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Climate change is threatening traditions of Europe´s indigenous peoples

Sami, Indigenous Peoples' Day, © John Cook, 'Sami 3',

9 August 2018 - Record high summer temperatures are threatening the traditional life style of the Sami in Finland, Norway and Sweden. 

The Sami people are the indigenous people who populate Sápmi, a cultural region in the northern part of the three Nordic countries, which is commonly called Lapland in English. The Sami population of 70.000-100.000, has lived in the region for thousands of years.

July was the warmest on record on the North Calotte and the average temperature in Finnish Lapland was five degrees higher than normal, one degree more than the rest of Finland.

According to the Finnish Meteorological institute the average temperature in July was a record-high 20,1°C in Sodankylä, to the north of the Arctic Circle.  Tiina Sanila-Aikio, the President of Finland´s Sami parliament says that in recent days and weeks daytime temperatures have typically been above 30 degrees and night-time over 20 where she lives in the Inari region, high above the Arctic circle.

“We are very worried about climate change,” Sanila-Aikio says. “It is threatening our traditional life-style.  We are worried that the temperature of waters will rise so high that fish-species in our rivers and lakes will start to die. We are not used to such warm periods, so there has been a lot of impact and mostly negative. If this happens more often, what will happen to our nature and our culture, and how we use the nature?”

The theme of this year´s International Day for the World's Indigenous People 9 August is: “Indigenous peoples´ migration and movement”, which draws attention to the loss of land, territories and resources due to industrial development, that indigenous people are facing.. But climate change is also threatening their traditional way of life.

“In extremely hot summer, wildfires are hitting the Arctic Circle,” tweeted UNFCCC, the UN Climate Change agency. “Once relatively fire-free, Arctic areas are now likely to become more susceptible to fires because of #ClimateChange, climate scientists say.”

Sweden´s unprecedented drought and devastating wildfires are destroying vital land for indigenous Sami reindeer herders; whose livelihoods are already under attack from mining and logging as global warming changes the face of the Arctic. Bushfires north of the Arctic circle and generally temperature records in the Nordic countries, might forecast what the future looks like.

Reindeer herders are extremely worried that there might not be any pasture for the reindeer to graze on in the winter. Calves are reported to be dehydrated and unable to keep up with their mothers due to the lack of water in the mountains. Some maintain it will take decades for the grazing lands to be restored.

Although last winter was harsh, the Arctic has been warming for decades, threatening Sami traditions.

“Our culture is based on traditional knowledge, which is passed on from generation to generation,” explains Finland´s Sami parliament president Sanila-Aikio. “The knowledge of survival is being undermined, for example which routes are safe in winter. Now when ice is different, you cannot trust anymore this traditional knowledge about where it is safe to go. And given the fact that in winter, it is very dark even in daytime for months on end, you must know where to go and this  might get our reindeer herders into problem, so they risk drowning. Conditions are changing so fast that our knowledge doesn´t follow.”

These problems will sound familiar to the other group of Nordic indigenous people the 50,000-strong Inuits of Greenland, although they have not experienced an extremely hot summer.

In Greenland the Inuit society is affected by climate change, since rising temperatures globally is having an impact on the Greenland ice sheet. With the ice melting, the Inuits may be forced to migrate to other places to hunt and live.

Inuits have used dog sleds for hunting and transport for many thousands of years. But climate change could mean the end of the traditional dog sledding. Since warmer temperatures makes it harder to anticipate and interpret the ice, Inuits can no longer drive a dog sled across the ice to places on the other side of the fjords. Parts of their traditional culture are disappearing. This is just one example of how their way of living is being affected by climate change.  

In his message on the International Day of the World´s Indigenous peoples, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasizes their “profound spiritual connection to their lands and resources.”

“On this annual observance, let us commit to fully realizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the rights to self-determination and to traditional lands, territories and resources.  And, wherever they live, let us ensure that indigenous peoples enjoy recognition for their contributions and the opportunity to thrive and prosper in peace on a healthy planet,” the UN Secretary-General says in his message on the International Day of the World´s Indigenous peoples.

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