Sami Lesson

18 May 2005

In the course of writing these articles I often recall the passing of old agricultural methods. I talk about new models based on traditional methods, or approaches attuned to natural processes, which form a healthy relationship between humans and the land. These attitudes obviously struggle in a situation where it is difficult to introduce changes to the prevailing models of agribusiness. It is all too easy to be accused of being nostalgic for the past, an unrealistic utopian, or even obscurantist.
However, I strongly believe it is necessary to look to the past without preconceptions, learn from other cultures and find out their history. We can see that we threw the baby out with the bathwater in thinking we could replace the past and its shortcomings with new miraculous solutions which are now revealed to be unsustainable.

This belief was confirmed when I made a trip to the far north of Europe among the Sami (the term Lapps may be better known, but it is no longer used since it is considered disparaging). I traveled up to the north of Sweden to attend the launch of a project defending a traditional Sami food, Suovas, or dried and smoked reindeer meat (which is very good by the way). The people live in symbiosis with reindeer, which they mainly use as a source of food. The Sami are an indigenous and nomadic people who for centuries have coped with living in the northern tundra areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia so they could follow the reindeer herds — their homelands, Sapmi, do not have rigidly defined frontiers and cross various countries.

People might think: why do they have to do that nowadays, with all the conveniences that are available? Well, to start with, reindeer can’t be kept fenced in or in a shed — they do not adapt to staying in one place and die in less than a year. So the Sami have to follow them as they move around from colder to warmer areas; from land where there is no more of their favorite food, lichen, to places where the harsh winter has not yet killed everything off. And each year when the animals get to the village furthest south they are culled. It is disconcerting when you ask if the reindeer have arrived at the village yet and they reply, “No, not today, maybe tomorrow”. It is a calm period of waiting: they are aware they have to accept the rhythms imposed by nature without being able to speed things up. But this does not mean they cannot use modern conveniences: snowmobiles are great for getting around more quickly, there are even those who can afford to use a small helicopter to check the herds. And instead of small huts (where the reindeer meat is still smoked) small prefabricated houses are appearing.

However this does not mean their community life has radically changed: the reindeer still decide where to go and when people have to work. Their social rules are the same as for centuries, but the Sami do face problems They have often been exploited, derided, repeatedly prevented from crossing land with their reindeer (there is still legal action being taken by small farmers of Jämtland in Sweden), they have not been able to enjoy the same rights as citizens “with a fixed abode” and they have many difficulties with property law and rights which are not applicable for their way of life. The underlying essence of their lifestyle has remained the same: even though they have converted to Christianity (often forcibly), their animistic religion is still the foundation for their attitudes to animals and the environment.

It is an attitude that is rare in the world of today and which we could learn from. The champions of modernity might say that they are a backward people, but it is interesting that the oldest Sami artwork always placed the sun at the center of their world, a long time before Galileo Galilei! They realized this just by being observant, understanding the difficult environment where they lived and relying on an empirical approach which today would be considered unscientific. It really is terribly cold up there, the conditions of light are disturbing if you are unused to them, and all that reindeer meat might get a bit boring: you would have to be pretty committed to envy them. But the lessons about the earth and nature which they can give to farmers around the world is truly important. What a noble example!

First published in La Stampa on November 21 2004

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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