SWEDEN A large part of Vattenfall’s activities in northern Sweden affects the everyday life of the reindeer-herding Sami people.

The spring  in 2014 was strange, observes Jon-Mikko Länta, chairman of Jåhkågaska Sami community. First the thaw had already set in by February, when it is usually 20 degrees below zero with lots of powdery snow. Then, when temperatures subsequently went below freezing, the reindeer could not reach the lichen under the snow and began to spontaneously roam up into the hills towards their summer grazing grounds, where the pregnant females calf in May.

“It was like emptying a bag of marbles onto the floor – in a few days the reindeer were spread over several miles, and the frozen crust made it impossible to follow their tracks in the snow, so the situation became really confused and the reindeer were in all the wrong places,” says Länta.

There are five Sami “sameby” (communities) in Jokkmokk municipality. Sirges is the largest with 400 inhabitants, and its chairman Jakob Nygard was faced with an acute problem that day: Some of the reindeer had wandered onto the wrong side of the Lule River and were unable to get back because the areas around the power plant are fenced-in. “The only place where the reindeer can cross is the dry stretch of river downstream of the power plant in Porjus. We will try to drive them over tonight with a helicopter. We don’t know how many there are, as they are spread around the forest over the whole mountain,” Nygard says.

Vattenfall contributes financially to the use of the helicopter, as a way of compensating the Sami for cutting off their old crossing points. In other cases, Vattenfall can make it easier for the reindeer to cross the river by filling in snow and packing it on the old river bed.

Jokkmokk municipality has 5,000 inhabitants, with many times that number of reindeer. There are up to 20,000 within the Sami communities of Jahkagaska and Sirges alone. Reindeer play an absolutely central role in traditional Sami culture and reindeer herding has been carried on here for hundreds if not thousands of years. The Sami people have the right to use the land but don’t own it, and in the last century, what had long been considered to be worthless and unusable terrain has become a gold mine for the state and industry, thanks to its natural resources. Forestry, mining and electricity generation have consequently pushed the Sami people into ever more fragmented areas, making reindeer herding more difficult.

Vattenfall has eleven hydro power plants in the municipality, including Porjus and Harspranget. Together they generate 12 billion kWh of electricity per year. When construction started a century ago, the need of the wider society was the main consideration. Certainly, the Sami people were compensated in various ways, but with hindsight many people think that the grazing grounds were sold too cheaply. The matter remains a sore point with the older population in particular. However, Vattenfall has made major efforts in recent years to improve relations, and when a new generation takes over, both in the Sami communities and the companies, there will be greater scope to leave the old problems behind.

“I feel that we have good relations with Vattenfall’s local managers today. We hold regular meetings during which we discuss shared problems and solutions, for instance when the ice conditions are so poor that we cannot get across due to how the power plants are running. The water level in the Seitevare dam varies so much that we cannot keep our boats on the lake. So Vattenfall built a ramp that lets us pull the boats up instead,” says Länta.

But it is an effort for the Sami to continually fight for their rights to land and water, and the mining jobs in Gällivare pay better than reindeer herding, attracting many of the younger people. As a way of supporting its operations, therefore, Vattenfall outsources some jobs to the Sami communities. At the Seitevare dam, for example, Vattenfall is responsible for maintaining certain fence installations, which are designed to keep the reindeer herds together when they migrate in spring and autumn. That task is now performed by the Jakhagaska Sami community.

In Spring, reindeer from the Sirges’ sameby move 400 kilometres from the sea in the east to the summer grazing areas in the mountains, as shown by chairman of the Sirges Sami community Jakob Nygärd
Jon-Mikko Länta, chairman of the Jåhkågaska Sami community


The hydro power operators have had a long relationship with the Sami people, and work in various ways to ensure good cooperation, says Richard Holmgren, Head of Environment at BU Hydro. The management of BU Hydro meets with the Sami communities several times a year, and both parties are otherwise in constant contact in connection with various matters, such as overflows from dams, reindeer going astray and other issues. “In this way, we have built up mutual trust over the years. The change of generations has also helped us, so that we can now look forwards rather than backwards,” he says. Each year Vattenfall pays a fee for hydro power to the local county council. For the Lule Alv district that comes to SEK 45 million per year (nearly 5 million euros).

This fee, known as a regional fund, is used to correct damage caused by water regulation measures such as erosion, and to develop commerce in the area. Ten per cent of this regional fund is earmarked for reindeer herding. “To be allowed to use the funds, the sameby has to contribute up to 75 per cent themselves. We sometimes support the sameby by a contribution in order for them to be able to make use of the funds. We also hire these communities for jobs such as repairing fences or cleaning the banks of the regulating reservoirs of stubble and other rubble, and also sponsor the Ajtte Sami museum in Jokkmokk with SEK 10 million (approximately 110,000 euros) per year. By showing that we have a deferential and respectful attitude to the needs of the Sami people, we hope to assure better acceptance of Vattenfall’s operations as a whole,” says Richard Holmgren.

There are many good locations for wind power in the reindeer grazing areas, so when wind power is expanded in Sweden, it affects the reindeer industry during the construction period, not least due to transport and power-line routes cutting off old-established migration paths. Vattenfall currently operates a wind farm in Stor-Rotliden as well as a single turbine in Suorva, and plans to build another six wind farms in the region.

“Wind power projects are a difficult and sensitive issue wherever they are. As regards reindeer herding, we have a special policy which also covers separate consultations with this particular interest group. It’s important to maintain a dialogue on the way the projects are to be realised and how we can take due account of reindeer herding, but we don’t abort a planned project simply because the herders are against it. If we cannot come to an agreement, we let the approvals commission decide the case. That sometimes leads to restrictions in the project, such as in the number of turbines,” says Eva Vitell, responsible for wind power projects in Sweden.

The wind farm of Stor-Rotliden with its 40 turbines is located in the area of the northern Sami community of Vilhelmina. Ingemar Forsgren, who is responsible for its operation, feels that relations with the Sami community are good: “We have a meeting with the Sami community every autumn, when we review the plans for the coming year, such as our repair projects, and coordinate these with the planned migration of the reindeer herds. Beyond that, we only have contact as the need arises. Thus, we routinely warn the herders whenever major icing makes it unsuitable for reindeer to enter the area,” he says.


Winter feeding: Reindeer eat the lichen under the snow during the winter months

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