the approach of spring, the northernmost reaches of Scandinavia are about to witness the annual migration of huge herds of reindeer.

After spending the winter inland in Finnmark, Europe's last great wilderness, the animals are moved to pastures near the coast for the summer.

The reindeer play a central role in the livelihoods and culture of the indigenous people of the region, the Sami, but this way of life is under pressure, as I saw on a journey in northern Norway earlier this month.

Look at a map of the region and you'll see very few roads and only a handful of towns. Our expedition of nine people, each towed by a team of huskies, hardly encountered another soul.

Led by our guide, Tom Frode Johansen, we passed through valleys and over hills, along the border between Norway and Finland, and then across frozen lakes and uplands of unblemished white.

When it was cloudy - or when there were flurries of snow - the landscape appeared almost lunar and barren, and it was impossible to imagine any kind of animals enduring here.

But when the sun came out, a golden light would transform the scene, revealing the details of cliffs, streams, clumps of woodland and - most significantly - herds of reindeer.

Brown and sturdy, their antlers silhouetted against the white, the reindeer clear away the snow to reach the food they rely on in winter: lichen. It does not seem to amount to much but it does mean that life is possible here.

And one night we saw how central the reindeer are to the lives of the Sami people.

Empty landscape

We had been on the move for 12 hours and shelter from the cold couldn't come soon enough.

It was well below freezing and the snow was so deep that we sank into it past our knees.

A tiny glimmer of light shone from the window of a hut ahead of us. This was to be our sanctuary.

Our torches picked out the wooden walls of the small building; otherwise we were in a landscape so empty it was hard to remember that Finnmark is part of the overcrowded continent of Europe. My mobile phone hadn't had a signal all day.

As soon as we walked in, our host, Ellen-Anna Siri, welcomed us with an enormous dish of stew - of reindeer meat, of course - and exactly what we needed.

For breakfast the next day she and her mother Kristine offered a plate of dried reindeer heart which was also delicious.

And the two of them couldn't resist dressing my daughter Kitty in the full traditional Sami woman's costume of reindeer leather and embroidered hat.

Deep connection

The connection between the Sami people and their reindeer has been about survival in a hostile land and it runs very deep: there is a legacy lasting millennia of living together in the polar North.

Sami with reindeer Reindeer play a central role in the Sami life

The most immediate threat, we were told, is from wolves, bears and wolverines.

Attracted by the reindeer herds, these predators are highly aggressive so Ellen-Anna warned us about going outside at night.

If you need to go to the toilet, she said, which involved walking quite a distance through the snow, make sure you're accompanied so someone can keep a lookout.

Suddenly, the wilderness seemed very wild indeed.

But for the Sami this is nothing compared to the fundamental challenges they have faced.

Historically, as semi-nomads, they have been irritating to the various governments here.

For years Norway tried to make the Sami people more Norwegian. And along with Finland, Sweden and Russia, Norway closed its borders at various times, blocking the annual migrations.

In the Second World War, when the Nazis were driven back by the Soviet Army, the Sami suffered terribly.

Then the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 released a radioactive cloud which contaminated thousands of reindeer.

More recently, with rising temperatures in the Arctic, the Sami say the shorter winters are forcing them to change the patterns of their herding.

Grazing lands threatened

On top of that, the grazing lands are under constant pressure from developers and prospectors who are lured by deposits of gold, copper and iron ore.

Reindeer herding is no longer the only possible activity in these snowy lands.

Dog sleigh The environment is harsh and unforgiving

Inevitably, there has been a drift to the cities, to an easier life; traditional cultures experience that loss the world over. But the Sami are showing a powerful streak of resistance.

At our destination, Kautokeino, a town regarded as a Sami capital (with a parliament and university), we watched a kind of Sami Olympics.

People had travelled from across the region to be there and the games attracted a lively mix of accents and languages.

The highlight was the reindeer racing, the animals tugging youngsters on skis at incredible speed.

Later there was a full house for a competition for 'yoiking': yoiks are songs of praise, highly personal and often haunting. I found one sung to a daughter particularly moving.

But then a band struck up. Yoiks have had an electronic makeover that's given them the sound of something from the Eurovision song contest.

My first thought was that Sami culture could easily drown in a sea of light pop; but then I wondered if this was actually a clever way of keeping alive an age-old practice.

I stepped outside into the bitter cold. Above me a vast green stripe arced across the sky: it was the mesmerising sight of the Northern Lights, strangely shaped clouds glowing and twisting from horizon to horizon.

It occurred to me that the Sami people are among the very few to live under this spectacular show; and their ancestors must have enjoyed it too.

Somehow the Sami have adapted and coped and survived over thousands of years, each generation gazing up at the swirling luminous skies while warming their hands on a bowl of reindeer stew.

Learn more about the Sami people by listening to David Shukman's report from Scandinavia on From Our Own Correspondent.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    This seems to be the good life to me. No worries about pathetic things like the rat race and where you'll fill your car up next or who you'll sit next to on the tube or who'll get a promotion before you. Just fresh air, friendly people and some lovely reindeer stew each night. They've got it right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    "I think I am missing something here - I don't see the threat."
    Apparently if the land is given to large corporations, they will not get money for it as in Norway and Sweden the country will operate the mines and in Finland, which is far more corrupt, the land will be given for free to the companies which will destroy the nature.
    The Reindeer go freely in gov't lands. Come mine, no more reindeer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Alistair Darling looks quite like a Sami or am i getting confused with Norman Lamont. Mind you both have been overtaken by modern world pressures

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The companies today, repeating crimes of the past and plundering the Sami's lands, are owned by shareholders from around the world, not just "white" shareholders.

    Envy isn't restricted by a person's colour. Take colour out of the equation, grant the Sami their homesteading rights to land, they'll take care of themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I think I am missing something here - I don't see the threat. You seem to be describing and active, thriving community - adapting as all people, tribes and civilisations have had to in the past. Unless you are recommending some form of National Trust padding to keep them in a glass box and stop their natural evolution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    From 39. Dan:
    "@ 9. Crow. The Sami people often use snow scooters and helicopters for reindeer herding - I'd say they were pretty fast ;-)"

    Yep, those ought to work! Ideal for watching any pipeline that may end up carrying fuel across parts of the Arctic too. Not what the Sami asked for, but only a fool would make enemies of them, better to pay for their help. Nigeria shows how not to do it...

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    "Reindeer herding is no longer the only possible activity in these snowy lands."

    -In other words, they now have other opportunities and choices. Only the BBC would headline this as a "Threat to Life on Arctic Frontline".

    I'm wondering if there is any science at all in this article. BBC needs to give wide eyed environmentalists their own corner and their own editor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Do you mind if I ask what is your gripe with the "white man"?
    There is only one race, the human race. As long as we identify ourselves in groups, we'll maintain a siege mentality: "my group against all others."

    *I am white, but that's irrelevant in morality. I am a human, an individual, first and finally.

  • Comment number 40.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    @ 9. Crow. The Sami people often use snow scooters and helicopters for reindeer herding - I'd say they were pretty fast ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The Sami's grazing traditional grazing lands are threatened. The solution is simple, but incovenient to big business, recognise the Sami's homestead rights to property, and easement over property:


    34.Praise Him
    If only we could match the Lord's destruction, when he obliterated Sodom, or flooded the entire Earth!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Nice article, but not enough information to satisfy my curiosity. I guess your time has its limitations.
    I read (somewhere) Sami storyteller, Stina Fagertun (who has won awards), will be at Solvang Library April 23rd, CA; Fagertun received an award in her native Norway for her collection/recording of unique fairy tales from the Sami, Kven, & Arctic storyteller traditions.

  • Comment number 36.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    @ 29. Yarnot. Both your camera and your brain rely on software to display the image in the "right" colours, but the camera isn't very good at mimicking your brain in "unusual" situations - it doesn't know how to interpret the aurora to make it look how you see it, and highlights the green colour (which is there even when it looks grey). The aurora was drawn in green and red before cameras existed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    A traditional lifestyle living with less in a natural way should be welcomed in this world where technology and machines dominate our existence.

    There was a time when man worked in harmony with nature, and nature rewarded us with plentiful rewards.

    No we only destroy the Lords earth, we modify and contort His creations at every opportunity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    "talking here about the Sami of Norway, Sweden and *Finland*, it is incorrect to talk about the..."
    There's some in Russia too. Probably treated differently in each country.

    "Semi-nomadic Sami people feel modern world pressures-"
    "some sort of arctic Amish tribe"
    Quite possibly for them, the pressures come and used to come from the barbaric, but numerous and not too modern southerners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    What is Yarmot talking about, the most commonly seen colour is green, I've seen the Aurora dozens of times, sometimes it is a very faint green if it is not a great showing but it is most certainly green. The rare colours to see are the purple & reds and to see those colours is spectacular. Also if it looked like light on clouds then it is more probably light on clouds you've seen not the aurora.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    As we are talking here about the Sami of Norway, Sweden and *Finland*, it is incorrect to talk about the "northermost reaches of Scandinavia".

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @ 29. Yarmot, you should really back up your own observations with other evidence before trying to point out the fallacies of others. The Northern lights vary in colour and intensity, most commonly seen as green or pink, but they show a wide range including white-grey. Sometimes they can't be seen by the human eye but can be caught on camera still as you say. You were just unlucky I'm afraid!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Mr Shukman stepped outside and watched the green swirl of the Northern Lights. He must be the only person to do so as the human eye cannot see the green. All you can see is a cloud colour. The green is obtained by setting your camera to a long exposure. Having recently been to Norway to see this phenomena I can assure you that seeing the green colour with the naked eye is not possible.


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