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Chapter 2. Voices from Arctic nomads: an ancestral system facing global warming Reindeer herding food system of the Inari Sámi people in Nellim, Finland

Section 3 Conclusions and future projections


Outputs and inputs

The community’s main food sources come from reindeer herding, fishing, hunting and wild berry picking. Along with the traditional livelihoods, purchasing food from grocery stores has also become normal. Of the community’s total food consumption, today approximately 30 percent comes from the market, including dairy, grain products, vegetables and fruits. Potato is grown and cultivated in the community as a summer crop and consumed over the winter months. Grocery stores are found in Ivalo, a larger town 42 kilometres from Nellim. People who do not herd reindeer usually buy meat from the locals.

The Nellim food system is a hybrid system, utilizing certain modern tools and elements, such as the water cooperative, electricity, freezers, and more effective gillnets, and the community mixes them with their unique cultural practices and knowledge, such as the Inari Sámi style of reindeer herding, cultural fisheries and gathering activities.


The indigenous culture of the Sámi people is based on the free use of land, water and natural resources. The ecosystem regeneration is slow in the traditional homeland of the Inari Sámi, thus they have become accustomed to practicing their livelihoods and culture over wide areas, allowing for sustainable use of resources. The Sámi people have a self-government guaranteed to the Sámi as an Indigenous People by Finland’s Constitution. However, the State manages the land use in the Nellim area.

Several challenges threaten the sustainability of the Inari Sámi community. Increasing tourism activities have significant impacts on their practice of traditional reindeer herding and fishing. Further, industrial logging occupies reindeer herding areas.

The food production capacity of the traditional Inari Sámi food system is sufficient, yet complemented with groceries purchased from grocery stores. In general, the community members do not experience conditions of food insecurity, as nature and its products are diverse and abundant. The food consumed by the community is also adequate for nutritional needs.

Currently, the largest threat to the community’s food security comes from hazards induced by climate change. Wild edibles like berries and mushrooms are vulnerable to climatic changes. Further, it can negatively impact reindeer herding, hunting and fishing. Some changes are already visible, but the community members are not always sure whether climate change is the cause. There is less lichen, and it is more unavailable to reindeer due to harder layers of ice. The summer temperatures have also risen above normal during the past few years, and in general the seasonal calendar is changing. In addition to climatic events, the exploitative land use activities in the area have degrading effects on the community’s sustainability, such as industrial logging, gold mining and road construction. The activities cause loss of grazing lands, loading of organic matter in the lake, decreased soil quality and degradation of the lake bottom ecosystem. In addition, the logging industries have induced a decline of wildlife habitat, subsequently leading to smaller game populations.

The transmission of traditional knowledge is key for the community’s sustainability. Elders have a significant role in advising and leading the community based on their experiences. The traditional knowledge is maintained and transmitted through traditional livelihoods based on nature, as well as the Inari Sámi people’s relationship with nature.


The community identifies their well-being as based on several elements. First, well-functioning social structures and services in the community must be in place, using the Inari Sámi language. Second, community members must have wide respect and tolerance of the three cultures within the community, and there must be joint and democratic decision-making processes. Third, women, youth, elders and other marginalized groups are entitled to secure and thriving environments for schooling, working and maintaining the Inari Sámi way of life.

The major concern of the community is that forestry activities will further increase and consequently lead to a decrease of reindeer herding. They further foresee that tourism activities will continue to increase. Some community members are also concerned about what the renewed road will bring to the community. Normally road construction in the Finnish peripheries has led to intensifying natural resources extraction such as mining and forestry. An improved road system is also seen as a gateway that will increase social issues, such as narcotics and alcohol in the community, as well as the major tourism operations. A future potential development plan also includes the Arctic Railway. Initially scheduled for 2018-2019, the plan is currently in hiatus.

Traditional life and livelihoods will inevitably change along with changes in the landscape, production and diets. Factors such as changing soil quality, eutrophication of lakes, decrease of and eventual loss of game species and some fish population, and a drastic decrease of reindeer herding areas will cause large changes in the traditional food system in the future. Reindeer herding is particularly vulnerable, as there is a lack of younger people willing to continue the practice.

Members of the community are confident that nature will still provide berries and mushrooms. However, industrial forestry negatively impacts the growth of berries and mushrooms, in addition to the water quality downstream. Fishing will continue to be one of the community’s main practices, yet the population of some traditional fishing species, such as trout, has drastically decreased whilst other species, such as northern pike, has increased. Hunting will continue to be practised, but it is difficult to see whether there will be sufficient game animals to hunt, as some of the small game populations have drastically decreased in the past years.

The main challenge for the maintenance of the community is potentially the migration of youth. Nellim does not have many children and young people living in the village anymore. Life in the community is challenging and the uncertain future of reindeer herding has caused many young people to abandon traditional livelihoods and move away from the village. However, the younger generations still living in the village would like to continue traditional livelihoods and food systems. There is a general sense amongst the community members living in the village that they would like to maintain their traditions related to their local food system, foster the natural habitat, and keep it healthy and intact.


The research conducted demonstrates that the Inari Sámi traditional food system has survived largely as a result of the continuation of traditional livelihoods, such as reindeer herding, fishing, hunting and gathering. Traditional Inari Sámi foods include reindeer meat, fish, wild berries and game meat. Traditional dishes and cooking methods have not changed significantly in the past 100 years. In general, reindeer meat is shown to be the most important source of protein, even though many community members also consume fish. Wild berries, such as lingonberries and cloudberries, constitute important sources of vitamins and minerals. In addition to traditional food sources, community members supplement their diets with food from grocery stores.

Ice fishing on Lake Inari
© Sámi Parliament in Finland/Elle Maarit Arttijeff.

Indigenous traditional knowledge is key for the maintenance of traditional land uses. Inari Sámi culture is also integrated in what is left of the Inari Sámi language, for instance the ways they have named different fish and reindeer – whitefish especially being a significant species in the community over hundreds of years. The Nellim Sámi have managed to maintain their traditional land use practices over a long period of time. Whilst the starting point may have been a total of 15 indigenous Inari Sámi siidas around Lake Inari in prehistoric times, we know that the contemporary population was able to maintain their varriistâllâm specific seasonal land uses well into the 1900s. This can be considered an endemic indigenous governance of lands and waters. A century of modernization and exploitation of natural resources, also disturbing the reindeer herding, has not destroyed the traditional herding in the community. It co-evolved and survived, and is now enmeshed into the State’s natural resource management.

Nevertheless, the general lack of recognition of the traditional Inari Sámi reindeer husbandry and the competing use of land threaten the Inari Sámi culture. A settlement concerning the question of land and water rights, integrating the recognition of the traditional Sámi reindeer herding husbandry, would require new national legislation that considers all cumulative impacts on Sámi livelihoods. In times of increasing climatic hazards and increased resource extraction, it is pressing to put in place such legislation to ensure the sustainability and survival of the traditional Inari Sámi livelihoods.

“When we speak about fish, we speak about whitefish, unless otherwise specified.”

Elder from Nellim community.