Sweden's Sami reindeer herders hit by wildfires and drought

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Sweden's Sami reindeer herders hit by wildfires and drought
A forest fire in Ljusdal. Photo: TT

Sweden's unprecedented drought and devastating wildfires are destroying vital grazing pastureland for indigenous Sami reindeer herders, whose livelihoods are already under attack from mining and logging as global warming changes the face of the Arctic.


"Our winter land is burning," says Jonas Kraik, a 54-year-old herder, whose Sami village with as many as 8,000 reindeer is a popular tourist destination in the central Swedish region of Jämtland.

Jämtland is one of the areas worst hit by the wildfires, and another herder, Edvin Ensberg, 43, said he has lost at least 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of grazing land for his reindeer.

"The fires are extremely worrying and we cannot measure the exact consequences as we can't see due to the smoke," he told AFP.

"I doubt there will be any pasture for the reindeer to graze on in the winter," he said.

The Sami have lived in the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, for thousands of years. They are the only people authorized to herd reindeer in Sweden.

While there are no exact figures regarding the size of the Sami population, it is estimated at between 80,000 and 100,000, spread across the four countries. 

Semi-domesticated reindeer can be found across the northernmost part of Europe, and are raised for their meat, pelts, and antlers.

Every autumn, the reindeer are taken to their winter pasture to graze in the plains.

'Burning all around me'

Margret Fjellström, a reindeer owner in Dikanas, a mountainous village 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of the capital Stockholm, was lucky to be spared the fires, but said the drought is taking its toll on her animals.

"It's extremely dry in the mountains... the calves get dehydrated and too weak to follow their mothers when grazing," she said.

There has been practically no rainfall in Sweden since the beginning of May, aside from a few millimetres in mid-June.

The Nordic country, where summer temperatures are usually closer to 23 Celsius, is under-equipped to deal with this kind of natural catastrophe and asked for help from Italy, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Poland and France to extinguish the blazes.

Marcus Rensberg, 35, who owns 5,000 reindeer in a village called Älvdalen -- meaning river valley -- 300 kilometres northwest of Stockholm, volunteered to help authorities put out the fires as 4,000 hectares of his grazing land was wiped out.

"It could take up to 30 years for the grazing land to be completely restored," he told AFP over the phone, coughing due to the smoke.

"It's burning all around me," he said before abruptly hanging up.

'Very tough winter'

According to the Sami Parliament, the representative body for the Sami people, Sweden has 4,600 reindeer owners for just over 250,000 animals.

The current drought and fires are merely the latest in a long list of challenges facing the herders, as their land is eaten up by the mining and logging industries, and encroached upon by wind turbines.

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Climate change is also making it difficult for the reindeer to find the lichen that form an important part of their diet, forcing herders to resort to more costly fodder.

"We've had a very tough winter. It was hard for the reindeer to dig out their food in the snow," Fjellström said.

A member of the Sami parliament, Marita Stinnerbom, said that some 34 million kronor ($3.8 million) has been raised to pay for fodder following the previous winter.

Stinnerbom said the fires had to be extinguished before the exact damage could be determined and what measures should be taken to compensate the herders.

"The government is following the developments closely and is in contact with the relevant authorities," Tina Israelsson, a government spokeswoman, told AFP when asked about possible compensation.

Reindeer owner Marcus Rensberg said finding new grazing areas could prove difficult.

"The reindeer will go somewhere... I just don't know where that is," he said."


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