Sápmi is the region that has been the home to the indigenous Sami population for thousands of years, and reindeer herding has been a central part of the culture and livelihood.
Lars Miguel Utsi is the vice president of the Swedish Sami Parliament where he works with language and education, but he also works with reindeer husbandry, belonging to the Sami village of Luokta-Mávas.
“Seeing the things that are beautiful and a little touristy are easy to absorb, but it is also easy to miss the political challenges we face,” Utsi says, in regards to reindeer husbandry.
The politics of reindeer herding
Reindeer herding depends on access to free pastures as reindeer are naturally migratory animals. But this access was limited vastly when the Swedish state forcibly removed land from the Sami through colonial settlement, beginning in the 12th century.
The current law regarding reindeer husbandry was passed in 1971 (Rennäringslagen) and stipulated that those of Sami heritage have the right to use land and water for reindeer herding and that to herd reindeer one must belong to a Sami village (sameby).
Still, there have been criticisms levied against the law for only protecting economic aspects of reindeer husbandry but neglecting the other aspects of Sami society that need protection.
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The Swedish Sami National Association (Svenska Samernas Riksförbund) has criticised the law for being written without consulting the Sami population, and not ensuring the rights of other members of the sameby (literally “Sami village”, but it’s not an actual village, rather an administrative community linked to a larger geographical area) who do not primarily earn a living through reindeer husbandry.
It is estimated by the Sami parliament that 2,500 people are directly dependent on income from reindeer herding. Utsi says that while this may sound small, reindeer husbandry carries great weight even for many members of the Sami villages where it is not their main source of income.
“It is not just reindeer husbandry in itself (…) but much of Sami culture depends on reindeer husbandry, for example the access to materials and meat. The food culture depends heavily on reindeer meat and ingredients from reindeer husbandry. There are crafts, where one needs the horns, uses the skin and sinews. We have a large artistic environment which grows from the Sami culture with the reindeer in focus,” he says.
In 2020, a landmark court ruling confirmed further rights of the Sami regarding reindeer herding, but there has been pushback and even violence, often with a racist element, from some who oppose the decision. Several Sami reindeer herders have received threats or have found their reindeers deliberately killed, in some cases with signs of torture.
The politics of predators
Reindeer can be herded on around 50 percent of Sweden’s land, although this does not mean that all of the land is appropriate for pasture. This area is divided into 51 Sami villages.
Reindeer naturally migrate depending on the season, and are therefore in need of vast pastures. According to the Sami parliament’s website, it is near impossible to change a migratory pattern as reindeer are easily frightened and when blocked by a road, reindeer need to be transported by motor vehicles.
“During the winter season we monitor the reindeer all the time and make sure they stay where they are meant to be. It is rare that they don’t since they follow their natural migratory routes but we make sure that they don’t get lost or are bothered by predators,” Utsi explains.
The issue of predators remains debated in Swedish politics. With many natural predators such as wolves and bears in the Swedish forests, the reindeer face dangers throughout the season. It is estimated that around a quarter of reindeer are killed by predators each year, much higher than the 10 percent limit set by the parliament. However, there is political pushback against hunting predators from many places in Sweden, often from an animal rights perspective.
“I think there are quite few who understand the extent that predators affect reindeer husbandry (…) If one were to imagine a farm losing 20-30 percent of the yearly harvest each year, it would be unsustainable,” Utsi says.
For the newly arrived in Sweden, Utsi invites them to learn more about Sami culture.
“To see the reindeer husbandry, see animals, Sami culture, Sami art, Sami music, the closeness to nature which I think is quite foreign for many coming from a big city.”
However, he also thinks it is important not to let the beautiful things make you forget the challenges faced by the Sami.
“I think it is important to understand that the Sami are not just a minority but an indigenous people. The big difference is that it builds on a very strong connection to land and water.”
The treatment of its indigenous population is something for which Sweden has been heavily criticised by the international community.
Sweden still has a long way to go in terms of caring for the rights of its indigenous peoples, Utsi says.