Climate Change

Climate, land use change threaten sustainable reindeer herding in the Arctic: IPCC Report

Challenges posed by climate and land use change has even affected the mental health of Saami herdsmen

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 02 March 2022
Two Saami in Finnish Lapland. Photo: iStock
Two Saami in Finnish Lapland. Photo: iStock Two Saami in Finnish Lapland. Photo: iStock

A changing climate and changes in land use poses major threats to sustainable herding of reindeer near the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden, according to projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Sixth Assessment Report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, released February 28, 2022.

The Saami, the indigenous inhabitants of the areas around the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia, have traditionally engaged in a semi-nomadic lifestyle of herding reindeer.

Reindeer-herding is also recognised as an indigenous right. It is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of 11 Indigenous Peoples, several UN conventions and through Swedish national legislation.

But climate change and land use changes could change all that, according to the IPCC Report.

It notes that temperatures in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions have increased by an average 2 degrees Celsius (°C) in the last two years. There will be increased winter precipitation in the future, which will create a hard ice-crust on the snow after refreezing.

All this impacts and will impact reindeer populations in a number of ways.

For one, warming and carbon dioxide increase plant productivity. They also cause changes in plant community composition and an increase in harassment by parasites.

“Unstable ice conditions affect migration; extreme weather conditions during critical winter months, more frequent forest fires and changes in plant community composition reduce pasture quality,” the report said.

High snow depth and rain-on-snow events impede reindeer access to ground lichen in winter and delay spring green-up during the critical calving period. “Both cause malnutrition and negative impacts on reindeer health, mortality and reproductive success,” the report said.

Increased mortality causes losses to herders.

Saami herders have tried to adapt to the changes but this has led them to take up culturally undesirable herding practices. This causes even more increased workload, costs and stress.

Another major challenge is changes in land use. The report says that policies framed by the European Union as well as European national governments promote mining, win energy and bioeconomy.

“This causes fragmentation and degradation of pastures, and increasing human disturbance to animals,” according to the report.

Even more alarmingly, when Saami herders attempt to stop the fragmentation of their pastures due to mining, they are attacked with racist abuse.

These two problems have affected the mental health of many Saami herders.

“Maintaining and improving the solution space to adapt reindeer-herding is crucial for reducing existing impacts and projected risks of climate and land use change,” the report added.

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