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New conflict solving methods needed for reindeer husbandry
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New conflict solving methods needed for reindeer husbandry

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Trym Ivar Bergsmo/Samfoto

A new mediation body is needed to deal with conflicts within reindeer herding. Existing courts and mediation bodies do not fit in with Sami culture. This proposal comes from two Norwegian researchers and a judge who have spent three years studying conflict solution within the Sami reindeer husbandry.

“It is hard to think of another occupation more closely linked to culture than reindeer herding. But authorities usually treat it as a “meat production” which should be industrialised,” says Ida Hydle, a professor at the University of Tromsø and linked to the social research institute NOVA.

Together with Jan Erik Henriksen at the University of Tromsø, who has been project leader, and Knut Petterson who is a judge at the Indre Finnmark District Court, she has studied 29 conflicts linked to reindeer herding which have ended up in court in Norway since 2007, when a new law for reindeer herding was brought in.  

Reindeer herding is important to the Sami population, because it also brings a range of rights for those who own reindeer. These are rights that are necessary in order to carry out reindeer herding; the right to hunt, fish, use motorised vehicles in certain areas and the access to cabins for overnight stays. This makes owning reindeer an attractive proposition, even if you do not participate in the daily husbandry. 

The reindeer herders also have some duties, like making sure the reindeer do not graze in the wrong areas. In Norway, reindeer ownership is personal, but it is the siida (Sami reindeer collective) which has the grazing rights in a particular area. A siida can be made up of no more than a few or many people, but is usually a group of people who often are related to each other.

Reindeer herding under pressure

Conflicts arise because industrialisation in the form of mining, hydro and wind power, tourism and climate change impacts on the movement of reindeer herds. While agriculture authorities want borders between two siidas to be drawn on a two-dimensional map, this does not work for reindeer herders. 

“The administration uses maps which to them is an unproblematic and neutral method. But reindeer owners do not recognise the administration’s maps and their understanding of the terrain. For them the borders are determined by how the reindeer migrate, the climate, snow and ice, rivers, streams and lakes that can be frozen over or open and that changes with the years and the seasons,” says Ida Hydle.

The conflicts often centre on the right to let reindeer graze in a certain area, but they exist on all kinds of levels:

  • Between individuals: One court case saw a divorced pair arguing over who had the right to the markings which are cut into the reindeers’ ears to show who owns the animals. 
  • Between people in one siida and between different siidas.
  • Between reindeer owners/siidas and authorities on different levels. The state was the litigant, directly or indirectly, in most of the court cases.
  • Between reindeer owners in different countries: The Reindeer grazing agreement between Sweden and Norway was not renewed in 2005. It regulated Swedish Samis’ right to access summer grazing in Norway, and to a lesser extent Norwegian Samis’ rights to winter grazing in Sweden. As a result, today the only existing legal document is the so-called Lapp Codicil from 1751. Norway has ratified the ILO convention on indigenous and tribal peoples, while Sweden has not. 

Many of the conflicts run through three courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court at great financial and psychological cost. One of the court cases resulted in legal expenses worth eight million kroner (€837,000). 

“This is about the working and living conditions of 2,500 people in Finnmark alone, owning 150,000 reindeer,” says Ida Hydle. 

Avoiding conflicts

Although Sami conflicts often get a lot of attention, especially in local media, Sami culture generally tends to avoid conflict. One of the people interviewed for the study describes how a siida leader almost always talks to only one other person at the time; conversations are held in pairs. But a third person can be present and understand that the conversations also concerns him or her. 

There is something called “the never-ending conversation” which aims to get the opposite party to understand his responsibility and which decisions should be made. 

The two researchers describes certain charcteristiscs in Sami culture which contribute to the failure of existing Norwegian Mediation Service bodies:

  • The fact that communication in Sami environments rarely goes straight to the point must be taken into consideration.
  • When Sami people communicate with each other, they often sit side by side – not opposite each other.
  • Reindeer owners often talk in pairs – not in a whole group, which is the most common form used by the Norwegian Mediation Service.
  • Meetings with many people, even if they are directly or indirectly involved, do not work well.
  • siida does not reach a majority decision. 

The two researchers therefore proposes the establishment of a new mediation body based on what is known as soabahallan (Sami mediation). 

“There is a need for a new mediating body with a low threshold where mediators can arrive quickly, sometimes even to the tundra and the reindeer pen. They should be trained in Sami culture,” says Ida Hydle.

“The most important thing is mediation skills; how you invite the parties to mediate, how to create trust and understanding for the fact that it can be useful to talk to each other, how to enter into an agreement, even when you need to agree to disagree – as long as you can still meet in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

Always been meddling

How would things work if Sami people could make all the decisions themselves?

“That is a very difficult question, because the state authorities have never allowed them to do that since the mid-1700s. They have always been meddling.”

The most important decision is made when a reindeer herd has been driven into the pen. This is where slaughter and marking takes place, along with the separation of the reindeer, when the animals are divided between the different owners. All of the members of a siida take part, and notes are taken of which reindeer cows have had calves. 

“Previously the reindeer herds were smaller, with 30 to 40 animals, and more tame. Now the reindeer are wilder. It is not a good idea to go in to pat them when they surge into the pen. Reindeer herding is a job which comes with many injuries. There might be 5,000 animals inside the pen. The owners must find their reindeer, and decide who to slaughter and who to let go, often after giving them vaccinations.” 

Is there a written log of who owns which calves?

“The reindeer’s ears are the documents. The markings determine ownership, and this is also written down in detail. The markings are also found in the administration’s register.  The marking process itself is a very important ritual. The reindeer mark is a kind of capital.” 

Reindeer herders also try to improve the herd by picking out the best animals. The ones that are not selected for breeding, are castrated. This makes them fatter, and the reindeer owner will use these for meat the year after. 

“But the bulls are needed in a reindeer herd, since they are more muscular than the females. They can scrape away the snow when it is half a metre thick and ice has formed on the top. You need a lot of power to do that, and the bulls have 30 to 40 percent more muscles than the females.”

What have you learnt yourself over these three years?

“I have seen the Norwegian and also the Swedish state’s neo-colonialism when it comes to the Sami people up close, and it has filled me with anger. I have dived deep into a culture which is more different from the Norwegian one than you might think. It has different norms around politeness, for instance, which you need to learn to avoid misunderstandings.

“It is for instance the duty of the guest to walk straight into the house during a visit. There is rarely a doorbell, and the door is never locked. The house owners sit inside and remain seated. It is your duty to tell them what it is that you want. Only once you’ve done that, the coffee is served.”

Among Sami people there is also a kind of farm inheritance right, where only one of the children inherits the reindeer herd and the markings. But it is not the first-born.

“The tradition is that the youngest inherits the parents’ reindeer when they no longer can carry out their herding duties, along with the markings. But this person must also be suited to the task, and be able to stand inside the pen, take part in the reindeer migration process and handle a snowmobile,” says Ida Hydle. 

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