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The protectors – reindeer herders gather in Sweden

Kathrine Ivsett Johnsen

Story by GRID-Arendal August 31st, 2017

My grandfather said: “You cannot own land. What you own, you bring with you”… But my grandfather was wrong. We own the land. These lands were ours before the mining, forestry, damming and military activities. These lands are ours after they leave. We are not going anywhere. We fight over the land that is left.

Delegate from Jokkmokk, Sweden


Reindeer herding unites peoples in China, Mongolia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Scotland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. Every four years they gather to exchange reports on the status of reindeer husbandry in each of the regions and to discuss common challenges.

The sixth Reindeer Herders’ Congress took place recently in Jokkmokk, Sweden. This year the focus was on land-use change, health of animals and humans, education and research, and traditional handicrafts. There was also a field trip to the Laponia World Heritage Site to learn about obstacles and opportunities for co-management of protected areas.

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Field trip at Reindeer Herders’ Congress

On its last day, the Congress elected a new president and council of the World Reindeer Herders Association and issued the Jokkmokk Declaration that sets the agenda for the coming four years.

My main role at the Congress was to contribute to a seminar on biodiversity, climate change and protected areas, where I presented the Nomadic Herders project. Focusing on taiga reindeer herding communities in northern Mongolia and Sakha Yakutia, this project addresses traditional knowledge, adaptation to climate change and protection of the environment. The initiative came from world reindeer herders themselves, following the fourth Congress of the World Reindeer Herders in 2009. The Nomadic Herders project is one of the few Arctic Council endorsed projects run by Observers (the World Reindeer Herders Association and UN Environment), and led by Indigenous Peoples.

Reindeer Herders’ Congress
At Reindeer Herders’ Congress

I’ve attended several of these gatherings and spend much of my time at GRID-Arendal working on reindeer herding and other pastoral issues. I find that herders I meet and speak to have a clear sense of themselves as stewards of the land and environment on which they and their herds depend.

Sofia Jannok, an award-winning Sámi artist, articulated this during her special performance for the Congress participants in Jokkmokk. Jannok addressed the issue of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the light of traditional pastures being lost to urbanization and mining. She stated:

“I don’t have rights because I need protection,” she said. “I am the protector.”