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In Norway, Fighting the Culling of Reindeer With a Macabre Display

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food would not comment because the case is not resolved. But the government’s stated rationale for the culling is to prevent overgrazing of the tundra landscapes to and from where reindeers are herded. General estimates for Norway’s total reindeer population are around 220,000.

Tor A. Benjaminsen, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, wrote in a letter published on the website of the state broadcaster NRK last spring that the reduction policy was arrogant and not based on knowledge.

He said that the government “does not understand reindeer herding” and that the policy of culling and levying “fines for those who breach the policy could collapse if the government loses the case.”

Nicholas Tyler, a British biologist and mammal ecologist who studies Norway’s wild and domesticated reindeer at UIT, the Arctic University of Norway, was skeptical of the government’s position.

“There is a lot of talk of ‘overgrazing,’ but it is rarely rigorously defined what overgrazing actually is in a pastoral context,” Dr. Tyler said, noting that pastures are constantly changing and renewing.

“The Sami herders feel like they are being squashed in physically — by roads, dams, mines, railroads, wind farms,” he said, “Then they are told they are the unsustainable ones.”

Dr. Tyler said that the state’s regulation of grazing systems could be described as internal “welfare colonialism,” the anthropologist Richard Paine’s term that denotes an exchange of dependency, in this case, subsidies in return for stricter government controls.

He described the case as a tense, essential debate over what should take precedence in Norway: indigenous rights, including that to an ancestral livelihood, or ecological biodiversity and general environmental rights.

A representative of the attorney general’s office said in a phone call that the government was pursuing the case as a matter of principle: “It’s about whether or not the law is to be interpreted literally or not.”

The lawyer arguing the government’s case, Stein-Erik Jahr Dahl, said in his closing statement, “The right to herd reindeer does not give Sara a right to a certain number of reindeer, nor a right to keep sufficient reindeer to have a financial return or to pursue reindeer herding as a full-time job.”

He also said that the government’s main objective of “proportionate reduction” was to ensure that the herd was brought down to “an ecological, economically and culturally sustainable level as well as to ensure sound animal welfare.”

The Arctic-dwelling Sami are indigenous to northern Norway and to chillier parts of Russia, Finland and Sweden. There is no census on how many reside in Norway; estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000. The Sami have their own Parliament and president, but both are largely symbolic, with no veto power.

The Sami’s forced assimilation into wider Norwegian society until the 1960s, when indigenous people were granted language rights, is still viewed with resentment. Some Sami say forced assimilation continues, just in more subtle ways.

In recent years, improved relations between the Sami and other Norwegians have eroded since the emergence of the right-wing Progress Party, which has taken a harder line on minorities in Norway in response to higher levels of migration to this nation of just over five million people.

Standing beneath the curtain of reindeer skulls, the Sami president, Aili Keskitalo, called Mr. Sara’s trial “a symbol” of the Sami people’s plight.

There have been other court cases involving the reindeer-reduction policy, but this one is significant, some legal experts say, because it could lead to the policy’s overturning.

When Mr. Sara took his case first to the Inner Finnmark District Court in 2016, his sister showed up at the courthouse steps with a truck and dumped onto the snow a much more gory version of her artwork: a mountain of still-bloody reindeer heads with a Norwegian flag planted atop.

Mr. Sara won that case and then another, which brought it to the Supreme Court. Final arguments were on Wednesday, and a decision is expected in early January.

When not in court, Mr. Sara, who is from Kautokeino, a cultural capital of the Sami, moves with the herd. On Wednesday, he was inside the court while other family members tended to his reindeer, which were about 150 miles from Hammerfest, bound for the Bavttajohka river, midway along their migration trail.

“It is my responsibility to carry on our heritage,” he said by phone when asked why he continued to pursue the case. “Right now, we don’t get to decide over our own lives.”

Were he not a herder, he said, he would be at a loss as to what to do to earn a living. “All I know is reindeer herding,” he said. “That’s been all my life.”

Under Norway’s current policy, his herd may be reduced to 75. Could he survive with so few reindeer?

“Absolutely not,” he said.

Standing next to her skulls in Oslo on Wednesday, his sister said: “My hope in the legal system is fading. We have a saying in the Sami language, ‘You can’t beat the troll with its own tricks.’”

The skulls came from a slaughter house near Kautokeino, she said, and the bullet holes were “an example of Western colonization.”

Ms. Sara spoke as vendors sold mulled wine from snow-covered wooden cabins, and talking moose heads greeted tourists here with “Merry Christmas.” Her hanging reindeer showed various stages of decomposition, their shades of yellow matching both the austere brickwork of the Stortinget and the stripes of the Sami flag.

“The energy is still here with these heads,” Ms. Sara said, looking up at the skulls. “They are dead and alive, all at once.”

Source: NYT > World

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