Climate change and the Finnish Sami


The Sami people living in Finnish Lapland are a part of Europe's northernmost indigenous people. According to projections, the climate in North Finland will warm faster than the rest of the country, so the Sami will be faced with the impacts of climate change sooner than other Finns. The severity of these impacts is affected by a close relationship with nature. In addition, changes in reindeer husbandry may have notable cultural consequences.

The Sami in Finland

According to the Finnish Sami Parliament, approximately 9,000 Sami live in Finland. A general criterion of being recognised as a Sami has been that the person or one of his or her parents or grandparents speaks the Sami language as their mother tongue. Nowadays, more than 60% of Finnish Sami live outside the traditional Sami areas. In Finland, all actual Sami areas are located in the province of Lapland. In their native locality in Finland, the Sami have autonomy with respect to their language and culture. An elected parliament, the Finnish Sami Parliament, handles the tasks related to the autonomy. [1] In addition to Finland, the Sami people live in Sweden, Norway and Russia. In the Sami language, the Sami living area covering all four countries is termed Sápmi.

The climate changes faster in Northern Finland

In Northern Finland, climate change progresses faster than in the south. By 2040, the temperature is expected to rise by two degrees in Finland in comparison to the end of the 20th century. With projections ranging from three to six degrees, the warming taking place by 2100 depends on the development of greenhouse gas emissions among others. Especially in the winter, the temperature in Northern Finland will rise faster than temperatures in Southern Finland. In addition, rain is expected to be more common, while the number of snowy days will most likely be reduced by approximately 20–30% as the downfall is more likely to be rain than snow.

Availability of food limits reindeer husbandry

The changing climate and weather conditions in the north already have and will have a great significance to the traditional Sami reindeer herding. The Sami people themselves have brought up mainly negative impacts. Since snow arrives later in the season, lichen – the main winter food of reindeer – freezes before it is covered by the protective layer of snow. This impedes its utilisation for nourishment. [2] When the reindeer attempt to feed on the frozen lichen, it may be entirely detached from the ground thus slowing down its regeneration. In addition, changing weather conditions impede the availability of food. Cold weather that follows a period of warmer weather and rain freezes the surface of the snow which renders digging of the lichen from under the snow difficult for the reindeer. Difficulties in nutrient supply weaken the reindeer populations thus causing financial losses to the Sami who herd reindeer. [3]

In terms of revenue, reindeer husbandry and other natural sources of livelihood are not that important anymore but their cultural significance for the Sami people is still essential [1]. In addition to business life, the reindeer have played a major role in the Sami spiritual life, old religions and language. Moreover, the size of the reindeer herd reveals the status of the reindeer breeder in the community. Reindeer husbandry also plays a key role in maintaining the Sami community and identity and providing structure to the year. [4]

Changes to hunting and picking berries

Along the climate change, species will migrate further north which may introduce new kind of game to the Sami hunting grounds. Although the suddenly changing weather conditions can endanger the berry crop – the valuable crop of cloudberry, for example – in the course of time, the warming climate is likely to increase primary production if anything. In addition to climate change, the Sami are faced with problems caused by deteriorating diversity of nature and weakening game populations, pollution and other environmental problems. [3]

Climate change increases pressure to change land use

The future of reindeer husbandry, hunting and berry picking will also be affected by vegetation zones moving towards north. Forestry is expected to become more thorough in Northern Finland as the forest stand grow faster than before. So far, joint use of forests for both the needs of financial forestry and reindeer husbandry has not run without problems. In the opinion of the Sami, a forest that has been used for financial purposes does not offer nourishment for reindeer. In addition, the slow-growing lichens can be overtaken by other plant species that grow faster and have spread to the north. [4] However, since the reindeer grazing grounds are mainly not owned by the Sami but by the state or municipality, the Sami have little possibility to influence in the land use [5]. A dispute over land use has been ongoing for long and finding a solution to the problem seems unlikely in the future.

Knowledge of nature and the Sami calendar subject to change

The Sami people who have practised traditional occupations are used to great changes in the conditions in nature from year to year. Similar to other indigenous people, the Sami have had their extensive experience-based knowledge of nature as the guiding light in their actions. However, climate change has already changed the weather conditions so that traditional experiences and knowledge may lead astray. Since conditions vary faster than before, traditional signs can no longer be used to predict future weather. Long term predictions are even harder to make. There is a danger that the traditional calendar with respect to reindeer husbandry, for example, will become useless. [3]

New means of livelihood and sustainability of culture

When Southern Finland loses its snow along the climate change, Northern Finland is expected to benefit from the tourism directed there. Tourism is also a source of revenue for the Sami so a general tourism trend directed north may also be beneficial for them. Tourism is already a source of livelihood along the more traditional trades.

Although the majority of Sami earn their living from other sources of livelihood than the traditional trades, preserving them is not only financially but also culturally important. Cultural traditions are maintained along with the traditional trades; for example, many Sami reindeer breeders are skilled singers of yoiks [6]. Diversity of trades helps in adapting to climate change. However, the traditional trades such as reindeer husbandry, fishing, hunting, berry picking and crafts are dependent on the utilisation of natural resources. The Sami culture in its current form may be threatened if traditional means of livelihood lose their profitability along with climate change and there are insufficient adaptation measures. The Finnish Sami Parliament has spoken out strongly for the reduction of emissions. [7]