Thick Ice is Starving Arctic Reindeer

An Existential Crisis Emerges for the Region's Indigenous People
Blog Post
Melola /
July 8, 2021

Imagine if your primary food source, the center of your community, and a key part of your culture suddenly began to disappear. 100,000 reindeer herders from over 20 different ethnic Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic don’t have to wonder.

Reindeer (also known as caribou) are the cultural, economic, social, and spiritual foundation for many Indiginous herder communities in Scandanavia and Russia. Climate change is not only threatening the survival of reindeer populations, which declined 56 percent over the past two decades, but also the way of life for Indigenous herders that rely on them for nearly every basic need.

And all the while, national governments in the Arctic have been slow to react, implementing emergency or ad-hoc measures instead of long-term adaptation strategies. This begs the question of how land and resource rights can more sustainably adapt in the face of a warming tundra.

How can Arctic governments implement long-term policies, so that Indigenous reindeer herders can retain their livelihoods while also adapting to a warmer world? And what can the rest of the world learn from it?

What Does a Reindeer Herder Do Without Reindeer?

Reindeer are central to Indigenous lives in northern Russia and in several Scandinavian countries. Indigenous herders live semi-nomadic and nomadic lifestyles in sync with reindeer migration patterns, shaping their movement, their spirituality, and their economies around them.

Case in point: the Sami—Indigenous herders in northern Europe—use between 400 and 500 words to single out each animal in a herd. Some words are used to describe physical characteristics, such as stage of life and antler patterns, while others describe a reindeer's temperament. Are they loners or part of the pack? Are they stubborn trailblazers or more willing to go along with the herd’s movements?

As Indigenous communities traverse thousands of miles of frozen terrain each year, they rely on these animals for hunting, transport, food, clothing, and shelter. Almost every part of the animal is used or eaten—for both daily meals, as well as bowls and other necessities.

Reindeer are not only a central part of the Arctic food base and economy, but are also culturally important, shaping many communities’ ways of life. Herding and pastoralism are traditional land use approaches, which help with conservation and increased biodiversity. Reindeer help to control shrub encroachment and are important for regional diversity that favors rare and threatened plants. Loss of reindeer pastures resulting from infrastructure activity, climate change, and increased human activity also leads to habitat fragmentation and a resulting loss of biodiversity. Threats to reindeer herding and pastoralism are not only devastating for the herds themselves, but also to the reindeer herders—making any threat to reindeer existential.

Because traditional land use is very beneficial for biodiversity and conservation in the Arctic, governments should consider pairing these local approaches with national policies that provide additional legal protections to marginalized populations. Indigenous pastoralists use a variety of approaches to manage land, including the use of fire, herding, community mobility, and allotment of grazing reserves to increase biodiversity and long-term conservation of wildlife habitats.

If reindeer populations continue to decline, herder communities will need to find new sources of food and shelter, or move to unfamiliar Siberian cities. Immediate migration of previously nomadic herders into a city would likely be culturally and societally traumatic. Arctic governments are not planning for this potential scenario and are not thinking about how land use is a matter of life and death for herders.

Rain-on-Snow and Lichen

Worsening consequences of climate change, notably extreme weather events in the Arctic region, threaten reindeer survival. The most common of these events is known as “rain-on-snow,” when temperatures fall below freezing after a rainstorm, creating a thick ice crust over lichen, the primary reindeer food source during winter. While reindeer can normally dig through snow to reach lichen, layers of impenetrable ice this year made access impossible.

This past spring, between 60,000 and 80,000 reindeer died of starvation after a rain-on-snow event across large parts of the Yamal tundra in northern Russia. While a rescue operation organized by the Yamal regional government is currently underway to feed the reindeer, the government has not allocated the resources to do this every year.

Unfortunately, this is not a rare phenomenon: in 2014, extreme weather conditions, such as exceptionally heavy rain and snow, led to the starvation of more than 60,000 reindeer in Russia. And similar conditions are now appearing in Norway, where reindeer cannot reach food under snow and ice, causing starvation-like conditions.

Competition for Arctic Land

Indirect effects of climate change are also impacting Indigenous communities themselves. Because the Arctic is becoming more accessible, oil, gas, and other extractive industries are increasingly tussling for land rights in the region. Large corporations, such as Russia’s Rosneft, are able to develop massive resource extraction projects, which cut off reindeer’s and herders’ ability to travel freely across the tundra. Much of this land is traditionally used by Indigenous communities for migrating hundreds—or even thousands—of miles with reindeer herds, threatening the sustainability of herding as a way of life and, more broadly, restricting access to land.

Further, national Arctic policies appear to prioritize extractive industries’ interests. In Russia, for example, the whole-of-government 2035 Arctic Strategy estimates oil production in the Arctic growing by 65 percent between 2018 and 2035. Elsewhere, the Finnish government promoted an Arctic railway that would develop its northern region’s ore and timber industries, and exploit oil and gas reserves in the Barents Sea. The plan was since rejected by the Regional Council of Lapland.

Rethinking how Arctic governments approach land use to prioritize traditional uses is critical to sustaining the rights of Indigenous communities.

The Road Ahead: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge

Climate change is already impacting the Arctic in irreversible ways. At present, there is no long-term solution to address climate-related land and resource issues in the Russian and Scandinavian Arctic. There is also no real inclusion of Indigenous People in policymaking or cooperation with Indignous communities on a broad scale. Instead, government authorities are taking emergency measures to deal with one short-term crisis at a time. While Arctic governments can address these impacts in a number of ways, any long-term land use policies created without consideration of Indigenous communities is short-sighted at best and destructive for both land and people at worst.

Arctic governments should also work with Indigenous leadership to create climate change adaptation strategies, in order to build community resilience throughout the region. Policies that transfer the main conservation responsibility and ownership of the Arctic from national governments to Indigenous communities would allow these local groups to retain their heritage, while also using traditional knowledge to help bring balance back to exhausted ecosystems.

One such example is the use of ecological calendars, which are knowledge systems that consist of seasonal indicators integrating both Indigenous and scientific knowledge. Standard indicators such as the first flower blooming to indicate spring have become unreliable due to climate change. Ecological calendars can provide both Indigenous and scientific communities with a more reliable way of understanding changes in ecosystems, creating a more realistic climate policy in the future.

The broader climate change policy community is increasingly turning to traditional land approaches and the knowledge of Indigenous communities in the Arctic. The Arctic Council’s Circumpolar Wildland Fire Project, for instance, is integrating knowledge from Indigenous People to better understand wildfire management strategies in the Arctic. And Canada is using the Indigenous Guardians Pilot program to fund Indigenous People’s land, ice, and water management strategies for ecosystem conservation and developing sustainable economies.

To truly integrate Indigenous knowledge, the Russian and Scandanavian governments must involve reindeer herders in the development of climate change adaptation strategies. While adaptation policies acknowledge Indigenous knowledge and approaches, they are not commonly included in actual policy. This is because their integration often stands in opposition to the interests of large corporations. Listening to and including Indigenous knowledge should become a norm in creating climate change and land use policy.

The Arctic is not alone in its vulnerability to climate change. Glaciers in the Himalayas are an existential part of ecosystems in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India—and they are already melting, potentially causing drastic changes for both humans and animals alike. Figuring out how to best respond to similar issues in the Arctic Circle can help governments worldwide better prepare for future problems concerning fragile ecosystems. And taking into account the people most impacted by climate change and including them in policymaking has global relevance extending beyond reindeer, linchen, and ice.

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Frontiers in Land, Housing and Property Rights