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The Skolt Sámi’s path to climate change resilience

This photo essay by United Nations University’s Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU-TKI) Research Fellow Gleb Raygorodetsky offers a glimpse of the challenges that climate change presents for indigenous and local communities in northern Europe. An Arctic people of northern Finland whose livelihoods depend largely on their environment, the Skolt Sámi are searching for ways to remain resilient in the face of climate change. Recently, Raygorodetsky spent time with the Skolts, as part of a UNU-TKI project supporting a partnership between the Skolt Sámi and the Finnish Snowchange Cooperative focused on developing a climate change adaptation plan.


The land around Rautujärvi Lake, over 400 km above the Arctic Circle near the Norwegian and Russian borders, is home to the Skolt Sámi — reindeer herders and fishermen whose traditional ways are closely intertwined with the northern climate. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

The radiant disk of the Arctic sun hangs in the mid-September sky above northern Finland, like a ritual Sámi drum pinned to the wall inside a lavvu , a traditional Sámi dwelling. The sun’s reflection is floating gently on the still surface of Rautujärvi Lake, located over 400 km above the Arctic Circle near the Norwegian and Russian borders. Come November, according to traditional calendars created and refined over generations by the Sámi people to track seasonal cycles on their land, the sunlight would be bouncing off the ice and snow of Sápmi , as the Sámi call their land. But the flows of air and water over this landscape are no longer in sync with the ancestral calendars, and the sun’s reflection may continue to float on the water for several weeks longer, disrupting Sámi traditional winter travel, fishing, hunting, and reindeer herding activities.


Like every Skolt Sámi, Vladimir Feodoroff is as much an expert at steering his boat on a lake as he is at lassoing reindeer during a seasonal roundup. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

Vladimir Feodoroff is a Skolt Sámi, a very small, but culturally and linguistically distinct group of the Eastern Sámi. The Skolts are considered to be one of the most traditional Sámi reindeer herding and fishermen groups. They still practice the centuries-old customary system of clan-based governance, where the community council sobbar represents the highest body of decision-making, while for over 130,000 Sámi living throughout the northern reaches of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia, the dominant governance system is the Sámi Parliament.

Historically, the traditional lands of the Skolt Sámi, or Sä’mmlaž, spanned the vast territory, from Lake Inari eastward all the way to Kola Bay, the present-day location of the Russian city of Murmansk. Today, most of the Skolts live in a small pocket of the northern Lapland region of Finland, north of Lake Inari. They were relocated here when their homelands were seized by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics after World War II. The relocated Skolts eventually settled in the village of Sevettijärvi, where they continue to maintain their traditional practices and keep the endangered Skolt language alive. Most of the remaining 700 Skolts live around the Finnish municipality of Inari, some on the Norwegian side of the border, and only few families remain in Russia.


In Finnish Lapland, reindeer no longer roam freely, having to navigate their way throughout the growing network of primary and secondary roads. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

Before World War II, the Skolt families would move with their reindeer on foot, or by skis and sleds, depending on the season, along well-worn migration routes from winter pastures to summer fishing grounds across the boreal region of the Kola Peninsula. Once resettled in Finland, they had to nurture meaningful relationships with a less familiar landscape — a transition zone between the treeless fjels and boreal forest. Here, their movement and reindeer herding practices became constrained by a growing network of roads throughout the region. Following the “snowmobile revolution” of the 1960s, there was also a rapid shift away from more traditional herding practices when families spent most of the year with their reindeer, towards a settled way of life. They came to rely more and more on mechanized transport, such as snowmobiles, small airplanes, and helicopters for gathering dispersed reindeer into herds during corralling season.

Despite these challenges and the dramatic societal shifts brought about by relocation and integration into the European Union’s (EU) economy, reindeer herding has remained at the heart of the Skolt Sámi culture and way of life, including their food, songs, clothes and art. Adapting to rapid change is nothing new to the Skolts, and they draw on this experience as they search for ways to adapt to their latest challenge — climate change.


At his all-season fishing camp in the upper reaches of the Näätämö River — his second home after his house in Sevettijärvi — Jouko Moshnikoff (right) and his friend Teijo Feodoroff are cutting up reindeer ribs for dinner before firing up the sauna (visible in the background, at the river’s edge). Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

For the Skolts, reindeer meat is an important traditional food that is vital to their culture, helping ensure their food sovereignty in a changing landscape and climate. Skolts, like other Sámi groups, do not waste even a single hair of the slaughtered reindeer. The fine-fibered and lean reindeer meat is used for food and as a source of income; clothes are made from reindeer skins; and the antlers are carved into knife handles, various utensils, ornaments and souvenirs for tourists.

After Finland became an EU member in 1995, the Skolt Sámi must follow burdensome EU regulations and standards for meat processing if they want to sell reindeer meat on the EU market. To comply with the new regulations, the Finnish Reindeer Herders’ Association replaced the 200 old field slaughterhouses with 10 EU regulations-compliant abattoirs staffed with mangers and veterinarians who oversee the annual processing of 1,500 tons of reindeer meat destined to the EU market.

The Skolts feel that while the market regulations may be good for commerce, they are not good for the local people and their land. The new system has made looking after their reindeer more expensive for the Skolts, forcing them to change when and where they can gather their herds. According to Pauliina Feodoroff — former President of the Sámi Council and Vladimir Feodoroff’s daughter —  the traditional method of killing reindeer inside a corral was pollution-free, but now chemicals must be used daily to disinfect EU-certified abattoirs. Moreover, many traditional practices — such as leaving some spilled blood and rapamaha, or reindeer stomach contents, on the ground to help fertilize and renew the trampled soil inside the corral — are no longer part of the modern system.


The morning sun melts the night frost on blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) in the birch forest along the Näätämö River. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

Budding birch leaves are an important spring food for reindeer craving a boost of fresh nutrients after a long winter diet of desiccated lichen. In 1966, the colder microclimate in the river valley saved the birch forest from defoliation along the river during an outbreak of the autumnal moth ( Epirrita autumnata), a cold-intolerant forest pest. In the birch forests on the south-facing hills, however, the winter temperature did not dip below -35 °C, thus allowing the moth to survive.

“I remember going fishing with my mother then,” recalls Illep Jefremoff. “And it was like having a heavy snowfall in the middle of the summer. The fish ate up the moths that fell into the water, but the birch trees dried up and died later.”

A few occasional birch stumps is all that remains of the once lush birch forest that used to support a diverse wildlife community. Two new outbreaks of autumnal moth infestation have been reported in Norway since 2005. The Skolt herders are concerned that as the climate warms, the moth outbreaks will become more frequent and spread widely, wiping out remaining birch forests and destroying an important spring food source for reindeer. The annual migration route of an individual reindeer herd is restricted to the territory of one of 56 reindeer cooperatives in Finland, limiting herders’ ability to move their reindeer away from affected areas of forest to find alternative sources of nutrient-rich spring food.


Tero Mustonen paddles across the Ylinen Lake, near his village of Selkie. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

Tero Mustonen’s personal quest, under the guidance of Elders, to revitalize land-based traditions of his Finnish ancestors led him to found the Snowchange Cooperative http://www.snowchange.org/ in 2000. The Cooperative works to advance the role of traditional knowledge in environmental policy and practice. Headquartered in the village of Selkie, Finland — where Mustonen is a chief and a traditional seine fishing net master — Snowchange has grown into a respected international community-based network making important contributions towards global recognition of traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Mustonen explains that Snowchange’s goal is, “To see our culture come back — complete rebirth on the land!”

Snowchange has made important contributions to the Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment,  the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, and the  Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) due out in 2014. Reflecting on these accomplishments, Mustonen smiles and says, “It is exciting, but a bit of punk rock — in a sense that we [a community-based cooperative] can play with the big boys [international agencies], but we still keep our own unique way.”

In addition to a solid base of over a dozen villages in Finland, Snowchange membership spans the globe, embracing communities, organizations and individuals working on local traditional knowledge-based projects in New Zealand, Canada, Russia, and Australia. All members of the Snowchange Cooperative work on developing locally-appropriate culture-based solutions to the challenges of environmental degradation, development and climate change faced by indigenous peoples and local communities around the world.


Tero Mustonen (left) and his neighbor Pekka Ikonen seine the waters of the Ylinen Lake for muikku or vendace, as European Cisco (Coregenus albula) is called here. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

Summer and winter seining for vendace and other fish in the lakes surrounding their community has always been an important subsistence activity for Selkie villagers. But now they worry about the environmental impacts of climate change on their subsistence fishery. Selkie residents have observed seasonal shifts in wind patterns, delays in freeze-up, increase in summer temperatures, earlier spring thaws and changes in the patterns of snow and rainfall. Ice leads — areas of open water that form when lake ice fractures and is kept open by the current — no longer occur in places well-known to local people, making winter travel on the ice a lot more treacherous.

Old residents of Selkie remember that the winter of 1986 was the last real winter when the lakes and rivers were frozen by mid-November. Today, the ice forms only in January when the temperature finally dips below -20°C for several nights in a row. Finland’s hottest daily temperature of 37 °C, was recorded in 2010 not far from Selkie. As summers become warmer, the fish seek cooler waters at the bottom of deeper lakes, which makes seining less reliable.


Like generations of Skolts before him, Jouko Moshnikoff welcomes guests at his fishing camp with salted and cold-smoked Atlantic salmon caught nearby. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

Fishing for Atlantic salmon ( Salmon salar) has always been an important part of Skolts’ subsistence and cultural heritage, and indeed, they consider themselves to be more fishermen than reindeer herders. Today, in addition to traditional delicacies, Moshnikoff can also offer his guests a few store-bought extras — like apples from Spain and vodka from Estonia — shipped to Finland from other EU countries. During the long winter evenings, after a skin-scalding sauna and a hearty meal, Moshnikoff would crank up a Honda generator from Japan to watch a show or a sports program on his Made in China TV.

While these changes add a great deal of convenience and comfort to their lives, Moshnikoff and other Skolt Sámi worry about the consequences and the real costs of such benefits of the global economy for local communities. They recognize that the changing climate is the price they are paying for the fossil fuel-infused food production and transportation system that, while delivering the goods to their homeland, makes their traditional livelihoods, such as the Atlantic salmon fishery on the Näätämö River, increasingly difficult to sustain. Feeling powerless to change the global economic model, the Skolts are nevertheless determined to find a way to sustain their traditional salmon fishery under changing conditions.


On the porch of Jouko Moshnikoff’s cabin — against the backdrop of one of the most significant spawning sites for Atlantic salmon on the Näätämö River — Illep Jefremoff, Vladimir Feodoroff and Tero Mustonen (left to right) examine the area map of the region. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

To describe their work last summer, Feodoroff shows Tero all the traditionally known spawning sites that he visited with Jefremoff as part of the project “Skolt Sámi Survival in the Middle of Rapid Change”. The goal of this collaboration between the Skolt Sámi, the Snowchange Cooperative and the United Nations University (UNU) Traditional Knowledge Initiative is to help the Skolts to develop a climate change adaptation plan. The project is part of the international Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA) initiative that is being developed and coordinated by a Peru-based indigenous non-profit organization, ANDES, and supported by UNU.

By applying the IPCCA methodology of community-led self-reflection, evaluation, and future-visioning based on local worldviews and traditional knowledge, the Sevettijärvi Skolts are developing a community-based climate change adaptation plan. Out of this process a collective consensus has emerged that the climate change challenges faced by the reindeer, while significant, are manageable given the present-day nature of reindeer herding. Instead, the Skolt Sámi identified their customary salmon fishery, the other half of their traditional subsistence and cultural identity, as a much greater concern.

As a result, the Snowchange-Skolt partnership has chosen to focus their climate change adaptation efforts on enhancing the resilience of the Skolts’ traditional salmon fishery along the Näätämö River. After visiting all traditionally known spawning sites during the last summer and holding several community-based workshops and discussions, the Skolt-Snowchange partnership is planning on putting together an initial draft of the Atlantic salmon co-management plan for the Näätämö River in 2013, to begin discussions with other salmon users along the watershed, and the representatives of the state fisheries agency, about the future of the Näätämö salmon.


A late-September morning’s  frosty air thickens into fog above the Näätämö River, enveloping birch trees on the riverbank. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

The Näätämö River is one of the few remaining free-flowing waterways in northern Europe that still supports wild populations of Atlantic salmon. The river meanders for 80 km from Lake Inari northward through Finland, until it reaches the Skoltefossen falls at the Norwegian border, 20 km from the Barents Sea. On average, out of eight tonnes of salmon caught annually along the river, only 20 percent comes from Finland the rest is caught in Norway. In addition to the Skolt Sámi and other locals, who are legally allowed to use fishing nets and rods to catch salmon, around 700 tourist anglers also descend on the Näätämö River every summer for the salmon run.

The Skolts feel that the significance of the Atlantic salmon fishery to their traditional culture has not been adequately recognized by the state fishery agencies. The Skolts have never had a real say in how the salmon fishery and the river are managed. The project partners are hopeful, however, that in the coming years their climate change adaptation project will help shift the balance of power and engage state officials and other stakeholders in a more equitable dialogue about the future of the Näätämö salmon fishery.


Over breakfast at Jouko Moshnikoff’s cabin, Tero Mustonen, Illep Jefremoff, and Vladimir Feodoroff (left to right) mull over the next steps in their climate change adaptation project. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

The Skolts realize that there is little they can do about the Norwegian Sydvaranger mine, an open pit iron ore mine that pollutes the fjord connected to the estuary of Näätämö River. Neither can they prevent an increase in risk of disease, breeding difficulties and genetic contamination in wild Atlantic salmon, caused by the farmed salmon escaping from Norwegian fish farms.

Still, based on the project’s first field season, the group is confident that they can do a lot to enhance the resilience of their traditional salmon fishery on the Finnish side of the border. Their main goal is to enhance spawning habitat and improve salmon survival along the Näätämö River. This includes restoring traditional salmon spawning grounds and reducing the predatory species like pike (Esox lucius), burbot (Lota lota) and mink (Neovison vison) that are hunting juvenile salmon or smolt. The group also feels that instead of three nets that the local people are legally permitted to use during the salmon fishing season, no more than a single net or just lures should be permitted for catching salmon. “Getting ten salmon per person in the summer is enough for us, Skolts,” says Feodoroff, “Because we just use it for subsistence, not to sell.”

By putting forward a set of such specific recommendations, the Skolts feel they should be able to develop a dialogue with state fisheries officials about their needs and the value of their traditional knowledge about salmon. The project is also creating pathways for engaging other groups of fishermen who rely on salmon for subsistence, recreation, and tourism on both sides of the Finnish-Norwegian border. The ultimate goal of this work is to develop a Näätämö River Atlantic Salmon Co-Management Plan that would create a more equitable governance structure for decision-making, compared to the existing rigid architecture based on trans-boundary bilateral agreements between Finland and Norway. The project partners hope that the envisioned co-management plan would help revamp the current rigid top-down regime through creating an equitable space for participation and contributions of all the groups who want their healthy relationships with the Näätämö River salmon to continue for generations.


In front of his house on the shore of Lake Sevettijärvi, Illep Jefremoff holds the Eastern Sámi Atlas open to the page with a picture of himself and his dog Kepu, checking fishing nets in the winter of 1993. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

Jefremoff contributed to the Eastern Sámi Atlas, sharing his knowledge and photographs of Skolt traditional activities, like setting fishing nets under the ice. The Skolts and the Snowchange Cooperative, with the support of UNU and the Nordic Council of Ministers, developed and published the Eastern Sámi Atlas as part of the Skolt climate change adaptation project. This comprehensive tome is a significant land-use document developed by any Sámi group. It shares several centuries of their history, through photographs and maps, describing how the Eastern Sámi, including the Skolt Sámi, lived on their traditional territory.

The real value of the volume, however, is in that it is truly a community effort to make their unseen histories visible. For their work on this project and the publication of the Atlas, the Snowchange Cooperative was honored with the Skolt of the Year Award in 2011, despite being a Finnish organization.

“Snowchange’s work with Sámi is very straightforward — it’s a peace-making plan,” explains Mustonen. Snowchange is trying to address the painful legacy of centuries of encroachment and assimilation by southern Finns on traditional Sámi territories. “All the work that Snowchange is doing with Sámi is about this, be it a nomadic school project or a climate change adaptation work or the Atlas. It is all about reconciliation,” says Mustonen. “If we can maintain a respectable relationship with Sámi and provide them with space and rights they ought to have, we are also healing ourselves,” he concludes.

To the unfamiliar eye, the lakes and forests of northern Finland look as pristine and unchanged as they have been for the last 9,000 years, after the glaciers retreated northward in this part of Europe. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky 2012.

For the local people, the interdependencies between the sun, water, air, forest, fire, wildlife, fish and people are changing rapidly and in unfamiliar ways. “Who are these new winds?” ask local Elders. ”We do not know them, but we still try to greet them.” The changing climate alters the intricate relationships between the elements of the Skolt traditional territory. The future of the Skolts and their land in this time of climatic upheaval depends on their ability to find ways of maintaining the balance in their relationships with the land and water, forest and tundra, reindeer and salmon. This could be achieved, they feel, only through respectful collaboration with others who have a stake in the future of the region and its biocultural heritage, be they European anglers, Norwegian salmon farmers, or a Finnish NGO.

“It is the time to say goodbye to some things we’ll never see again,” says Mustonen of Snowchange. “But it is also time to build new knowledge. And this knowledge can only emerge through keeping strong connections with the traditional territory. We must be there on the land as it is changing, so that we can change with it.”

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The photo essay is part of Conversations with the Earth (CWE): Indigenous Voices on Climate Change initiative. To learn more about CWE, visit it on Facebook and Twitter.

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