As global warming and habitat degradation accelerate, people indigenous to the Arctic circle say they have much to teach the world
Elina Helander-Renvall comes from Utsjoki, a place so obscure that even many Finns have little idea where it is. Utsjoki, or Ochejohka, Uccjuuha, and Uccjokk, depending on which local language you are speaking, is Finland's northern-most municipality. Straddling the border with Norway, it shivers, unregarded, deep inside the Arctic circle, a few icy miles from the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Utsjoki, population 1,034, is home to Finland's largest concentration of Sami speakers, the indigenous people once loosely known as Lapps who have eked out an itinerant existence herding reindeer across the frozen wastes of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and western Russia since the last Ice Age. Nearly 50 per cent of Utsjoki's population are Sami. In Finnish terms, it's the closest this eternal minority has got to being the majority.
Born and raised on the margin though she was, Helander-Renvall's message these days is strictly mainstream. As accelerating climate change and other man-made environmental degradations create growing alarm across the planet, the Sami people have much to teach the world about how to adapt, survive, and thrive, she says.
Lot to learn
“There is a lot to learn from the Sami, they have the traditional ecological knowledge, they really know about nature,” said Helander-Renvall, head of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples Office at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi. “They have the most precise knowledge about the weather conditions, about the plants, the diet, the resources. The Sami people have an ethical relationship with nature; a respect for nature that also has a spiritual side.”
The Arctic region is uniquely vulnerable to global warming, but if it is to weather the storm, it would do well to adopt Sami methods of land and resource management, communal cooperation and communication, local knowledge and best practice, she said.
In order to keep a reindeer herd out of trouble, for example, a knowledge of different types of snow could be decisive, Helander-Renvall said. Muohta (ordinary snow) or oppas (untouched snow) might be safe. But the presence of sievla (wet snow), skarta (thin, ice-like snow layers) or ceavvi (a hard layer that the reindeer cannot penetrate in search of lichen) could dictate a life—saving change of route or decision to move camp.
Local knowledge will also be vital to the large-scale industrial development on the fast-expanding oil and gas fields of western Russia's Yamal peninsula, and for the burgeoning commercial and tourism industries in the Scandinavian north. Knowing where it is safe to build, how to site the foundations for a new road, airstrip or pipeline, what terrain to avoid, and how to do so responsibly while protecting biological diversity will all be increasingly important. “We need to preserve and transfer indigenous knowledge to future generations,” Helander-Renvall said.
Professor Monica Tennberg of the Arctic Research Centre in Rovaniemi said the Sami had shown notable ability to adapt to changing climate conditions. “We've seen how the community adapts, for example finding new ways to deal with floods. We've seen better cooperation, better municipal leadership, better communications, better early warning systems,” she said. Adverse effects of climate change on pasture and traditional herding trails had been met with new rotation and migration patterns and also by a tighter communal discipline.
The Arctic as a whole faces enormous challenges. Broadly speaking the region is warming at double the rate of the rest of the world, said Paula Kankaanpaa, director of the Research Centre, with local “hotspots” that fare even worse.
Symptoms include reduced sea ice; the opening of blue-water sea passages both east and west in summer, north of Canada and Russia; increased levels of carbon-carrying organic waste in the Arctic Ocean caused by melting tundra; coastal erosion due to increased wave activity; loss of habitat for large mammals such as seals and polar bears and growing disruption of indigenous human communities.
Governments still resist the idea that Arctic indigenous peoples have something unique to contribute. Canada announced this month that it will convene a foreign ministers' meeting of the five Arctic Ocean states (Canada, Russia, the U.S., Norway and Denmark/Greenland) in March “to encourage new thinking on responsible development” and “reinforce ongoing collaboration in the region”.
To their dismay, Arctic indigenous people's organisations, including the Sami, Inuit and Inuvialuit, were not invited. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010