A slaughtering dispute and intervention by UN Human Rights Committee has strained relationships within the reindeer herding association of Ivalo
“If they get special permits, does anyone else need to abide by the law, either?”
By Jenni Leukumaavaara in Inari
At the fence of the Moitakuru reindeer corrall, reindeer herder Juha Mikkola limps towards his van.
Mikkola took a tumble on his quad bike while gathering up his reindeer in the forest and sprained his ankle.
In 2007, a forced slaughtering of reindeer belonging to the Nellim herding district and put into effect by the reindeer herding association of Ivalo led to a bit of a barney and fisticuffs by the round-up fence.
The same sort of altercation would have been repeated this past week had the United Nations Human Rights Committee not intervened.
“If they get special permits, does anyone else need to abide by the law, either?” asks Mikkola, together with many other Ivalo reindeer herding association members.
Reindeer owner Ari Kustula - from the same association - reckons that it is possible that the reindeer keepers will start testing the limits of the Reindeer Husbandry Act.
This would quickly lead to overgrazing.
In Nellim, the northern part of the area belonging to the association, a quiet group of men sit with arms folded in the living room of reindeer herder Kalevi Paadar.
The men are happy about the intervention by the UN Human Rights Committee, but it only provides a short timeout in a situation so confusing that just listening to it is enough to make one’s head spin - without a drop of alcohol.
The Nellim district herders are of the opinion that the Reindeer Husbandry Act should be amended, because as it stands, and in combination with a ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court, it will eventually be the deathknell for the smaller reindeer husbandry districts that practice traditional reindeer herding, such as the Nellim district.
“If a dog is chased into a corner, it will eventually attack, no matter how nice a dog it may be otherwise”, Kalevi Paadar says in a wafer-thin voice from his rocking chair.
The other men nod their heads in agreement.
The strife within the reindeer herding association of Ivalo is above all about the counting system that the association is using when deciding on the number of animals to be slaughtered.
The herders in Nellim feel that the counting system is unfair.
The most common practice, which was also in use in Ivalo until 2003, is to give the calves and the adult reindeer separate percentual figures for slaughtering.
Now the association is applying the same percentage for all the animals, but because of various circumstances this imposes heavier losses on the Nellim herders.
The calves, in particular, make for easy snack food for bears when they wake up from their winter hibernation. According to studies conducted within the border region between Finland, Norway, and Russia, there are more bears in the Nellim area than in other parts of the reindeer herding association of Ivalo.
When the number of calves drops, the herders in Nellim are forced to slaughter adult female reindeer instead.
This leads to a vicious circle: fewer females means fewer calves.
As a result the herds round here just keep getting smaller.
According to the Supreme Administrative Court documents, the herds in the Nellim district have decreased in size even though the herders have refused to carry out the slaughterings in their full extent.
Owing to the slaughtering shortfall, the Nellim reindeer herders have long since lost their EU support grants, years ago.
The reindeer herding association of Ivalo is of the opinion that the herders in Nellim are spouting rubbish.
In a few other reindeer associations there have also been similar problems to those of Ivalo. In these associations, however, the reindeer districts are more or less of equal size, which means that the voting rights on these matters are more evenly distributed.
The environmental conditions, too, are more balanced in these other locations.
The Nellim reindeer herders would like to form their own reindeer herding association.
The Ivalo association is dead against this, because the Nellim herders are demanding far too large a share of the grazing pastures, appealing to the plea of their practicing traditional reindeer husbandry.
What adds insult to injury, in a region of Finland where insult and injury - even among members of the same family - are never far from the surface, is a decades-old forest dispute, which culminated a couple of years ago with the Nellim herders (with some help from Greenpeace) managing to reach a negotiated settlement that led to the placing of the forest pastures under protection for twenty years.
Apparently that, too, is a sin in this neck of the woods.
Still, one cannot but wonder how grown men and women cannot solve their differences.
“If we could go ten years back in time and talk things through, maybe a solution would be found. But now things have gone so far that nobody is willing to give in”, reindeer herder Kari Alatorvinen summarises.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 29.9.2011
Previously in HS International Edition:
UN asks Finland to save Nellim reindeer in Finnish Lapland (27.9.2011)
Reindeer disputes in Finnish Lapland attract attention of UN (30.10.2007)
Lapland: disputes over land and reindeer pit brother against brother (4.3.2008)
JENNI LEUKUMAAVAARA / Helsingin Sanomat