(Bloomberg) -- Since the end of the Ice Age, reindeer herds have grazed across northern Scandinavia happily unaware of the rise of the nation state. But now their disregard for borders, and local Sami traditions, are causing a long-simmering dispute between friendly neighbors to reach a boiling point.
Norwegian Agriculture Minister Jon Georg Dale on Wednesday said he would take measures to cull Swedish reindeer crossing the border as Sweden has been hesitant to ratify an agreement signed almost a decade ago. Until Sweden does so, grazing in the Nordic hinterland is governed by the Lapp Codicil from 1751, which gives rights for herders from Sweden, but also Norway, to largely ignore the border.
The minister’s threats could have “serious consequences,” said Niila Inga, the chairman of the Swedish Sami association. Sending reindeer for summer grazing across the border is crucial for local communities such as Konkama, Saarivuoma, Lainivuoma and Talma, he said.
“The border is just a line on a paper, but the reindeer have been using these lands since ancient times,” Inga said by phone this week. “We really need a treaty that regulates this on both sides of the border, given that the Norwegian state now says it is going to take vigorous action against the so-called ‘Swedish’ reindeer husbandry.”
Dale’s threats come as he was meeting his counterpart in northern Sweden to resolve the conflict, which has been unresolved since a previous agreement lapsed in 2005. The tension over the past years has threatened to erupt in violence and working groups have sought to bridge differences.
Norway says it has taken measures to reduce its stock, while Sweden’s is expanding. The “spring” herds in Norway are estimated to have dropped to about 280,000 last year from almost 350,000 in 2010, according to Statistics Norway. The herds in Sweden can count as many as 280,000 during the winter, according to the Swedish Sami parliament.
An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Samis live in what’s called Sapmi, a territory that spans parts of Scandinavia, Finland and Russia. The biggest number live in Norway.
Norwegian herders are keen to protect their pastures and are also worried of the potential risk of a spread of chronic wasting disease, detected for the first time in northern Norway in 2016. They have urged the government to prod Sweden to ratify a new agreement.
It’s not acceptable that Swedish reindeer are crowding out Norwegian herds that have been reduced to limit over-grazing, Dale said in a statement after the meeting with Swedish Rural Affairs Minister Sven-Erik Bucht.
“We can’t have it like this anymore,” Dale said. Norway will pursue legal changes to allow for the“necessary regulation” of Swedish reindeer in Norway and tear down cabins and fences, he said.
Per Mathis Oskal, a herder and a representative at the Norwegian Sami parliament, is pessimistic that there will be a solution anytime soon. The responsibility lies with the Swedes to fix, he said.
“Norwegian reindeer husbandry is strictly regulated, while there seems to be a free-for-all in Sweden,” he said.
Sweden has been hesitant to ratify any agreement without anchoring it with the local population, Bucht said by phone earlier this week.
“It’s important that we listen to the Samis in both Sweden and Norway,” he said. “We’ve had discussions on this topic for a couple of years now, but we think that we will find a constructive solution.”
The border between Norway and Sweden is 1,630 kilometers long, the same distance as from London to the south of Spain, and is largely open. Norway isn’t a member of the EU, such as Sweden, but enjoys access to the EU’s inner market as part of the European Economic Area.
But for the Sami, at least those that live in Sweden, that’s all largely irrelevant. Reindeer on the Norwegian side have traditionally grazed toward the coast, away from the border, and also typically venture into Sweden for winter grazing, according to Inga.
As for the Norwegian threats: “We can’t speculate in what the Norwegian minister means,” said Inga, whose village has a herd of about 8,000 reindeer.
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