Conflicts grow over grazing up north

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The plateaus and open range of northern Norway are vast, but there’s apparently not enough room for both the Sami people’s reindeer herds and farmers trying to grow crops. Now politicians are demanding that the Sami keep their reindeer away from agricultural land.

Tempers have been rising for months from Alta to Kautokeino in the northern reaches of Finnmark County. Farmers and the indigenous Sami people have been locked in a conflict involving large herds of reindeer, grazing rights and long-simmering tensions that even have led to charges of racism.

Ranchers and farmers claim the reindeer population is out of control. Hungry herds, desperate for food, wander onto farmland, eating up seedlings and ruining crops, reports newspaper Aftenposten . The biggest conflicts are between permanent residents and the mobile Sami who follow their herds.

“There’s not enough grazing land to support the herds, and those in charge of the herds don’t manage to control them,” Jørn Suhr of the local farmers’ organization Bondelaget in Alta, told Aftenposten recently.

“It is true that once last year’s calves smell fresh grass and taste it, it’s difficult to keep them away,” conceded Josef Sara, who owns herds that have damaged crops. “But we have reduced our herds, to less than 3,000 animals. Others haven’t, and that’s a problem.”

On Wednesday, Norway’s incumbent Agriculture Minister Lars Peder Brekk called for dialogue between the farmers and the reindeer herders, and put clear demands on the herders: “Laws and rules (regarding grazing rights) must be followed. The farmers and the herders both live off the nature and must live together in Finnmark.” He wants the level of conflict to decline immediately.

There are many laws at many different levels regulating land use in Finnmark. In some cases state and local laws compete with each other.

Alta Mayor Geir Ove Bakken doesn’t think state authorities are doing enough to enforce its laws. “We demand that the reindeer be kept out of the valleys near towns, away from farmland,” he said. “They have no right to be there.”

Brekk is arranging talks between the various groups and promises to follow the situation closely. Bakken welcomes the talks and the attention now being given the conflict on a national level.