The following is the established format for referencing this article:Harnesk, D. 2023. Strategies of the Sámi movement in Sweden: mobilization around grievances related to the ecological conditions of reindeer pastoralism, 2012–2022. Ecology and Society 28(4):8.
Reindeer pastoralism, practiced by groups of the Indigenous Sámi people in Sweden, is being threatened by a new wave of encroachments. In this paper I take stock of how the Sámi movement has mobilized around grievances related to the ecological conditions that support natural pasture-based reindeer pastoralism. I apply the contentious politics approach to social movement theory, and Felix Kolb’s conceptualization of five strategies that social movements have used when interacting with the state to achieve political change. Drawing upon 10 years of data from the Sámi public news service, my study makes three main contributions. First, I identify a set of themes found in the public grievances connected to ecological conditions articulated by reindeer pastoralist organizations in the public sphere that are a focus for mobilization. Second, I present an overview of the five strategies that the Sámi movement applies in claims-making to address those grievances: the public preference mechanism, the political access mechanism, the judicial mechanism, the international politics mechanism, and the disruption mechanism, and show how they relate to one another. Third, I discuss the limitations of current mobilization efforts, and argue that cross-movement coalitions are needed to challenge the hegemonic bloc.
Landscapes in the territories of the Indigenous Sámi people in northern Sweden are being transformed by new encroachments (Horskotte et al. 2022) driven by state and corporate actors in the energy-intensive, natural resource-based industry (Beland Lindahl et al. 2017, Hildingsson et al. 2019). Although pastoralists represent a minority of the population, reindeer pastoralism is an important cultural and livelihood practice for the Sámi people (Sámi Parliament 2023). These practices are threatened by the cumulative effects of not only encroachments from industrial land use, but also the impacts of climate change on snow conditions and predator pressure, with many pastoralists periodically having to rely on artificial feeding (Harnesk 2022, Horstkotte et al. 2022). In response, the Sámi movement in Sweden has over 100 years of experience of mobilizing against the state, notably conflicts over land, water, and natural resources (Lantto 2000, Lantto and Mörkenstam 2008, 2015), and it is timely to take stock of how the movement is developing, given the threat of further environmental and climatic change.
Against this background, I seek to identify strategies used by the Sámi movement to achieve political change in response to grievances related to the ecological conditions that support reindeer pastoralism. Theoretically, while relating to ecological perspectives on reindeer pastoralism, I combine the contentious politics approach to social movement theory (Tarrow 2011) and Felix Kolb’s (2007) conceptualization of the strategic mechanisms that social movements have applied to achieve political change. Empirically, I focus on grievances and claims-making expressed in the public sphere. Specifically, I draw on 10 years of media data, between 2012 and 2022, from the Sámi public news service Sveriges Radio Ođđasat. Based on my analysis, I discuss the strengths and limitations of current mobilization efforts by the Sámi movement, while relating to broader social concerns and climate and biodiversity politics.
My research contributes to our understanding of the mobilization dynamics of Indigenous movements in the Global North (Coulthard 2014, Gilio-Whitaker 2019, Bjork-James et al. 2022), and how social movements mobilize to address the threat of ecosystem decline (Johnson and Frickel 2011, Evans et al. 2020, Bjork-James et al. 2022). The focus on the ecological conditions that support reindeer pastoralism motivated the integration of the pastoral landscape scale into the research design, which is novel within social movement research. My findings also speak to the political ecology literature, notably how the impacts of extractive and industrial projects give rise to social conflicts (Scheidel et al. 2023), with a focus on the role of social movements as agents of change in such processes.
Based on my analysis, I develop three arguments. First, I argue that the grievances expressed by reindeer pastoralists in the public sphere are rooted in ecological conditions that have been deteriorated by broad change processes driven by social forces, chiefly encroachments, a proposal that finds further support in ecological research. Second, I argue that the Sámi movement applies multiple strategies to push the state to change its policies in ways that are clearly interlinked. These strategies build on the movement’s history, and often apply the Indigenous rights frame. Third, I discuss a major obstacle to current mobilization efforts: challenging the status quo requires cross-movement coalitions that go beyond what the Indigenous rights frame succeeds in mobilizing. Here, I suggest that new opportunities for the Sámi movement may reside in the emergence of progressive climate and biodiversity policy coalitions that also address the grievances of broader segments of civil society.
This research is situated within the contentious politics approach to social movement theory (Tarrow 2011, Della Porta and Diani 2020). It is informed by Tarrow’s (2011) dynamic interactive framework for analyzing mobilization in contentious politics. The latter hypothesizes that mobilization is triggered by broad change processes that are perceived by the affected challengers and elites / authorities as threats and opportunities, and who then decide to engage in different forms of collective action against one another. This framework warrants a relational approach at both the theoretical and the methodological level, which I illustrate in Figure 1, and describe in detail below.
Tarrow (2011) conceptualizes broad change processes as a form of macro-level social tension, or clashing interests (e.g., in relation to land, water, and natural resources), which can trigger mobilization that takes the form of contentious politics. For an episode / cycle to be considered contentious politics, it must involve sustained interaction between at least two parties, where at least one party makes claims that would affect the other party’s interests (Tilly 2002). Interests are conceptualized as socially structured, and social tensions may thus be based on different divisions in society, with certain social groups having grievances based on their position in society (Tarrow 2011).
Although the broad change processes that drive social tensions and grievances underlie, and can generate mobilization, they do not by themselves guarantee the emergence of social movements or activism. Tarrow (2011) considers political opportunities and threats as conditions that are external to movements and necessary for their emergence. The core components of these movements are mobilizing structures, framing processes, and repertoires.
For Tarrow (2011), political opportunities and threats are the most important factors for the emergence of a social movement. Political opportunities are the perception that action will lead to success in achieving a desired outcome (Tarrow 2011, McAdam 2017). These opportunities are resources external to the concerned group, and include the presence of elite allies (e.g., in political parties), instabilities amongst elites and authorities (e.g., tensions between different ruling parties and influential constituencies), political regime change, economic crises, and so forth (Tarrow 2011, McAdam 2017). A political opportunity therefore exists when people not only gain access to external resources that convince them that change can happen, but also find opportunities to use them. Political threats, on the other hand, refer to the risks and costs of action or inaction (Tarrow 2011). Threats such as repression, unemployment, or ending up in prison, or (as in this article) ecosystem decline to the detriment of cultural and livelihood practices, can encourage or discourage people from engaging in collective action, depending on the circumstances (Tarrow 2011, see also Johnson and Frickel 2011). As summarized by Tarrow (2011:33):
Contentious politics is produced when threats are experienced and opportunities are perceived, when the existence of available allies is demonstrated, and when the vulnerability of opponents is exposed.
Mobilizing structures refers to the formal and informal networks of individuals and organizations that make up any, nascent or emerging, movement (Tarrow 2011, McAdam 2017). They range from formal, institutionalized umbrella organizations at the summit (e.g., NGOs such as unions and environmental organizations), to decentralized, loosely coupled social network units at the base (e.g., groups and networks of activists; Tarrow 2011, McAdam 2017). Formal actors within the polity, which may have their origin in civil society (or even in social movements, such as unions and the labor movement, or environmental NGOs and the environmental movement) can, on the one hand, be host settings that help movements to develop, but, on the other hand, can hinder activities by requiring compliance with the various social relations that govern institutional practices (Tarrow 2011, McAdam 2017). Tarrow (2011:127) therefore notes that relationships between formal and informal actors are characterized by “organizational polarities.” More importantly, this structure mobilizes resources (e.g., financial, people, knowledge) that contribute to meeting the goals of the movement, and make up the infrastructure that supports its organizational dynamics. In this article, mobilizing structures are observed through the lens of the actors that engage in claims-making.
Repertoires refers to the forms of political action that movements undertake in their mobilization against elites and authorities (Tarrow 2011, McAdam 2017). They include “[the] creation of special-purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering” (Tilly and Wood 2013:4). Although they overlap with other political phenomena, it is their integration into sustained claims-making against elites and authorities that distinguishes social movements from other varieties of politics (Tilly and Wood 2013). In this article, the repertoire is observed in claims-making instances, as these entail “both the formulation of a political demand with a specific content (the claim), and the public staging of this demand (claims-making)” (Lindekilde 2013:1).
Framing processes refers to the social construction of frames that simplify the “world out there,” and can be compared to how journalists frame a story (Tarrow 2011, McAdam 2017). They can be, but are not necessarily, rooted in the different ways in which people experience and interpret the broad change processes that generate grievances. The meaning that people assign to the latter processes, and how frames become collective ways of representing problems and solutions, shape the emergence of a social movement (McAdam et al. 1996). Frames are pivotal for the coordination of collective action, both at the level of grievances and at the level of claims, as social movement mobilization requires shared understandings and identities that help to solidify trust and cooperation among participants (Tarrow 2011, McAdam 2017). They can be constructed in ways that draw on established collective identities, or create new ones (potentially based on socially structured interests) and can activate different social groups, although this depends on both how frames are constructed, and on how different groups interpret them. In this article, frames are observed at the level of grievances and claims-making.
Five strategies for political change
How do social movements interact with the state to achieve political change? In his book, Protest and opportunities: the political outcomes of social movements, Kolb (2007) sought to identify mechanisms through which social movements in liberal democracies (in the Global North), specifically the civil rights movement and the anti-nuclear movement, have achieved political change. This study applies Kolb’s (2007) five mechanisms to identify current strategies used by the Sámi movement to address the grievances of reindeer pastoralists. These mechanisms (here, termed “strategies”) are elaborated on below.
Political access mechanism
The political access mechanism suggests that movements can achieve political change by gaining access to, and struggling within, policy processes (Kolb 2007). It rejects the assumption that social movements and the state are separate entities, and instead assumes the existence of state-movement intersections, which movements can exploit to influence decision making (Kolb 2007).
Banaszak (2005) argues that the state-movement intersection consists of three dimensions: the number of movement activists within the state; the degree of exclusion of movement constituencies; and their institutional location within the state. Although dependent on the political environment, Kolb (2007) suggests that the mechanism is utilized in a two-step process, “the struggle to gain access to a specific domain of the polity, followed by the struggle from within for substantial political change” (81).
Public preference mechanism
The public preference mechanism suggests that movements can achieve political change by mobilizing public opinion in order to push policy makers to shift their policy preferences (Kolb 2007). It assumes that politicians must attain public approval for their desired policy choices, as they are accountable to their constituencies within the election cycle (Kolb 2007). The actions of policy makers are shaped by what they perceive as public opinion, therefore social movements can change decision making by changing public opinion (Kolb 2007). When public support is lacking, movements must try to shift it to be more in line with their goals (Kolb 2007).
Burstein (1999) argues that social movements can change the public’s policy preferences either “by altering the distribution of preferences on an issue as currently framed, or by reframing the issue - changing what the preferences are about” (14). With respect to the former, mobilizing within the current frame, Kolb (2007) notes political actions such as organizing protests to attract media attention (running the risk of media bias), communicating directly with a mass audience (including local, decentralized, and digital communication initiatives), and creating elite conflict on formerly consensual subjects, by turning non-partisan issues into partisan issues. With respect to the latter, reframing the issue, Kolb (2007) considers that the framing of dominant problems is highly influential in defending the status quo; so much so that he maintains that social movements “have a pretty small chance of reframing a policy issue on their own,” and that only those that have interacted with other, influential communities “have succeeded in reframing important policy issues” (80).
The judicial mechanism suggests that movements can achieve political change by using the power of the courts (Kolb 2007). It assumes that courts can act even when confronted with public opposition, because they are free from electoral accountability (Kolb 2007). The mechanism is based on the strength of legal arguments, rather than interpersonal connections and power relations within the polity (Kolb 2007).
Rosenberg (1991) argues that there are three major structural constraints that limit the potential of courts to effect political change: the limited nature of rights (not all of a movement’s goals can be framed in terms of rights), the lack of judicial independence (certain decisions that affect legal practice are made by politicians), and the lack of power to implement change (the execution of court orders relies on support from politicians). Kolb (2007) draws upon Rosenberg (1991) and argues that legal struggles can only lead to reform under three conditions: when gradual litigation results in a new legal precedent (to overcome the limited nature of rights); when there is support from a substantial number of politicians (to overcome the lack of judicial independence); and when there is support from a sufficient proportion of citizens (to overcome the lack of implementation power). If coupled with enforcement mechanisms (e.g., incentives for compliance or costs for non-compliance), these conditions can enable the judicial mechanism to instigate political change through litigation.
International politics mechanism
The international politics mechanism suggests that movements can achieve political change by mobilizing forces beyond national boundaries, and outside state control, to pressure policy makers to meet their demands (Kolb 2007). It includes pressure on domestic governments from international institutions and other nation states, which marks a shift in scale compared to other mechanisms that operate within the nation state (Kolb 2007). It assumes that state policies and politics can be influenced by pressure from outside the territorial jurisdiction of the polity (Kolb 2007).
In this context, Bernstein and Cashore (2000) argue that there are four types of internationalization and domestic policy change; Kolb (2007) draws upon them to present four variants of the international policy mechanism. Movements can leverage global markets (e.g., boycotts); influence the rules and norms of international organizations and treaties (e.g., Indigenous rights conventions); use international normative discourses to socialize policy makers in a certain direction (e.g., mobilizing through transnational advocacy networks); and exert pressure in the international political arena that influences the national political context (e.g., transnational social movement organizations that participate in domestic policy processes; Kolb 2007).
The disruption mechanism suggests that movements can achieve political change by creating institutional disruption that forces policy makers to respond to their demands in order to restore order (Kolb 2007). It assumes that groups that cannot successfully bargain with other parties (as they have nothing that the other party wants) can only protest in ways that create a burden for those in power (Kolb 2007). The power of mass disruption lies in its ability to induce institutional disruption, with the assumption that this power can give rise to a political response, the form of which depends on the political environment (Kolb 2007).
Piven and Cloward (1977) argue that the institutional disruption that follows mass disruption may only have the intended impact under certain conditions. If we adopt Kolb’s disruption mechanism (2007), this means that those affected by the institution that is disrupted must depend on its contribution, and have resources that can be conceded to restore order, while those who create disruption must be able to protect themselves from severe punishment. Piven and Cloward (1977) argue that this is more likely in times of conflict between elites and electoral instability; because society is more sensitive to disruption at these times, there is greater impetus for policy makers to meet the demands of movements. However, Tarrow (1998) raises concerns about the durability of political change brought about through the disruption mechanism, as significant reform still requires “the presence and entrepreneurship of well-placed reformists who can turn the impetus for change into concrete proposals and pilot them through the political process” (50).
REINDEER PASTORALISM AND THE SÁMI MOVEMENT IN SWEDEN
Reindeer pastoralism and pastoral landscapes
Reindeer pastoralism is a cultural and livelihood practice among groups of the Indigenous Sámi people. It is organized and managed by, and within reindeer herding communities (RHCs), which have grazing rights over about half of Sweden’s land surface (Sámi Parliament 2023). In Sweden, a nation state with over 10 million citizens, there are 51 RHCs (see Fig. 2), made up of over 1000 full-time active pastoralists, and around 4600 individuals who own reindeer. At the national level, the winter herd varies between 225,000 and 280,000 animals (Sámi Parliament 2023).
Reindeer pastoralism is based on Sámi pastoral landscapes (Harnesk 2022): free-ranging semi-domesticated reindeer that use natural pastures within highly variable, multi-purpose landscapes that include areas suitable for calving and migration pathways with resting pastures, ideally within continuous pasturelands for each of the eight pastoral seasons (Horstkotte et al. 2014, Holand et al. 2022). In the annual herding cycle, access to safe winter pasturelands is absolutely vital, as the herd’s survival depends on access to key forage resources (Holand et al. 2022). Other ecological conditions include grazing peace, meaning that reindeer can graze without threat or disturbance from humans or carnivores, which is especially important during the calving season, and the reindeer’s growth period (Holand et al. 2022).
There are three types of RHCs: Mountain, Forest, and Concession (Holand et al. 2022). For Mountain and Forest RHCs, there are two large-scale migration periods: the first is when the herd moves from autumn to winter pastures (from the west toward the east) around November–December, and the second is when it moves from winter to spring pastures (from the east toward the west) around March–April (Holand et al. 2022). Concession RHCs are located near to the border with Finland. Here, reindeer rotate between the Kalix River in the west, and the Torne River in the east (Holand et al. 2022). Mountain RHCs migrate to summer pastures in mountainous areas at the border with Norway, while Forest and Concession RHCs remain in boreal forests year-round (Holand et al. 2022). Current herding practices rely on a variety of technologies such as snowmobiles, trucks, helicopters, GPS collars, and drones (Holand et al. 2022).
For decades, reindeer pastoralist organizations and academic peer-reviewed research have underlined the importance of well-functioning boreal forest ecosystems for reindeer populations, and highlighted ecological deterioration due to the cumulative effects of encroachments and climate change, with added stress due to predator pressure (Åhman et al. 2022a, Harnesk 2022, Horstkotte et al. 2022). The literature includes quantitative studies of the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of pasturelands due to encroachments, often expressed in terms of cumulative effects at the pastoral landscape scale (Åhman et al. 2022a, Harnesk 2022, Horstkotte et al. 2022). Intensive forestry, in particular, has negatively impacted (on a significant spatial scale) the amount and accessibility of ground and pendulous lichens, which are key forage resources during periods of snow cover (i.e., mostly the pastoral winter, spring-winter, and spring seasons), mainly due to forest densification and changes in forest age structure (Harnesk 2022, Horstkotte et al. 2022). Uboni et al. (2020) suggest that mechanization, artificial feeding, and changes in herd structure and grazing patterns have helped RHCs to avoid critical reindeer mortality, despite the loss and fragmentation of pastures. However, many pastoralists consider that increased reliance on stationary feeding practices is a negative development, as it represents a break from pastoralism based on natural pastures, and threatens grazing rights, which are based on continued land use (Horstkotte et al. 2021, Åhman et al. 2022b). Although these general trends can be identified in all areas where pastoralism is practiced, the impacts of these multiple stressors affect each RHC, and groups within them, differently (Harnesk 2022, Horstkotte et al. 2022).
The Sámi movement and reindeer pastoralism
The Sámi movement has over 100 years of experience of social and political mobilization (Lantto 2000, Lantto and Mörkenstam 2008, 2015). Beginning with a long, internal colonization process that intensified in the 1800s (Lantto 2000), the movement emerged as a response to the state’s Reindeer Grazing Acts of 1886 and 1898 that drastically reduced Sámi rights to land, water, and natural resources, and established a divide between pastoral Sámi and non-pastoral Sámi (Lantto 1997, Lantto and Mörkenstam 2008). Colonization was reflected in the establishment of harmful and oppressive institutions that targeted the Sámi people, including forced resettlement programs, cultural segregation and assimilation politics, and the creation of the State Institute for Racial Biology (Lantto and Mörkenstam 2016). Early mobilization efforts were focused on the grievances of pastoralists, and included protests and pamphlets that demanded Sámi ownership of land, and marked the first attempts to establish Sámi organizations and newspapers (Lantto and Mörkenstam 2015).
Although it has faced various challenges over time (Lantto 2000), the movement’s mobilizing structure has evolved to include both formal and informal organizations. Of the former, the most prominent are the National Association of Swedish Sámi (SSR), the Sámi Council, and the Sámi Parliament (Lantto and Mörkenstam 2015), while the latter include informal networks of activist groups and organizations (Lillqvist and Coppélie 2017). In addition, the Sámi movement has connections with the international Indigenous movement, and occasionally collaborates with human rights (Lantto and Mörkenstam 2008) and environmental movement organizations (Fjellborg et al. 2022). However, negotiations to build a coalition within and beyond Sámi constituencies have been difficult (Minde 2003), something that is reflected in the social movement literature more broadly (Brooker and Meyer 2018).
The state has evolved into the Sámi movement’s main adversary. This situation is due, not least, to how politics at the international level has strengthened the Indigenous rights frame of Sámi organizations (via Indigenous and human rights conventions). This, in turn, has supported the application of the judicial mechanism: Sámi organizations have used litigation to claim that the Sámi people have used the land since time immemorial, and therefore have “older customary rights to the land than the Swedish State” (Lantto and Mörkenstam 2008, Össbo and Lantto 2011). This form of litigation dates back to the early 1960s, when the SSR (which at this point had been able to organize a sufficient base of support from RHCs) received resources from the state to develop their legal representation (Lantto and Mörkenstam 2015). Other formative outcomes include the dismantling of the paternalistic Lapp Administration through the Reindeer Farming Act, and the recognition of Sámi as both an Indigenous people and a minority, both of which were achieved in the 1970s, and the establishment of a Sámi Parliament in 1993 (Lantto and Mörkenstam 2015).
The current overarching goal of the movement relates to international conventions on Indigenous self-determination, notably ongoing negotiations about the meaning of the latter within and between pastoral and non-pastoral Sámi groups (Lantto and Mörkenstam 2015). In this context, Nilsson (2021) notes a conflict between rights-based and individualistic perspectives (which have become institutionalized via international human and Indigenous rights conventions), and relational and responsibility-based perspectives (which have governed the Sámi people and their landscapes as territorial configurations). My interpretation of Sámi self-determination is closer to the latter, as it puts the emphasis on how the collective practice of reindeer pastoralism requires the maintenance of specific human-animal relations at the scale of the pastoral landscape scale (e.g., natural pastures rather than artificial feeding); whereas the former emphasizes individual rights, which makes it difficult to concretize a more truthful meaning of Sámi self-determination.
DATA AND METHODS
My analysis draws upon a dedicated database that I constructed from articles published by the Sámi public news service Sveriges Radio Ođđasat. This dataset was chosen because of its journalistic focus on Sámi issues in Sweden (see Skogerbø et al. 2019), and thus likely to cover relevant topics. I used Retriever software, and the search term “(ren* OR sameb*)” to identify articles on “reindeer” and/or “reindeer herding communities,” published between January 2012 (the first data item) and February 2022. The initial search yielded 6269 articles. I then identified articles that reported grievances and claims-making instances related to the interests of reindeer pastoralism, following the three steps listed below. This resulted in a smaller dataset of 1329 articles, which were included in the database and analyzed in detail.
The first step was to identify articles that included statements related to the interests of reindeer pastoralists. This assessment was based on a review of the literature on the ecological conditions affecting reindeer pastoralism, my reading of the literature on the Sámi movement, and insights from fieldwork and collaborative research with RHCs. This material was used to construct an overall set of categories (issues), and a subset of categories related to encroachments, based on the land uses that I identified as relevant interest-based categorizations (see Table 1).
The second step was to identify relevant articles recording grievances. Here, statements that expressed grievances by reindeer pastoralist organizations in Sweden were identified, then these grievances were categorized as issues and encroachments as described above. Then, I used abductive reasoning (based on my understanding of interests connected to reindeer pastoralism) to construct a set of themes related to each issue, and how these grievances related to ecological conditions.
The third step was to identify relevant articles on claims-making: this included instances where one party made a claim (in line with the interests of reindeer pastoralists) that would affect another party’s interests. Here, I sought to identify articles where “an actor, the subject, undertakes some sort of action in the public sphere to get another actor, the addressee, to do or leave something affecting the interests of a third actor, the object, and provides a justification for why this should be done” (Koopmans 2002:3). For each claims-making instance identified, I categorized the actors involved and their strategies, according to the mechanisms defined by Kolb. At the same time, I formulated categories for “actor groups” and forms of claims-making (the repertoire), which were revised iteratively throughout the research process. Finally, based on these articles, and for each strategy, I used inductive reasoning to construct a set of themes that captured how claims-making instances related to Kolb’s five mechanisms.
The data and methods have several main limitations. First, media bias resulted in certain phenomena being more frequently publicized than others, which skewed the quantitative representation of which issues are important. Second, the material may oversimplify the views of RHCs because it does not capture internal debates within and between them on various issues. Third, I omitted both claims-making instances found in the internal Sámi political debate (e.g., plenaries in the Sámi parliament) and transboundary conflicts around the Swedish-Norwegian border. My results therefore offer a less-nuanced understanding of the breadth of Sámi issues and politics, notably debates on artificial feeding, financial compensation, and the views of non-pastoral groups in Sámi society vis-à-vis rights to land, water, and natural resources available to RHCs.
The analysis identified 786 articles in which reindeer pastoralists expressed their grievances (Fig. 3). This material overwhelmingly related to the concrete, lived experience of reindeer pastoralists and their everyday struggles. It took the form of statements from individual pastoralists, representatives from the SSR, and joint statements from one or several pastoralist organizations (overwhelmingly RHCs).
Encroachments (n = 341) stood out as the most frequently reported issue. Many statements referred to how the cumulative effects of past encroachments had already had a major negative impact on ecological conditions for reindeer pastoralism. Such statements were expressed in terms of the loss and fragmentation of pastures, barrier effects to migration pathways, or the worsened quality of other ecological functions at the pastoral landscape scale. For specific subcategories, such as those related to mining, wind power, logging activities, and their surrounding infrastructure, statements ranged from disturbances that prevented access to ecological functions (e.g., wind farms causing avoidance behavior among reindeer), to degradation of ecological functions (e.g., forestry reducing the amount and distribution of lichens/ forage), to, at worst, their destruction (e.g., open pit mines, surrounding roads, and infrastructure). These impacts were also often framed as affecting mobility options.
Other grievances referred to a limited ability to say no to encroachments that threatened the sustainability of natural pasture-based reindeer pastoralism, a lack of power within prevailing institutions, and a failure to meaningfully incorporate Sámi pastoral landscape perspectives into decision-making processes. Finally, other statements related to how military exercises and recreational/ tourism activities (such as outdoor sports competitions, snowmobile driving, and heli-skiing tourism) were planned or approved without consideration for their impact on reindeer pastoralism.
Weather and climate
Weather and climate, which shape the day-to-day activities of reindeer pastoralism, was the second most reported issue (n = 149). Here, statements almost exclusively related to the effects of poor snow conditions on grazing. During periods of snow cover, reindeer usually forage ground vegetation beneath the snow, mainly ground lichens, but exceptionally deep snow and basal ice can impede access. Statements in this category often referred to a perception of an increased frequency of winters with poor snow conditions (where ground vegetation is inaccessible), and noted that cumulative effects at the pastoral landscape scale had made it more difficult for RHCs to use natural pasture-based responses. The latter notably included migrating to continuous old-growth forests where reindeer could feed on pendulous lichens (which hang on branches, or have fallen on top of snow where they are accessible). This was framed as almost impossible due to industrial forestry operations. Many alarming articles reported that RHCs had to rely on emergency feeding and the catastrophe compensation scheme because of poor snow conditions, and expressed frustration about having to use artificial feed. Other grievances concerned the negative impacts of forest fires on pastures, and heatwaves on reindeer.
Predator pressure (n = 134) refers to the presence of carnivores (i.e., wolves, wolverines, lynx, brown bears, and golden eagles) that feed on reindeer. RHCs in the southernmost pasturelands face severe problems, as some articles reported over 40% of herds being killed annually. Given that the presence of carnivores is partly motivated by conservation policies at different levels of government, including the European level, grievances also related to policies regarding carnivore populations and regulations to protect them against hunting. Other grievances related to the design and ineffective implementation of a “tolerance level,” which was intended to stipulate how many reindeer killings by carnivores a RHC must be willing to accept annually, and a planning regime to meet that goal.
Beyond the three main issues listed above, there were a wide range of grievances. Some statements related to humans killing reindeer, which was framed in terms of hate crime. Other statements related to a lack of government support in response to increased costs associated with COVID-19, rising fuel prices due to the war in Ukraine, and so forth. Others related to rights violations without reference to a specific issue. Finally, some related to the state’s power to control, distribute, and plan hunting and fishing rights on RHC lands, and how this negatively impacted not only reindeer pastoralism, but also their own hunting and fishing practices. This grievance was often expressed in relation to past policy change that had spurred an influx of international game tourism.
My analysis identified 504 articles related to claims-making instances with the interests of reindeer pastoralists. Although encroachments stood out as the most salient issue, all five strategies (mechanisms) were represented (see Fig. 4).
Political access mechanism
Has the Sámi movement sought to achieve political change by gaining access to, and struggling within, policy processes? The analysis identified 130 articles related to this mechanism. My results show that the Sámi movement has access to the polity in Sweden through both the SSR and the Sámi Parliament. The material illustrated several ways in which these actors operate to change policies on behalf of their constituencies, and given their organizational and institutional constraints.
The SSR is an umbrella organization within the polity that acts on behalf of RHCs in policy processes. The analysis showed that it was the most active body in making claims against state about specific policies. Most of the material related to encroachments (mainly forestry- and mining-related policies) and predator pressure (mainly the tolerance level system and its accompanying conservation policies). The SSR showed that it would refuse to participate in policy processes if conditions were not considered beneficial for its members, notably a lack of influence on problem framings, a lack of decision-making power, and the risk of co-optation.
The Sámi Parliament represents broader Sámi constituencies, and it is another institution within the polity that has been involved in policy processes. It has taken a noticeably less confrontational position in relation to the state than the SSR. It has most forcibly taken a stand in policy processes focused on the general strengthening of Sámi rights. With respect to the specific issue of reindeer pastoralism, it has either taken a pro-pastoralist position (after some deliberation, likely due to its institutional setup, and after observable mobilization within the parliamentary body), or a less explicit pro-pastoralist position than the SSR.
The material also demonstrates that elite allies within policy processes were able to make claims in support of reindeer pastoralists, and that these actors and their actions differ depending on the issue in question. In relation to encroachments, the Leftist Party and the Green Party both made claims for increased Sámi rights to self-determination, and promoted alternative forest management and planning practices, while also critiquing the environmental impacts and distribution of profits in such businesses. Both the Liberals and the Moderate Party made claims for carnivore hunting, framed as defending the interests of property rights holders. At local government level, individual politicians from both sides of the left-right spectrum made claims within policy processes to address the problem of predators in the southernmost pasturelands. The material suggests that these pro-Sámi claims are related to activities by Sámi actors observed in the material, as it includes opinion pieces, and reports of when and how they invited and hosted politicians to discuss current Sámi concerns.
Public preference mechanism
Has the Sámi movement sought to achieve political change by mobilizing public opinion to push policy makers to shift their policy preferences? The analysis identified 116 articles related to this mechanism. My results show that organizations connected to the Sámi movement made substantial efforts to reframe issues (within internationally established Indigenous rights frames) and bring them more into line with the interests of natural pasture-based reindeer pastoralism.
The analysis showed that the Sámi movement has challenged not only how encroachments are framed by elites and authorities (as desirable economic activities that could contribute to climate change mitigation), but also how RHCs are framed (as satisfied participants in planning processes, and recipients of financial compensation to cover added costs for transport and artificial feeding caused by encroachments). In most cases, Indigenous rights frames were applied to change the problem definition, rather than trying to alter public opinion to view reindeer pastoralists as (according to international human rights conventions and national legislation) having a right to their “traditional cultural and livelihood practices.” The latter is interpreted here as natural pasture-based reindeer pastoralism, a frame that rejects artificial feeding in corrals as a desirable form of redress. Such efforts draw on the history of Sámi reindeer pastoralism in the region, customary rights proven by use since time immemorial, and international conventions on human and Indigenous rights.
Climate change mitigation frames that have emerged around the new wave of encroachments have also been challenged, both in substantive terms, illustrated by critiques of how specific encroachments will not contribute to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, and in ideological terms, illustrated by critiques of how these encroachments represent “green colonialism.” Reframing attempts relied on arguments that policies should be in line with ecological conditions that support natural pasture-based reindeer pastoralism, arguing that this would make way for more sustainable futures, which is, in turn, framed by some activists as “climate justice.”
The material illustrates that a wide variety of political actions have sought to reframe issues in the public sphere. These actions differ depending on whether they relate to formal/centralized or informal/decentralized actor categories, and whether they actively relate to one another. Formal actors such as the SSR, the Sámi Parliament, and the Sámi Council, and coalitions of RHCs have written opinion pieces, launched reports, and participated in national media discussions in order to voice their concerns and make claims. Informal networks that include both Sámi and non-Sámi actors have organized protests, marches, demonstrations, hunger strikes, the dumping of reindeer cadavers in the capital, staged cultural performances, and so forth to draw media attention to their grievances, and make claims. Some of the larger protests were either immediately or later attended by representatives from the Sámi Parliament (which includes parties that have the explicit aim of furthering the interests of reindeer pastoralists). Many protest activities were connected to local networks, and the material highlighted that meetings were sometimes followed up by relevant political action, one example being the emergence of a climate justice frame.
Has the Sámi movement sought to achieve political change by using the power of the courts? A total of 120 articles were related to this mechanism. My results contain numerous examples of both court cases and appeals against government decisions launched by RHCs, most often with the support of the SSR. Although appeals in themselves do not represent the judicial mechanism proper, they do illustrate how legal arguments are used to express the grievances of reindeer pastoralists via rights-based arguments.
At an explicitly strategic level, a prominent example is a court case that was launched at the beginning of the study period by a RHC and the SSR, with support from the Sámi Council, and which had reached its conclusion by the end of the study period. In essence, the Girjas legal case argued that the Girjas RHC had both exclusive rights to small game hunting and fishing, and authority over those rights. The Swedish Supreme Court unanimously found in its favor. The court’s decision was based on historical circumstances, namely possession since time immemorial, and that parts of the (unratified by Sweden) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, ILO 169, was considered to be binding, as the state had already recognized the Sámi as an Indigenous people and as a minority in law. However, the court’s decision clashed with prevailing reindeer herding legislation, prompting a government decision to investigate the need for amendments to the current Reindeer Herding Act 1971.
Nevertheless, this outcome encouraged other RHCs to express an intent to launch similar litigation processes. The aftermath of the case also shows two ways in which the judicial mechanism relates to other mechanisms. First, throughout the process, Sámi organizations and their allies politicized various statements, noting that the state’s legal representatives overtly used derogatory terms found in historical material, which were later sampled in protest songs by activists. Second, the court’s ruling triggered the reform of policies connected to the country’s Reindeer Husbandry Acts, leading to claims-making within the policy access mechanism. The ruling is not only an example of gradual litigation, as mentioned above, but also illustrates how legal action relates to past mobilization dynamics, specifically the formal recognition of the Sámi as an Indigenous people under Swedish law, and efforts by the international Indigenous movement that led to ILO 169. However, policy processes intended to enforce mechanisms (e.g., veto rights for Sámi-based constituencies to encroachments) continued to operate within prevailing institutions, and eventually became influenced by other, non-Sámi interest groups.
International politics mechanism
Has the Sámi movement sought to achieve political change by mobilizing forces beyond the national boundary, and beyond the control of the state? I identified 52 articles related to this mechanism. My results suggest that the Sámi movement has actively used the international politics mechanism, through a variety of actors with connections at the international level (mostly individual RHCs, the Sámi Council, and human rights organizations). All of these activities drew heavily on established, international normative discourses to push policy makers, and specific government decisions regarding encroachments, in pro-pastoralist directions.
The Sámi Council mobilized at the international level to advance the position of both reindeer pastoralism and the Sámi people more broadly. Their activities drew heavily on international legislation and conventions that support the Indigenous rights frame, and critiques by international institutions of the Swedish state and corporate actors. Similarly, other international pastoralist, Indigenous, and minority organizations released statements and reports that criticized the Swedish state, also based on rights violations.
At the level of the United Nations (UN), several instances of Sámi mobilization could be identified. Sámi organizations mobilized the Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to make claims against the practices of the state and corporations vis-à-vis encroachments, framed as rights violations. Although the same tactic was attempted via OECD-based organizations, the outcome was not as condemnatory as the critique by UN representatives. Sámi activists and networks have mobilized protests at various UN climate change conference events, using the broader frame of climate justice and Indigenous rights to represent an “Indigenous frontline.” These struggles can be considered as attempts to influence the rules and norms of international organizations and treaties at the level of global climate policy, which, in turn, may put pressure on the Swedish state to change its policies.
Finally, two examples illustrate how actors have tried to leverage global markets. The first concerns a conflict over a mine on the pasturelands of two RHCs. Activists attended meetings with investors, noting that funding the operation would brand them as human rights violators. The second concerns conflicts over logging activities. Here, activists designed a campaign to highlight how certain logging activities violated the Forest Stewardship Council certification system, which has recently added stipulations regarding free, prior, and informed consent, and the inclusion of Indigenous rights.
Has the Sámi movement sought to achieve political change by creating institutional disruption that would force policy makers to respond to their demands in order to restore order? The analysis found that 27 articles were related to this mechanism, and all of these related to the issue of encroachments. My results found no cases of mass disruption as such, but did find examples of disruptive tactics around encroachments. The first, and most prominent example is a case where protesters set up road blockades to stop, and politicize, the establishment of a mine on the pasturelands of two RHCs. Although the mining company held a formal exploration license, it could only proceed after a period of conflict between protesters and the police. A second wave of disruptive tactics focused on forestry. Here, logging activities in old-growth forests located on reindeer pasturelands were blocked by activists from both older environmentalist organizations and newer climate movement organizations. The targets were state-owned forestry companies, and actions included the occupation of their offices. Although the latter disruption was quickly dealt with by police, these cases illustrate how the disruptive tactics found in the material were chiefly used as tools to influence public opinion. In other words, they were closely tied to public preference and political access mechanisms.
Based on the application of the contentious politics approach, I argue that the grievances expressed by Sámi reindeer pastoralists relate to broad change processes that impact the ecological conditions that support their cultural and livelihood practices. These processes represent a political threat that has created the impetus for mobilization among groups connected to the Sámi movement. At the level of grievances, the most salient issues were encroachments, predator pressure, and poor snow conditions, all of which have distinct ecological components, and which find further support in the referenced academic literature. At the level of claims-making, I show that mobilization efforts are actively related to the grievances of reindeer pastoralists. The mobilizing structure, which consists of the Sámi movement and its allies, combines all five of Kolb’s mechanisms, while building on past efforts and outcomes. Actors connected to the Sámi movement have access to the polity, and use the political access mechanism. They have developed networks at the international level, and use the international politics mechanism. They have used gradual litigation to win ground through the judicial mechanism. They have applied a variety of tactics to activate the public preference mechanism to reframe issues and affect public opinion, and, at times, they have politicized encroachments through disruptive tactics that are at least related to the disruption mechanism. The combination of these different strategies means that the Sámi movement has, despite its limited numbers, increased pressure on the Swedish state. But it is up against powerful political and economic interests that form a hegemonic bloc.
Given the economic pressure on land, water, and natural resources, it is reasonable to consider the limitations of current mobilization efforts using Kolb’s theory. Beginning with the political access mechanism, limitations relate to a lack of observable activists at state level, their lack of formal positions within state bodies that limits their influence over issues connected to land, water, and natural resources, and the exclusion of Sámi actors and interests in decision making.
Turning to the public preference mechanism, it is notable that, despite its low numbers, the Sámi movement has successfully attracted media attention; nevertheless, it seems to struggle to convince influential communities to reframe policies related to land, water, and natural resources (e.g., beyond economic productivity), and to create conflict among the political elite by turning non-partisan issues that maintain the status quo into partisan matters that must be addressed.
With respect to the judicial mechanism, although it could be said that gradual litigation has produced the legal precedent necessary for change, it is unlikely that elites and authorities in the hegemonic bloc will implement the necessary mechanisms to enforce the courts’ decisions vis-à-vis issues related to land, water, and natural resources. Given that enforcement must incentivize compliance, and incur costs for non-compliance, implementation must be followed by decisions by policy makers, which takes us back to the political access mechanism, and the power relations that currently exist within the polity.
As for the international politics mechanism, although the Sámi movement has been somewhat effective at mobilizing international pressure, during the study period, as before, elites and authorities with influence over the Swedish state repeatedly failed to show any interest in responding to international norms and discourses on Indigenous rights, when they are not coupled with concrete enforcement mechanisms.
Finally, with respect to the disruption mechanism, the Sámi movement has allies in both older environmental movement-based, and newer climate movement-based groups and organizations that have been willing to employ disruptive tactics, at times, together with Sámi activists. However, the analysis did not reveal any examples of the type of mass disruption observed in Kolb’s material. In Sweden, such tactics have been used more as a way to stop individual encroachments, and utilize the public preference mechanism. It should be noted that most of the activists who took part in disruptive tactics eventually left the site of the conflict, while RHC members have remained; these areas are now associated with higher conflict levels, which may inhibit local coalition-building efforts. In the end, the disruption mechanism depends on well-placed and skilled reformists within the polity, which takes us back to the political access mechanism.
To achieve their goals, social movements must challenge elites and authorities that have different political constituencies; such actors cannot be expected to reframe policy without significant social and political pressure. Given the low number of Sámi relative to the national population, it seems necessary for the Sámi movement to strategically engage in cross-movement coalitions that go beyond the Indigenous rights frame, whilst not having its own political agenda co-opted.
Natural pasture-based reindeer pastoralism requires certain ecological conditions, particular to each RHC and at the pastoral landscape scale, but mainstream climate policy (dependent on mineral extraction, wind power, intensive forestry, and related infrastructure) is poised to generate further negative impacts. Therefore, it seems desirable for the Sámi movement to relate its political actions to a broader, progressive climate movement in order to increase the pressure on the state and achieve political change. An important challenge for the emergence of such a movement is to gain support from rural communities, as mainstream climate policies can be seen as potential sources of income at municipal and regional scales. Here, the Sámi movement could benefit from linking the ecological conditions needed for natural pasture-based reindeer pastoralism to reforms within a progressive climate and biodiversity policy agenda that also addresses the grievances of other social groups, one that can also deliver and maintain social benefits to both the Sámi and other rural-based population in northern Sweden.
My research combines ecological perspectives on reindeer pastoralism, the contentious politics approach to social movement theory, and Kolb’s five mechanisms of political change to take stock of current dynamics in the Sámi movement in Sweden in support of reindeer pastoralism. My analysis of 10 years of media reporting on Sámi issues highlighted multiple interactions between grievances and claims-making instances related to the interests of reindeer pastoralists. The grievances expressed by reindeer pastoralist organizations were clearly connected to both ecological conditions, and to the broad change processes that have negatively impacted the latter conditions over time, notably encroachments. Claims-making comes from multiple Sámi-based organizations, along with their allies who predominately consist of human rights organizations, organizations connected to older environmental movements, and newer climate movement organizations.
My findings also shed light on how the Indigenous rights frame dominates claims-making, and how a well-organized mobilizing structure has been able to use a variety of forms of political action (via the five mechanisms) to advance the interests of reindeer pastoralists and other Sámi. However, the substantive implementation of policies and practices that support Sámi pastoral landscapes conducive to natural pasture-based practices is likely to require a broader, progressive climate and biodiversity policy coalition to achieve political change, one that also incorporates the social concerns of non-pastoralist groups, and goes beyond what the Indigenous rights frame alone has managed to mobilize. These cross-movement coalitions could be more effective in creating and utilizing political opportunities (such as the presence of elite allies and elite conflicts within the state) to further their demands for policies and practices aligned with the ecological conditions that are conducive to reindeer pastoralism.
 Concession RHCs are founded on a legal system that is based on customary reindeer ownership among local farmers. They effectively allow non-Sámi ownership of reindeer, although herding predominately conducted by Sámi pastoralists.
 Established in 1950, it mobilizes reindeer herding communities and Sámi associations at the national level.
 Established in 1953, this pan-Sámi movement operates at the international level, with members from Sámi territories in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
 Established in 1993, this parliamentary body mobilizes Sámi people in Sweden broadly.
 The National Association of Swedish Sámi, all Reindeer Herding Communities, the Association of Reindeer Owners, and the Interest Association of the Concession RHCs.
 Emergency feeding refers to the practice of feeding reindeer with artificial feed such as pellets, either when they are free-roaming, or in corrals.
 Under the scheme, the government covers up to 50% of costs associated with emergency feeding, if civil servants confirm that there are indeed poor snow conditions.
 It can be mentioned that the Indigenous rights frame was often applied when pastoralists expressed grievances on the issues mentioned above in this section.
 The Sámi Parliament has a conflicting role, as it is both an administrative authority controlled by the state, and a popularly elected assembly that represents the Sámi people. It has no independent source of income, right to participate in decision making, or veto over rights concerning land, water, and natural resources. This institutional design, which requires it to operate within the constraints imposed on it by the state, creates a risk of co-optation for those who choose to work within it.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE
Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.
I would like to acknowledge financial support from the Swedish Research Council, Grant No. 2019-06354 (Sámi social movements—indigenous mobilization around the ecological conditions of reindeer husbandry under climate emergency). I would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers that helped me improve the quality of the manuscript.
URL-links to all the data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, DH. None of coding is publicly available because it may contain personal, sensitive information that could compromise the privacy of named individuals in the news media articles. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by Lund university, approval number 2021-06533-01.
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Table 1. Categories of issues, and sub-categories of encroachments identified by the analysis.
|Encroachments||Statements about the negative impacts of encroachments. Sub-categories were classified according to the following land uses: mining, forestry, wind power, hydro power, agriculture, infrastructure, tourism/recreation, and other.|
|Weather and climate||Statements about the negative impacts of climate change, poor snow conditions, heatwaves, forest fires, or in reference to specific weather events.|
|Predators||Statements about negative impacts due to the presence of carnivores such as wolves, lynx, wolverines, brown bears, or golden eagles.|
|Abstract rights||Statements about rights violations without reference to a specific issue.|
|Hunting and fishing||Statements about the negative impacts of hunting and fishing practices on reindeer herding communities.|
|Other||Any other statements about negative impacts.|