One of the key findings of the most recent UN report on the mounting perils of climate change is that rising temperatures pose a distinct risk to indigenous people, who are often small farmers, fishers or herders. The report noted that punishing storms, lasting drought and stifling heat threaten the lives and livelihoods of aboriginal groups from the Amazon rainforest to the Arctic Circle.

The Sámi people offer a case in point. The only recognized indigenous group in Europe has lived in the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia since records began, primarily herding reindeer. But climate change now threatens their way of life — and their basic rights. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as temperatures elsewhere. High temperatures have produced more rain, which freezes to form a thick barrier of ice on top of the snow. Unable to dig through it to reach the lichen below, the reindeer starve. The decline of reindeer has contributed to a mental health crisis among indigenous herders.

The Sámi have fought hard to protect their rights. February 6 marked the 102nd anniversary of the first Sámi national assembly, which addressed encroaching threats to their land and culture. Today, more than a century later, the Sámi are speaking out about the carbon crisis. The photos below offer a glimpse of the Sámi people and their struggle with climate change.

Maxida Märak, a Sámi activist and artist. “I am a Sámi activist mainly because I have no choice. I feel a huge responsibility to use [my] voice for my people and the important issues that we struggle with,” she said. “If we don’t start to really take the climate issue seriously, the future is not bright for anyone. We will probably be the first ones that get really affected by it. But I do see hope, my generation is the first that is allowed to get into powerful positions [and can] speak for ourselves.” Source: Environmental Justice Foundation
Lars-Ánte Kuhmunen a Sámi reindeer herder and community leader in northern Sweden, lost much of his herd last year, as unpredictable weather made grazing difficult for the reindeer. Source: Environmental Justice Foundation
Lars-Ánte Kuhmunen finding a reindeer calf in the snow. “This one was starving to death,” he said. “That’s the climate change.” Source: Environmental Justice Foundation
Kenneth Pittja lives in Jokkmokk in northern Sweden during the winter. Each spring and summer he takes his reindeer herd 60 miles north to Ruokto, Sweden to graze. “I live for the reindeer, and they mean everything to me,” he said. “I don’t need anything else. I am Sámi. It’s me, and I’m proud of it. It’s hard for me to really know what the rest of the world should do. But if we all stop chasing something far away, and just start to be, I think it would be a good start.” Source: Environmental Justice Foundation
hand feeds young reindeer
To survive in the changing climate, Sámi herders are purchasing supplementary feed to sustain reindeer through winter. The extra feed is costly, and the Sámi have observed a higher rate of disease among reindeer fed with pellets. Source: Environmental Justice Foundation
Aslat Simma, a reindeer herder in Sweden, worries about losing his livelihood to climate change. “If I can’t live like this, then what do I do?” he said. “I have to change my way of life, and if I change my way of life, the culture and the way of doing things is going to change. It’s my job, but also my life. Now is the time to do something about climate change. It is not in the future. It is happening now.” Source: Environmental Justice Foundation
A Sámi reindeer herder. Source: Environmental Justice Foundation

Daisy Brickhill, PhD, is a science writer with the Environmental Justice Foundation. She produced this story for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.