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Thursday, 3 February, 2000, 21:41 GMT
Lapland's reindeer: Nowhere to herd

Lapland is the traditional herding ground of reindeer Lapland is the traditional herding ground of reindeer

By Robert Piggott in Lapland

Indigenous reindeer herders in Sweden say their traditional way of life is in jeopardy because the owners of private forests in the country are using the law to exclude them from woodland.

A reindeer digs for lichen A reindeer digs for lichen

The Sami people of Lapland have appealed to consumers throughout the world to buy only wood produced in a way that respects the customs of indigenous groups.

In the far north of Sweden, reindeer are seeking refuge from the bitter cold of winter in the forests.

On the mountains, they would starve. In the woodland, they can dig through the snow to the lichen underneath.

For the Sami people, herding reindeer is a way of life - but it is in jeopardy.

Much of the forest exists on small private estates, whose owners are disputing the Sami's right to be here.

Reindeer herd Reindeer herders want access to the forest
When reindeer herders are challenged, Swedish law requires the Sami to prove their right to use the forests.

That means having documentary evidence going back 90 years.

The Sami have already lost one important test case.

Defending old traditions

Near Sveg in Jamtland, reindeer are corralled to be allocated between various Sami communities.

Olof Johannsson Olof Johannsson: "We are so closely linked to the reindeer"
Once back in the forests, it will be impossible to keep them off private land.

Sami people, like Olof Johansson of the Tassasen Sami Community, say that if they are banned from private forests, a culture built up over more than 1,000 years will disappear.

"Sweden as well as Europe will lose the unique Sami culture in the last wildness of Europe," warns Mr Johansson.

"We are so closely linked to the reindeer and the reindeer are so closely linked to the landscape, so it will be completely different if we are not there."

Private owners demand rights

There must be equal rights for each. I say equal - the forest owners must have rights on land they own
Bjorn Skogh - private forest owner
However, the owners of private forests argue that they too must be able to make a living from the land.

Private forest owners like Bjorn Skogh, say they simply want to establish how far the right to herd reindeer goes.

"You have the small forest owners and the Sami villagers," says Bjorn Skogh, Norrskog Private Forest Owners.

"They have to live on the same area, and there must be equal rights for each. I say equal - the forest owners must have rights on land they own."

FSC only certifies environmentally-friendly wood FSC only certifies environmentally-friendly wood
Nearly half of the wood processed in Sveg sawmill is from private forests.

Some goes to the United Kingdom. But this timber will not get the approval of the most stringent industry body, the Forest Stewardship Council.

The Forest Stewardship Council represents environmental groups and an increasingly large part of the world's timber industry.

Consumer campaign

The FSC certifies wood only if it is produced in an environmentally sustainable and socially beneficial way.

This means that indigenous groups, like the Sami, must be given access to forests. And because Sweden's private forest owners exclude indigenous peoples, they are not allowed to market their timber as FSC-certified.

Sami campaigner: Wants the help of consumers overseas Sami campaigner: Wants the help of consumers overseas
Nanna Borchert and other Sami campaigners say that overseas consumers represent the last chance of making private forest owners change their minds.

"In deciding to buy wood from areas where the Sami people's rights are respected, you greatly support the Sami people, and this could have a very good impact here in Sweden," she says.

The plaintive yoik music of Lapland laments the harshness of the winter, the cruelty of wolves and - these days - the fragility of reindeer herding.

Most of Europe's indigenous people are long gone along with their ancient cultures.

The 3,000 reindeer herders that remain in Lapland say that if they cannot herd their reindeer, their way of life too will soon disappear.

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See also:
22 Dec 97 |  Sci/Tech
Reindeer under threat
18 Dec 97 |  World
Rudolph off the menu
14 Feb 98 |  Europe
Russia's wolves get big on reindeer

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