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The Project: Context

Reindeer herders and global change

Reindeer herding– a millennia-old tradition of more than 20 different indigenous peoples across the circumpolar North – is challenged by climate change (Oskal 2009, Forbes B. C., Stammler F. et al. 2009, Roturier and Roué 2009, Lavrillier 2011). Changing weather and shorter winters are altering reindeer and caribou migration and feeding patterns (Mustonen 2005), while shrubs are moving northward into the barren tundra areas, making access to food a challenge for the animals.

Arctic reindeer-herding peoples are concerned about climate-related disasters that may threaten people or the survival of their herds. For the Sami winter has always been a difficult season, as severe conditions may deprive their herds of food. In this respect, the Sami term for good pasture, guohtun, is particularly revealing. Although often erroneously translated as pasture in English, guohtun in fact refers not only to the presence of lichen-heath pasture, but also its accessibility to the reindeer herds. In contrast, the scourge of every herder is čuokke: a pasture locked under a sheet of impenetrable ice (Roué, in press). After a warm spell in winter, when snow has melted or rain has fallen, freezing temperatures can quickly result in vast ice sheets that bar any access by the reindeer to their food. When these conditions occur, the entire herd may starve if they are not quickly moved to an ice-free zone. According to the Swedish Commission on Climate and Vulnerability (2007, cited in Roué, in press), global climate change is expected to increase the frequency of oscillating temperature regimes in winter, which in turn will likely increase the frequency of disastrous ice conditions on winter pastures.

Tungus (Evenk and Even) reindeer herders designate the changing climate and environment increasingly impacting their lifestyle with the vernacular term okollen which means “it’s getting hotter” (Lavrillier 2013) and in Kamchatka there is increasing evidence of new insect pests affecting greenhouse vegetables and wild gathering plants, or parasitizing animals (Crate 2008, Lavrillier 2008, Lavrillier 2013).

While climate change research is well developed in the Western part of the Arctic (Greenland, Canada and a part of Alaska), this is not the case in Fennoscandia and Eastern Siberia, with a few important exceptions: the RENMAN, RENSUP and EALAT projects.

By Roue, M., Lavrillier, A. and Nakashima, D. (2014)


Crate, S.A. 2008. Gone the Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s role(s) in Global Climate Change. Current Anthropology 49: 569-595;
Forbes B. C., Stammler F., Kumpula T., Meschtyb N., Pajunen A., and Kaarlejärvi E. 2009. High Resilience in the Yamal-Nenets social– Ecological system, West Siberian Arctic, Russia in PNAS, vol 106, n°52, 22041-22048.
Lavrillier, A. (2013). Climate change among nomadic and settled Tungus of Siberia: continuity and changes in economic and ritual relationships with the natural environment, Polar Record, Vol. 49, issue 03, pp. 260-271.
Lavrillier, A. (2011). Renne domestique, renne sauvage face au réchauffement [French : Domestic reindeer, Wild reindeer facing the warming], in M. Raccurt & R. Chernokian (eds), Mondes polaires. Hommes et biodiversités des défis pour la sciences, Publication INEE/Prospective polaire, édition du Cherche Midi, pp. 142‐145.
Lavrillier, A. (2008). Comment les Évenks de Sibérie méridionale ont modifié le rituel sur le gibier tué [French: How the Evenks of Southern Siberia modified the killed game ritual], Annales de la Fondation Fyssen , N°22, pp. 112-121.
Mustonen T. (ed.) 2005. Stories of the Raven—Snowchange 2005 Conference Report Anchorage Alaska. Snowchange Cooperative.
Oskal, A. et al. 2009. EALÁT. Reindeer Herders Voice: Reindeer Herding, Traditional Knowledge and Adaptation to Climate Change and Loss of Grazing Lands. International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, Kautokeino / Guovdageadnu, Norway.
Roturier, S., Roué, M., 2009. Of forest, snow and lichen: Sami reindeer herders’ knowledge of winter pastures in northern Sweden, Forest Ecology and Management, Vol. 258, pp. 1960-67.
Roué, M. in press, ‘Normal’ catastrophes or a harbinger of climate change? Reindeer-herding Sami coping with disastrous winters in northern Sweden’ in Indigenous Knowledge and Changing Environments. Paris, UNESCO.
SOU. 2007. Sweden facing climate change – threats and opportunities. Final report from the Swedish Commission on Climate and Vulnerability. Swedish Government Official Reports.