Case Study: Kola: the Saami community of Lovozero climate change case study

August 2, 2012, 2:48 pm
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This is Section 3.4.9 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment; one of nine Arctic climate change case studies using indigenous knowledge.

Case Study Authors: Kola:Tero Mustonen, Sergey Zavalko, Jyrki Terva, and Alexey Cherenkov.

The case study presented in this article is drawn from research carried out as part of the SnowChange initiative. SnowChange cooperates fully with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, the national indigenous organization that is also a Permanent Participant of the Arctic Council. For this case study, researchers spoke with elders, reindeer herders, cultural activists, and other local people. Researchers selected from the material gathered in interviews the comments most relevant to the changes local people see in the local ecological and climatic situation. The interviews were recorded and edited by Jyrki Terva, Tero Mustonen, Sergey Zavalko, and several indigenous and non-indigenous students of ecology at the Murmansk Humanities Institute, Murmansk State Technical University, and Tampere Polytechnic. The community visits functioned as story-telling and ecological teaching experiences, especially for the indigenous students who participated.

The tundra is like my dear mother to me! We herded reindeer with the whole family. How else should we do it? We took care of the shelter. We knitted, we washed, we smoothed down clothes. What did we do? We baked bread. When it is warm, it is warm. When it is not warm, it is cold. I spent my whole life on the tundra. Even after I retired, I spent a year in the tundra. Life was easy; the only thing we missed was the television. Before that all we did was to stay in the earth hut. Summer or winter, always living in the shelter in the tundra. —Maria Zakharova, Lovozero Elder

The Murmansk Oblast (province) is located in northwestern Russia on the Kola Peninsula. It borders the Republic of Karelia (Russia) in the south and Lapland (Finland) and Finnmark (Norway) in the west. The oblast covers 144,900 square kilometers and has a population of around 900,000. The capital is the city of Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, with a population of around 350,000. The town of Lovozero (in Saami, Luujavre) is the main Saami community on the Kola Peninsula, with approximately 800 Saami among its 3,000 inhabitants.

Climate change research among indigenous peoples is only just beginning in Russia. Russia’s indigenous communities, as well as mainstream society, have many other, often more urgent, social, economic, and political issues to deal with. However, the massive differences in ecosystems and regions across the vast expanse of northern Russia make local assessments of climate change imperative in order to understand their real and specific impacts. Documenting change in the Russian indigenous communities is a vital and much-needed process. Even as the reclaiming of economic, ecological, social, and cultural rights continues, local voices in the remote regions of northern Russia are often not heard. The people consulted during this case study delivered a clear and coherent message – local people should be heard.

Observations of change in Lovozero (

Documentation of change cannot be separated from broader questions of the development of Russian territories and their indigenous peoples. The people interviewed stated that there are many other concerns in addition to climate change, such as the state of Russian society, economic hardship, and lack of resources. But climate change has had a definite impact on the traditional lifestyle. Larisa Avdeyeva, director of the Saami Culture Center in Lovozero, stated that:

Reindeer herders especially have observed change. They talk about the changes in the behavior of reindeer. People have to travel with the reindeer and navigate differently. Bogs and marshes do not freeze immediately, rhythms change, and we have to change our routes of movement and this means the whole system of living is under change. Everything has become more difficult. I have conversed with reindeer herders and they have told me of these kinds of observations. They have seen as well that in areas where it was possible to collect a lot of cloudberries [Rubus chamaemorus] before, now the berries are not ripe because of climatic warming and melting of glaciers. Changes are very visible.

Climate change, particularly changes in local weather, has become an increasingly important issue for the reindeer herders and others in Lovozero. Avdeyeva continued,

Nowadays snows melt earlier in the spring time. Lakes, rivers, and bogs freeze much later in the autumn. Reindeer herding becomes more difficult as the ice is weak and may give away. The rhythm of the yearly cycle of herding and slaughtering of reindeer is disrupted and the migration patterns of the reindeer change as well.

Broader social and environmental awareness penetrated into Russian society from the mid-1980s onward. Olga Anofrieva discussed how this has been seen in terms of local industrial pollution.

The biggest benefit of Perestroika was that the industries no longer polluted as much as before. Here, locally, nature rested. Now the arms race is being taken down, as are the amounts of military ships and military personnel. One could say that we have now a positive era, quite difficult, but nevertheless so. We find ourselves now in a situation where soon decisive moves have to be made. We must develop ourselves differently. I think changes in the weather are more to do with God’s influences.

Weather, rain, and extreme events (

Avdeyeva reported that climate variation had been witnessed locally and had caused alarm.

I would say the climate is warming globally, we have already observed this here. For example the reindeer herders coming out off the tundra have said that last year the bogs and rivers stayed open for a long time and it was hard to gather the reindeer. If this event was previously due in November, now we have it in December or January. Bogs stay unfrozen for a long time and it is very difficult to try to catch reindeer in such conditions. The herders say the climate has warmed and everything is a result of that.

Avdeyeva pointed out that change is more than general warming.

Extreme events have been seen mostly in the spring time. This year we had thunder in May, and usually this occurs in July. Monthly mean temperatures have increased and spring has warmed up. During the winter of 2001to 2002, there was little snow and that is why there was little water in rivers and lakes. The low water levels have affected negatively boating. Of course we understand all of these events are related. There is way too little rain and storms. There is certainly thunder though. Lightning was rare here before the 1990s, as well as heavy rains. Now there are more of those.

Arkady Khodzinsky, a reindeer herder from Lovozero, provided more details.

The weather has changed to worse and to us it is a bad thing. It affects mobility at work. In the olden days [the 1960s and 1970s], the permanent ice cover came in October and even people as old as myself remember how on 7 of November we would go home to celebrate the anniversary of the Great Socialist Revolution. These days you can venture to the ice only beginning in December. This is how things have changed. This year the ice came and froze a little early but for sure the weather has changed very much. All began about six years ago. Everything went haywire. Yes, six years ago! Now it can rain in January. Once three years ago I came back from the tundra, there was a full winter there. I was here in the community for some time, resting and lo and behold! On the tundra spring had arrived because it had rained!

Vladimir Lifov, another reindeer herder in Lovozero, concurred.

Oh, it is warmer. Before when going to the tundra we had to take a lot of warm clothes, otherwise we would freeze. But nowadays you can sleep with just one malitsa [reindeer-skin coat] on during the whole night. It is all right with that one malitsa. Previously we were using as well boots made out of reindeer skin. You never froze your feet in those. But now you do not need them any more.

Lifov described recent winters.

Yes, it is very interesting. First it snows, then it melts, like it would be summertime. And this all over again. First there is a big snowfall, then it warms up, and then it freezes. During winter now it can rain, as happened last New Year. Before it never rained during wintertime. Rain in the middle of winter? To the extent that snow disappears? Yes, it is true. Rain, and the snow melts!

Rivers, lakes, and ice (

The herders traditionally use waterways, such as many rivers and lakes of the Kola Peninsula, in their transportation routes. Recent changes have caused uncertainty and the fear that the routes cannot be traveled on safely. Arkady Khodzinsky described the situation.

Rivers do not freeze at all; they are only covered in snow. Ice arrives, but the surface of the water drops so that ice is like on top of empty space and then it is covered with snow. Of course the stream flows like it should. But the changes have taken place in the last six to seven years. Before we saw none of that. Well, for the past few years the weather has been different. No decent ice comes anymore. When the freeze-up occurs, the ice sometimes melts right away.

Vasily Lukov, a reindeer breeder from Lovozero, saw both impacts and a possible explanation.

The River Virma grows shallower every year. Now there is hardly any water left and it can freeze all the way to the bottom. There used to be a lot of fish, but now they are almost all gone. I think it is due to the drying of the bogs and marshes, improvements of the ground. Now the melt is slow. First the water gets on top of the ice and the river melts first from the middle. Steep riverbanks are still frozen but gradually they melt as well. Nowadays there is no actual ice melting event like before.

Plants, birds, and insects (

In September 2001, Larisa Avdeyeva spoke about the changes in plant life.

New species of plants have arrived. We never saw them before. This is what we have observed. New plants have arrived here and on tundra. Even there are arrival species in the river, previously known in middle parts of Russia. This past summer and the previous were very hot here. Rivers and lakes are filled with small-flowered a kind of duckweed [Lemnaceae] and the lake started to bloom. Life for the fish is more difficult and likewise people’s fishing opportunities as lakes are closed up by the new plants. We have observed that the trees in our village grow much faster. New unknown plant species have arrived here in great numbers. New bird species have arrived here. As well, the birds stay in our village longer than before. Some new beautiful never-before-seen birds have arrived.

Reindeer herders have witnessed the changes as well, as Arkady Khodzinsky reported.

The birds are about the same as they have always been but their numbers are decreasing all the time. Yes, there are very few birds nowadays. It used to be that there were ptarmigan on top of every bush. Nowadays it is not like that anymore and it feels bad. To give you an example, in earlier times I was sitting and watching the herd. I tapped my foot to the ground and a ptarmigan would fly to me. When I would say “Kop, kop” to it, it would come so close I could even hold it. Then I said again “Kop, kop” and it took off. Now there are very few goose. It used to be that they were all over. Before, when we were at the camp and we would see geese, we would know the spring is coming. All people enjoy the arrival of spring. Nowadays we see no geese. Occasionally one or two flocks fly over, but this is a rare event. There are no birds of prey any more. Very small numbers of those remain. Every one has disappeared somewhere. We used to see northern goshawks, they would fly high and scream. It was nice to follow them in the sky. All of them have disappeared and I do not know where.

Khodzinsky described how the presence of insects had also changed dramatically.

I cannot comprehend that there are no mosquitoes. I think for two years now there have been no mosquitoes. In recent times they have not troubled us at all. Here in Lovozero it will be soon like down south. Before there were insects and they would sting you, but we no longer need mosquito hats even. The biting midges come in August usually. This year there have not been biting midges or mosquitoes at all. Of course this is bad. I think they have disappeared from the northland altogether.

Traditional calendar and knowledge (

The legends, stories, and traditional knowledge of living off the land have taught the Saami to notice changes and to adapt locally. At the core of their knowledge is the Saami calendar, a system of local traditional knowledge of marker days, seasons, and certain activities tied to seasonal cycles. Now there is concern. Avdeyeva noted that the calendar is off balance, adding to the burdens of observed changes.

When we ask the elders and reindeer herders for example what kind of summer it will be, how many berries to expect, or what kind of fish and how much to expect, they answer us that they cannot predict anything because our Saami calendar of the yearly cycle has collapsed completely with the changes that have taken place in nature. They cannot foresee accurately and with precision. Before we would ask the reindeer herders and the answers would be right to the mark, but now the predicted times keep on moving and changing. Two days ago I had a conversation with my cousin who is a reindeer herder and had just returned from the tundra. I told him: "Look how nice the sky is, see those {C}{C}{C}{C}clouds, what a nice {C}{C}{C}{C}weather!" He would tell me: "Well you say the weather is good now when you are here in the village, but out on the tundra they do not know what is to come. You should not say this sort of thing". He told me a Saami saying: "Do not predict today something that an old lady can tell for sure tomorrow". The Saami weather calendar is not accurate with the changes that we are witnessing. Yes, the reindeer herders see it and keep on discussing this at all times. We talk and discuss the changes. It is difficult to make use of the elders’ knowledge because the climate has changed. People have it hard. Yes, it is so.

Reindeer (

The most vocal and urgent messages of change relate to the reindeer, which remains a key species for the community in cultural, social, economic, and ecological terms. There is concern. Reindeer are acting differently, and herders spend less time with the herds on the tundra. Mixing herds with the wild or feral reindeer is another concern. People such as Maria Zakharova have spoken at length about the often-emotional relationships and concerns regarding the reindeer.

On the tundra the reindeers used to run towards people, but now they run away. The reindeers are our children. In the olden times when we used to have just the reindeers the air was clean. How should I explain? Now they drive around in skidoos and you can smell the gasoline, yuck! What did they herd with? The reindeer! Now they have started to herd with skidoos. Why on earth? They should rather train the reindeers like our fathers and forefathers did. Now everything is in ruins. There used to be many young reindeers. Yes, at the time the herds were bigger as well.

As Vladimir Lifov put it:

Our income diminishes because of climate change, of course, and in a very drastic way. Even my wife has said that it would be time to forget the reindeer. But I tell her always: "Tamara, we depend on these reindeer. If there are no reindeer, we have nothing to do here either".

Overall concerns (

Larisa Avdeyeva stressed the main points felt by many.

The cycle of the yearly calendar has been disturbed greatly and this affects the reindeer herding negatively for sure. We should start working differently in a new way. We still have not thought this and we still have not pondered this – we try to start from the needs of the people and be flexible. We Saami have an anecdote, rather it is a legend, which has the law of the Saami life in it. People tell this onwards always. The Saami say: "We are not reapers, we are not field-plowers, we are reindeer herders. The reindeer are our bread. Everybody should cherish the land. The green land with its flowers and lichens was given to us so that we should pass it on to our children". We try to follow this Saami law because there are laws that the Saami follow. And the Saami guide other people to follow those laws in our land. It is true. This is the truth.

In 2002 as the documentation teams returned to the community, she continued:

We feel some unexpected changes are taking place in the tundra. But in the recent years it has been wonderful to follow what our youth have been doing. They have understood that they are needed here. We need well-trained and strong-spirited youth here. Nowadays the young people are very different from 20 to 30 years ago. They are more self-confident, stronger in character and very proud of their nation. When I was 18, we could not even imagine that.

She looks to the future with a positive sense. She concluded the interview session in June by saying that "Yes, respect is coming back. And the consideration for reindeer herding is increasing as well".

3.1. Introduction
3.2. Indigenous knowledge
3.3. Indigenous observations of climate change
3.4. Case studies
3.4.1. Northwest Alaska: the Qikiktagrugmiut
3.4.2. The Aleutian and Pribilof Islands region, Alaska
3.4.3. Arctic Athabaskan Council: Yukon First Nations
3.4.4. Denendeh: the Dene Nation’s Denendeh Environmental Working Group
3.4.5. Nunavut
3.4.6. Qaanaaq, Greenland
3.4.7. Sapmi: the communities of Purnumukka, Ochejohka, and Nuorgam
3.4.8. Climate change and the Saami
3.4.9. Kola: the Saami community of Lovozero
3.5. Indigenous perspectives and resilience
3.6. Further research needs
3.7. Conclusions







Committee, I. (2012). Case Study: Kola: the Saami community of Lovozero climate change case study. Retrieved from


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