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Arctic change and reindeer husbandry in the Barents region

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This article originally appeared in The Circle 03.17. Find back issues here.

Environmental and social changes in Saami and Nenets reindeer husbandry are sweeping the Barents region and more are expected. The biggest driver of change, write SVEIN D. MATHIESEN and MIKHAIL POGODAEV, is infrastructure development on lands used by reindeer herders in Sweden, Norway, Finland and some parts of Russia.

Climate change is another increasing threat to traditional livelihoods with global and regional scenarios projecting changes in temperature, precipitation and snow conditions in important reindeer pastures.

The impacts of these changes on indigenous peoples are exacerbated because they don’t have a voice in the development of adaptation tools and strategies for planning and development. Therefore, reindeer husbandry must develop adaptation strategies that recognize the value of traditional knowledge in the management of reindeer husbandry while at the same time using the best practices developed from science.

Adaptation to changes in reindeer herding will require future Arctic leaders to be knowledgeable and aware of long-term sustainability for reindeer husbandry. This must be the basis for building socio-ecological resilience against the rapid changes in Arctic ecosystems. We need new methods and delivery of education in reindeer herding communities that are multidisciplinary, multicultural and holistic approaches for sustainable development and which include traditional and gender knowledge. Meaningful collaboration between traditional knowledge and science is key to creating successful adaptation strategies.

Contributing to the erosion of resilience in herding communities is the explosion of research which fails to involve indigenous peoples’ institutions and organizations, and can be seen as a new kind of knowledge extracting industry. In future, the University of the Arctic could play a new role in bridging knowledge systems by increasing cooperation between academia and indigenous institutions, networks and organizations.

There is a need to further develop multidisciplinary indigenous transboundary institutions to meet the effect of these changes. Knowledge held by reindeer herders is key to their future economic sustainability. With a changing climate and increased industrial development, reindeer husbandry’s ability to adapt will decline if their own traditional knowledge about pastures, environment and reindeer is not used.

We are heading toward a tipping point for some communities and we need to rigorously examine the protection and sustainable management of critical natural resources for the practice of traditional livelihoods. The complexity of the threats to reindeer husbandry and their far-reaching consequences demand impact assessments that evolve into more holistic and long-term, social-ecological resilience assessments examining the complex systems of how people and nature persist, adapt and transform in the face of Arctic change.

All levels of government need to make a strong commitment to the survival of Indigenous languages. Language loss has a direct correlation to the loss of practical skills, coping, and ultimately, biodiversity itself. Finally, it is important to engage youth in practical reindeer husbandry and strengthen the training of local leaders in long-term sustainable thinking.

SVEIN D. MATHIESEN works at the International Reindeer Husbandry Center, Kautokeino, Norway heading the University of the Arctic Institute for Circumpolar Reindeer Husbandry.

MIKHAIL POGODAEV is Chair of the World Reindeer Herders Association, which unites 24 indigenous reindeer herding peoples across the circumpolar north. He is also President of the UArctic EALAT Institute for Circumpolar Reindeer Husbandry.

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