Reindeer herders fear Arctic industry boom
Credit: Published 21 Dec. 2022 | By Maddy Savage, Umeå and Jokkmokk, Sweden | bbc.com ~~
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Reindeer herder Elle Merete Omma says climate change is causing problems for her animals, but so are the carbon-cutting industries designed to fight it.
“We are having a double burden actually at the moment,” says Ms Omma, “I’m worried about the future.”
She belongs to a community of indigenous Sami reindeer herders near the city of Umeå in northern Sweden, who say they’ve been affected by the climate crisis.
Thick fluffy snow usually falls from November onwards, but the start of this winter was mild, with rain and sleet instead. This freezes quickly and makes it harder for reindeer to graze on lichen, their major food source.
A nearby hilltop wind farm, designed to cut emissions by producing renewable energy, isn’t helping, argues Ms Omma. This is because the turbines have cut off grazing lands where snow typically “lays more often and stays for a longer period”.
“The reindeers will not go into this [wind farm] area at all… because of the sound, because of how it looks, the visual impact,” says Ms Omma, who also works for the Sami Council, an independent non-profit organisation representing Sami rights.
Omma says that if a reindeer herder loses part of his or her animals’ grazing land to a wind farm, it can be very difficult for them to find replacement space nearby. This is because adjacent land is often being used by herders from neighbouring Sami communities.
There isn’t enough such land to go around, she says, which has already led to conflicts between herders, as well as legal battles with local industries.
Research into the impact of wind farms on reindeer has produced mixed findings. Recent reports by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency concluded that reindeer can choose to avoid wind farms.
Yet other academic studies in Sweden and Norway found little impact.
But with applications for hundreds more turbines in her area, Ms Omma is worried it will become increasingly challenging for herders to maintain the lifestyle and livelihoods they’ve had for centuries.
About one in 10 Sami living in Sweden makes money from trading in reindeer meat, fur and antlers. Many others work in tourism and handicraft jobs linked to Sami culture.
“If we are constantly in a position where the number [of people] that can live in a traditional way is declining, I think that the culture will disappear, and the language will disappear, and the landscape will also change,” argues Ms Omma.
Kristina Falk, head of permits for renewable energy firm Svevind, which operates many of Sweden’s wind turbines, insists that assessing any potential impact on reindeer is always “an important part” of the planning process.
She’s “very keen to have an active dialogue” with Sami communities to try to enable shared land use, but argues there isn’t always an openness to compromise. “In some areas, we have reached agreements between the company and the Sami village, in other cases it is the court that has decided which conditions shall apply to the operation.”
But Ms Omma argues that Sami communities don’t always have the resources to engage in discussions with businesses or politicians.
“At the moment, my Sami village – we get requests from different sorts of industries every week,” adds Ms Omma. “The work burden is just too high, so people get sad, and it has an impact on their mental wellbeing.”
These debates feed into much bigger, complex discussions about the cumulative impact of a boom in carbon-cutting industries in northern Sweden.
The region is already home to one of Europe’s biggest electric battery factories, powered by renewable energy sources. And a fossil fuel-free steel plant is being built that will use new hydrogen technology instead of traditional blast furnaces.
There are also plans for new mines, designed to extract the raw materials used in these types of industries.
Meanwhile, Sweden is one of Europe’s largest electricity exporters, partly driven by big investments in hydropower in northerly regions over the last few decades.
According to Maria Petterson, a professor in environmental law at Luleå University of Technology, investing in fossil-free industries is broadly necessary for Sweden to meet its climate goals.
But she is concerned that the competing interests between reindeer herders and plans for more wind farms and mines have already increased tensions in some local communities.
“We’re very few people per square kilometre, which means that in theory we have room for a lot of these big industries that are needed for the green transition,” she says. “On the other hand, there are people here, and there are other land-use connected interests, that often come into conflict with these big establishments.
“The Sami community are more affected by climate change than average people. So they are much in need of this green transition, but they are also impacted by the way in which we achieve the green transition,” she argues.
“So this is a very problematic situation where this sort of ‘green versus green’ problem comes really to the forefront.”
Five hours north of Umeå, the small town of Jokkmokk, just inside the Arctic Circle, is another place where Sami reindeer herders say they’re feeling crowded out by the new industrial revolution.
A planned iron ore mine, run by British company Beowulf Mining, was given conditional approval by Sweden’s former Social Democrat government in March, with the right-wing parties which are now in power, also voting in favour.
Beowulf Mining has turned down multiple requests to speak to the BBC about its plans. But the Swedish Association of Mines, Mineral and Metal Producers (Svemin) argues that the project will provide an important new local source of iron ore (used to make steel), which would help countries across the EU to further develop carbon cutting industries, like wind parks or electric car and battery production.
“Of course, recycling [metals] is extremely important and we need to put more effort into finding methods of recycling as much as we can,” says Svemin’s chief executive Maria Sunér. “But it won’t be enough, so we will need mining for many years to come.”
However, Sami reindeer herders say the mine will slice up their herding district, and that more animals will be killed in road accidents if local infrastructure is expanded for bigger trucks and machines.
“We’ve really already paid enough,” argues herder Rikard Länta, 54, pointing to the site’s proximity to existing hydropower and forestry industries.
“There isn’t one ‘bad guy’, there are many bad ones. There are so many [industries] that want to come here… and take, take, take, take, take these so-called ‘natural resources’.”
Greta Thunberg has campaigned in Jokkmokk several times, describing the plans as an example of “colonialism”, for failing to recognise the concerns of local indigenous people.
Last month her charity donated £158,582 to Sami reindeer herders to help with legal costs.
Climate campaigners also argue that the mine would create more environmental problems than it solved, suggesting that waste could pollute nearby lakes and rivers.
Beowulf Mining is yet to secure an environmental permit, and parliamentary approval for its plans came with a long list of caveats. These include making an effort to minimise the impact on reindeer herding, and offering compensation to Sami if they need to adapt the way they work, for instance by putting the reindeer on trucks to move them round the mining area.
But many Sami are strongly opposed to making these types of concessions.
“This is absolutely against the traditional way of reindeer herding,” says Henrik Blind, a local Green Party politician from a reindeer herding family. “This is a fight for our rights.”
Yet in Jokkmokk’s bakery, where the counters are packed with cinnamon biscuits, local supporters of the mine talk about a different kind of sustainable development for the town’s shrinking community.
“I think it’s good for the municipality to bring in more jobs,” says 26-year-old Elin Stenman, who is a nurse. She hopes the mine will encourage more people to move to the area, which could allow the local health centre to have longer opening hours. “We’d also get more shops and more opportunities for community development.”
Back at Luleå University of Technology, Professor Petterson says these types of “goal-based” conflicts are increasingly polarising communities in northern Sweden, despite the nation’s reputation for consensus-based decision making. As investments in new industries continue to pick up pace, she’s not optimistic things will improve.
“This is not an easy situation,” she says. “We don’t know where to go from here.”
[Video available at source.]
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