Sustainable Reindeer Herding?

Jan Åge Riseth
Publication year: 

The sustainability of reindeer herding has been a relevant discussion over the last 20 years in terms of both international policy as well as reindeer herding policy. The Reindeer Herding Act states that reindeer herding is to be ecologically, economically and culturally sustainable. Currently, this is only defined concretely in terms of ecological sustainability, through a 2008 advisory from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. For a more fundamental starting point, I will use the approach of international common resource research.

This chapter gives an industrial economics overview of reindeer herding in Norway with respect to physical geography and legal history. It presents a complex picture from south to northeast. Semi-domestic reindeer herds in central Sør-Norge has a long history influenced by South Sami herders. These enterprises have the highest productivity of all reindeer enterprises in Norway, with the highest slaughter yields, high productivity and stable and good finances.

South Sami reindeer herding south of Stjørdalen has had a very difficult history because of political setbacks with especially severe consequences. Reindeer herders in Trollheimen lost all their rights with the decisions upheld by the Supreme Court as late as 1981. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Norwegian Parliament preserved the future of reindeer herding in this area through a new law in 1984. Samis who earn a living through reindeer herding in the Røros area have been exposed to high pressure from the expanding agricultural community and authorities. It was worse around the turn of the last century, when unreasonable compensation for alleged damage to farms ruined many Sami reindeer herders. After the war, and especially from the 1970s, Sami reindeer herders in this area have created a new and more productive reindeer herding industry, but have still needed to fight for their rights against both farmers and the legal system, which have been influenced by old attitudes. Reindeer owners finally won full acceptance of their rights in a 2001 Supreme Court decision but, especially in the last 10 years, have sustained a decrease in productivity because of increased predation.

Reindeer herding in Nord-Trøndelag has also taken part in the productivity revolution of the 1980s but since the early 1990, has more and more felt the consequences of the new policies regarding predation. The percentage loss has gradually increased and both slaughter yield and productivity have diminished from a high to a middle level. Reindeer herding areas in Nordland and Troms have both been affected by border clashes between Norway and Sweden in 1751, which led to Norway receiving an excess of summer pasture and Sweden receiving an excess of winter pasture. Nationalistic ideologies from the middle and end of the 1800s led to stronger control of reindeer herding to promote agricultural expansion and, in 1923, to the exclusion of Swedish reindeer Samis from, among other areas, the islands in Troms. Norway and Sweden are currently without a valid convention and questions can be raised about the validity of Norway’s one-sided extension of the 1972 convention in 2005. The last convention negotiations were very difficult but a Sami working group has recently presented recommendations for a new convention.

Large portions of reindeer herding in Finnmark are in a precarious position. The exception is Polmak/Varanger which has sustained a productivity revolution and has had good profits. Over the last 30 years, the number of reindeer in Karasjok and the 10 inner districts of Kautokeino has fluctuated greatly, but is still higher than before. Use of pasture in Finnmark is therefore much more intensive than before. The authorities’ monitoring program documents that lichen regrowth in Finnmark is much better than expected. However, increases in reindeer numbers in the 2000s have none the less resulted in a pasture situation again in rapid decline.

After demands from NRL (Norske Reindriftsamers Landforbund - Sami Reindeer Herders Association of Norway), investigation and dialogue, a new Reindeer Herding Act was enacted in 2007. In addition to sustainability, this act focuses on particular reindeer herding institutions and processes, but has an exemption clause which gives central authorities the power to overrule reindeer husbandry agencies. The authorities have now used this to initiate compulsory processes to reduce reindeer numbers. I fear that these measures will function as a derailment and stop, rather than promote, the industry’s essential processes.

The results of common resource research are clear; resource users themselves should be responsible for solving their own problems. The government’s role should be to support processes that build institutions and solve problems.