Why Sweden and Norway Are Fighting Over Where Reindeer Graze

Reindeer stand on a roadway
Reindeer don't respect road rules. Did you really think they'd respect national borders?. Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

When reindeer in Sweden start grazing, they just follow the food, and sometimes that means wandering into neighboring Norway.

This general disregard for borders was given legal permission with the 1751 Lappekodisillen or the Lapp Codicil agreement. It recognized the rights of the Sami people to continue with cross-border reindeer herding. The Sami are indigenous people who live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, who often rely on reindeer herding as a livelihood.

That agreement has caused increasing turmoil in recent years. Norwegian Agriculture Minister Jon Georg Dale has even threatened to cull reindeer that cross the border because Sweden has been hesitant to sign an update to a 1972 agreement that expired more than a decade ago. A new agreement would regulate grazing more strictly across the border.

"The border is just a line on a paper, but the reindeer have been using these lands since ancient times," Niila Inga, the chairman of the Swedish Sami association, told Bloomberg. "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."

The importance of reindeer

Reindeer herding as been an important part of Sami culture for more than 1,000 years, with about 10 percent of Sami families relying on the animals to make a living. Reindeer have been used for food and clothing, and crafts can be made from their antlers and hide.

Mathis Oskal, a herder and a representative at the Norwegian Sami parliament, told Bloomberg: "Norwegian reindeer husbandry is strictly regulated, while there seems to be a free-for-all in Sweden."

While Norway has worked on reducing its herds, Sweden's is growing. Those increasing herds have crowded out the reindeer in Norway, causing over-grazing. The increased numbers may be contributing to the spread of chronic wasting disease, a fatal infectious brain disease.

Rural Affairs Minister Sven-Erik Bucht told Bloomberg that Sweden has been hesitant to ratify an agreement without talking to the local people.

"It’s important that we listen to the Samis in both Sweden and Norway," said Bucht. "We’ve had discussions on this topic for a couple of years now, but we think that we will find a constructive solution."