Fighting for Free-Range Reindeer in Norway’s Far North
Jovsset Ánte Sara, a 23-year-old Sámi reindeer herder in the far northern Arctic highlands, challenged Norway’s government order to reduce his animal numbers to 75. Jovsset Ánte said such a drastic cull would preclude his ability to continue herding, but his refusal to comply wasn’t simply a response to his own plight. As he told The New York Times, “I sued because I could not accept to see my culture die.”
Two lower courts affirmed the herder’s right to keep his animals. However, the government continued to appeal. At the end of 2017, the country’s Supreme Court determined that Sara must adhere to reindeer quotas or face additional fines and other penalties, including the forced slaughter of his herd, for which he would have to bear the cost. The young man is bringing the case to the UN Human Rights Committee, claiming that the Norwegian state’s actions infringe on the rights of Indigenous citizens. The government was not willing to await the UN’s conclusion before imposing the slaughter, Máret Ánne Sara, Jovsset Ánte’s older sister, wrote to me. With the support of the East Finnmark District Court, a September 2019 date was announced. So that the animals wouldn’t be killed, Sara gave them to a relative. [At the time of publication, there have been no developments in the case brought to the UN Human Rights Committee.]
Like every incident that captures the popular imagination, the herder’s case has elements that make for good drama. Jovsset Ánte is attractive and youthful. In news clips, he stands resolute, even regal, in traditional Sámi attire, the gákti: dark blue wool with colorful striped trimming along the neck, shoulders, and chest. Plus, the confrontation involves reindeer, that beloved hoofed mammal of the far north, with its grand, felted antlers and cozy holiday associations.
The young herder’s case has also remained in the public eye because of his sister, an internationally known artist who regards the government’s punitive actions as an assault on her community. Máret Ánne Sara’s Pile o’ Sápmi project began with the 2016 installation of 200 reindeer heads heaped in front of the Finnmark District Court where Jovsset Ánte was to be tried. The work alludes to “Pile of Bones,” a name the Cree nation gave to land that became Regina, Saskatchewan, as a means of retaining their connection to the buffalo their community had always hunted. It refers also to iconic 19th century photos from the United States depicting trophy buffalo heads piled as high as buildings.
Máret Ánne’s goal is to call attention to the impact of severing Indigenous communities from the traditions and wildlife that anchor their identities. In her view, the government’s imposed limits make it impossible for young Sámi herders to continue as their ancestors have done. An established herder with more animals could better withstand a proportional cull than someone like her brother, who is just starting out and buying equipment and already working within narrow margins. “If you look at it from this perspective, [it’s] an effective way to end the reindeer herding if our young people can’t do it.”
Of the approximately 60,000 Sámi people in Norway, only about 5% herd reindeer.
Máret Ánne expresses concern that the pressure on Sámi herders is coming from a government that many people consider relatively progressive. She describes this as a new colonialism, in which the infringement on the autonomy and land access of Indigenous people is often more subtle than it has been historically, but equally destructive.
“Norway is one of the most fair countries in the world, one of the countries that is most known to respect human rights,” she says. “We have the only official Indigenous parliament in the world.” And yet, she says, the Sámi parliament’s involvement can be deceptive, because its only mandate is a consulting role. Since the government isn’t obliged to follow any recommendations from the Sámi parliament, sometimes it amounts to little more than theater.
In December 2017, Máret Ánne installed 400 reindeer skulls shot through with bullet holes and strung up with wire to create a wall-sized curtain in front of the Norwegian parliament, as Jovsset Ánte was appearing before Norway’s Supreme Court to defend his right to keep his herd intact. In this third trial, the young man lost his case. The state disregarded the expressed wishes of the Sámi parliament. Máret Ánne’s artwork has since been acquired by Norway’s National Gallery.
Of the approximately 60,000 Sámi people in Norway, only about 5% herd reindeer. Still, the vocation remains a significant part of the cultural heritage. “Sámi reindeer herding is, for me, the Sámi bank: for language, handicraft, knowledge of the environment, ecology,” Máret Ánne says in a film. The government claims that current reindeer numbers must be curtailed to minimize damage to the fragile tundra ecosystem. She says this belief, shared by most Norwegians, is “so simplified and polarized that it cannot by any means justify such drastic punishments on people, animals, and society.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the subject of the pastoral tradition and the ecology of grazing—and the source of much confusion and disagreement—is how many grazing animals a landscape can sustain. It would seem to make sense that the more animals, the greater the impact, and most people believe this to be the case. But nature doesn’t work this way. Building on the insights of French farmer and scientist André Voisin, Allan Savory has shown that it’s not the number of animals that leads to overgrazing but rather the time plants are exposed to grazing pressure.
For example, if cattle hang around the same spot indefinitely—say, by a riverbank—they may damage it, whereas two or three times the number of cattle kept on the move might benefit the land. This makes sense intuitively. Under wild conditions, ruminants would never stay anywhere long; predators would be at their hooves. Nor is animal impact necessarily negative. Grassland ecosystems coevolved with ruminants, whose actions upon the land stimulate important ecological processes. Savory came to realize this in the early 1960s as a young game ranger in southern Africa. He observed that when people fenced animals away from deteriorating land, the land’s condition got worse instead of reviving.
But what about reindeer? That is to say, do the Norwegian government’s actions make good ecological sense?
Reindeer keep their landscapes good and cold, which is significant because northern climates are among the most rapidly warming landscapes on Earth, and melting permafrost threatens to release vast stores of methane and CO2 into the atmosphere. A research team led by Mariska te Beest of Umeå University in Sweden found that reindeer browsing and feeding on shrubs during the summer keeps plant growth under control. This is important because shrubs and small trees have a lower albedo, or reflectivity, than the grassy heath that would otherwise dominate. The darker-colored bushy plants tend to absorb solar energy, therefore accelerating thawing. By contrast, the heath reflects more radiation and so does not take in that extra heat, keeping the area cooler. According to te Beest and her colleagues, the effect is likely limited to areas of high reindeer density. So culling them could undermine this positive effect.
The Nordic Centre of Excellence (NCoE) Tundra also notes the climate-positive impact of reindeer in a warming world. Grazing is a bulwark against “shrubification” in the region, which proceeds as warmer temperatures create conditions favorable to more woody plants. “By preventing the invasion of trees, tall shrubs and forbs, reindeer maintain the openness of the tundra, which is a precondition for the survival of many small-sized arctic plant species,” a NCoE Tundra report concludes.
Reindeer can also help maintain permafrost by crushing the snowpack with their hooves, according to Sergey and Nikita Zimov, father-and-son research scientists in Russia. The Zimovs developed a project in the late 1980s, in which they brought herbivores that thrive in arctic conditions—reindeer, moose, Yakutian horse, bison, musk ox, yak, Kalmykian cow, and sheep—to their North Siberia reserve. The goal of Pleistocene Park, as they call it, is to re-create the productive Mammoth Steppe ecosystem that predated human expansion into far northern latitudes. The blanket of snow that cloaks the tundra for much of the year acts as an insulator, and this protects the soil surface from the cold, Nikita Zimov explains in a 2017 interview with PRI’s Living on Earth. “When animals trample down the snow, they actually thin that layer of snow, making it dense, and this allows much deeper freezing during the winter.” This sustained chill can extend snow cover to the spring months, which means maintaining higher surface albedo longer into the year. It also keeps the permafrost frosty, so that the microbial life in frozen soil doesn’t activate and consume organic matter, a process that releases greenhouse gases. In an experiment that compared areas with and without herbivores, the Zimovs found that soil temperature in places where animals grazed was lower by at least 15°C (27°F).
Other research suggests that under warming conditions, heavier grazing in the tundra is associated with increased carbon fixation—since grass grows more quickly than brush and carries more enhanced photosynthetic capacity—which could compensate for anticipated carbon losses. Still more studies point to heavy reindeer grazing resulting in improved nutrient cycling and production of biomass.
And so the policy developed by the Norwegian government in order to “protect the environment” may have it all wrong.
Of course, the pressure on Sámi herders like Jovsset Ánte Sara is only partly the result of misconceptions about the effect of reindeer on the landscape. It is also about power: specifically the power differential between a wealthy Western democracy oriented to the global economy and an Indigenous community that’s small in number and yet occupies a large geographic area—one that happens to be rich in natural resources.
Case in point: The Norwegian government is urging its people to welcome the mining development and mineral extraction as the route to a prosperous future. In early 2019 Norway approved the construction of a copper mine described as “one of the most environmentally damaging projects in [the] country’s history.” The site is in Finnmark, the country’s largest county, on land replete with not only copper but precious metals and offshore oil and gas. It is also in Sápmi territory, on land where Jovsset Ánte’s reindeer migrate and mate during the fall.
Environmental anthropologist Hugo Reinert, a senior research fellow at the University of Oslo, argues that the government’s misunderstanding of reindeer ecology and the disempowerment of Sámi people are deeply connected. According to Reinert, the menace of “too many reindeer” has been a common refrain among Norwegian experts for a long time. He says the notion of controlling the reindeer is a stand-in for reining in the Sámi people that have thus far defied control. The argument in recent years, he says, has focused on damage to the iconic tundra landscape. To urban Norwegians in the south, Sápmi territory is lawless and chaotic. Since the Sámi are seen as incapable of regulating their herds, the government must take action.
“Expediently, the escalation of this failure narrative has coincided neatly with the escalating interest of national and international actors in ‘developing’ the tundra, ‘realizing’ its ‘economic potential’—a potential that only becomes more attractive with the global depletion of easily available mineral resources, say, but which pastoral land claims stay in the way of,” Reinert writes.
The result, says Reinert, is a situation where policymakers assert there are too many reindeer, based on research that, he suggests, may be designed to reach this conclusion. Upon hearing this message repeatedly, the general population believes “saving” the reindeer requires drastically culling their numbers or geographically containing them in a way that, in fact, damages the ecosystem. When the Sámi disagree, it becomes evidence of their primitive and unruly nature, leaving them doubly violated: The Sámi lose their reindeer and their livelihoods, and their identity, which rests on cultural knowledge of herding, honed through many generations, is dismissed and devalued.
For Reinert, the predicament of Sámi reindeer herders is exemplified in Máret Ánne’s Pile o Sápmi Supreme: that shroud of metal and bone placed at a respectable remove from Norway’s high court. How many people around the world regard their nation’s seat of power from behind a metaphorical screen? He writes of the installation: “I had never seen anything like it; it tore open the asphyxiating mildness of national debates, manifesting in a torrent what the quiet, soft-spoken colonialism of the north—patient as it is, understated, polite, and bureaucratic—kept under wraps … The skulls manifest, physically, a siege that has gone on for centuries.”
This edited excerpt from The Reindeer Chronicles: and Other Stories of Working With Nature to Heal the Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020) by Judith D. Schwartz appears by permission of the publisher.
Judith D. Schwartz is a journalist whose work explores nature-based solutions to global environmental and economic challenges. She is the author of Cows Save the Planet and Water in Plain Sight. A graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and Brown University, she lives in southern Vermont.