Climate Change is a Threat to the Saami People’s Culture and Traditional Knowledge Base in the EU

The only group of indigenous people that can be found in the EU is the Saami people. The total Saami population is estimated to be around 80,000, and the Saami people are scattered throughout Northern Finland, Sweden, Norway, and part of Russia. There are ten Saami languages, nine of which are still spoken today. Aside from language, some of the most prominent manifestations of Saami culture include music, stories, and art. Some examples of traditional Saami livelihoods include fishing, gathering, making crafts, hunting, and reindeer herding, as reindeer are often used as a means of transportation and their flesh is used as a material for Saami clothing, handicrafts, and food.

As such, climate change has inevitably impacted the Saami people. Climate change has caused a greater unpredictability of when snow will fall, as the Arctic is warming four times as quickly as the rest of the world, which has had a direct impact on the Sammi’s herding culture. Reindeer are sensitive to small variations in weather and temperature, and warming temperatures have led to reindeer behavioural changes and a delayed rutting season that has resulted in a greater number of reindeer being born at a later time. Reindeer also rely on lichen for food, and as climate change becomes more notable, lichen has slowly been being replaced by moss. This led to a mass starvation of reindeer in Finland between 2018-2019. Given that reindeer herding is a cornerstone of Saami culture, increasing temperatures could cause reindeer herding to be transformed from a cultural livelihood to an industry. The Saami people have been forced to adopt more modern technologies or provide additional food to their reindeer in order to ensure that their reindeer survive.

Additionally, the Saami are a group that is characterized by their close relationship to nature, which is consistently being threatened by the effects of climate change. The Saami people are concerned about the intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge due to the rising pressures that climate change is inflicting on the Saami way of life, along with the pressures created by competing forms of land use, legislation, and economic boundaries. Altered conditions, such as warmer winters and changes in weather and vegetation conditions, have weakened the utility and transference of Saami traditional knowledge.

Yet, the Saami are actively working to create policies and frameworks that will lessen the negative impacts that climate change has on the Saami way of life. The Saami have a representative group called the Saami Council, which voices the concern of civil Saami society in the Arctic Council, UN environmental conventions, and other international fora. The Saami Council has the goal of actively participating in the Arctic Council’s working groups, with a specific focus on topics like marine plastic pollution and climate change resilience and adaptation. The Saami Council also has the goal of collaborating with other indigenous representatives and parliaments in order to strengthen indigenous people’s perspectives in the work of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC).

The Saami Council has also worked directly with the EU in order to raise the notability of Saami voices on European platforms. In 2022, the Saami Council established the Sapmi project, which was developed with EU funding assistance. The objective of the project was to involve Saami civil society in EU decision-making processes so that the Saami people can voice their concerns on various EU-related topics. The main pillars of the project aside from increasing communications that spread knowledge about the Saami way of life included strengthening the presence of the Saami’s perspective in EU conferences, workshops, and seminars as well as participating in the EU consultation mechanism. The Sapmi project ultimately led to the Saami people’s voices being heard in EU discussions related to the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, the Just Transition Fund, and the European Climate Pact. The Sapmi project also led to an EU-Saami week being held in Brussels in 2022, which will now become an annual tradition, during which the Saami people were able to set an agenda for discussions they wished to have with the EU.

While these are promising beginning strides, the primary Saami involvement within the EU seems to currently be focused on increasing the representation of the Saami people in European platforms as opposed to facilitating the creation of policies aimed at assisting the Saami people in adapting to the effects of climate change. As such, moving forward the EU should continue to fund projects that increase the representation of the Saami people in European institutions while also working with the Saami people to advocate for the implementation of policies at the European and national levels that help the Saami people adapt to climate change without sacrificing their culture.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard European Union Manager Brittany Demogenes

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