Thu, Feb 28, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The battle to save
Europe’s last great wilderness

A railway through Lapland could create new jobs, or destroy the Sami people’s ancient way of life

By Tom Wall  /  The Guardian

“When we have enough reindeer, we will have a roundup and other herders will come and take theirs and we will keep ours,” he said, pointing out the different markings on their backs.

Reindeer are revered in Sami culture, because for thousands of years these perfectly adapted Arctic survivors have provided families with meat and milk; hides for clothing, shoes and tents; bones and antlers for tools, handicrafts and weapons; and sinews for sewing.

This is reflected in the language: There are thought to be about 1,000 Sami words devoted to reindeer appearance, behavior and habits.

Or, as Seurujarvi said: “Without the reindeer, the Sami people wouldn’t be.”

Yet the government’s preferred route for the railway — which was formally announced in March last year — would pass between 5km and 10km from Seurujarvi’s home, cutting in two the land used by his herd and six others in the reindeer cooperative on the north side of Lake Inari.

Seurujarvi said this could spell the end for the reindeer herding practiced by the Sami, in which the partly domesticated animals are allowed to graze freely, consuming more than 400 different types of plants.

“Everybody would lose their jobs if the railway comes. Our land would be divided — it would be like a new border,” he said. “Reindeer follow migration paths through forests. If they can’t, there will not be enough food to feed them all.”

If the railway is unfenced, accidents with trains speeding at up to 220kph could decimate herds, especially when they are drawn into open spaces to escape clouds of mosquitoes that rise from marshes in the summer months.

Seurujarvi first heard about the plans on social media last year.

“I saw it on Facebook — I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

It is not just reindeer herders on remote farms who were the last to hear about major infrastructure projects in their homeland.

In the icy black of the early evening, Sami Parliament President Tiina Sanila-Aikio spoke to the Guardian while heating up reindeer soup in her home on the outskirts of Inari village, which is the center of cultural and political life for the 10,500 registered Sami in Finland.

Sanila-Aikio is a former rock musician and language teacher who took on the job when the last president resigned in protest at what he saw as moves by the Finnish state to forcibly assimilate the Sami.

She discovered the railway plan while checking her phone in bed in June 2017.

“I read it in the media. I didn’t believe it was true. They did not even mention the Sami,” she said between mouthfuls of silky soup, enriched with meaty reindeer bones.

The parliament was consulted after that and made clear its opposition, but the government and municipalities have been developing detailed plans regardless.

Sanila-Aikio said the Finnish authorities’ stance is a continuation of longstanding colonial attitudes toward the Sami, which saw their spiritual beliefs, language and democratic village councils, known as Siida, suppressed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“First, they took the religion, then they broke the Siida system, then they took the lands and the language, and now they want to build a railroad,” she said.

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