Chernobyl Fallout: A Hard Rain for the Sami


At the end of April 1986, Swedish nuclear power authorities noted unusually high rates of radiation in routine measurements at a plant north of Sweden. They initially feared that a nuclear accident had occurred in one of Sweden's own 12 nuclear power stations. It was several days later when they learned that they had actually measured fallout from the nuclear fire and explosion at Chernobyl that for more than a week spewed streams of radioactive material into the atmosphere above the Soviet Union, across eastern Europe and into western and northern Europe.

Scandinavia's indigenous minority, the Sami (also known as Lapps), has been particularly hard hit by Chernobyl fallout, resulting in the long-term radioactive contamination of large areas of Sami reindeer-herding pastureland. This contamination poses serious threats not only to the health and economic well-being of Sami people, but to their political strength and to a Sami cultural identity bound by material and symbolic connections between humans and reindeer.

The Sami case makes painfully clear that in trying to assess the effects of a major nuclear accident like Chernobyl, we are confronted not only with technical problems of measuring radioactivity levels, charting fallout patterns, and assessing risk factors, but also with the need to understand the interrelated global, national, regional and local community contexts - much too briefly suggested here. Even those Sami least affected by the fallout itself are affected by changing relations between a Sami minority and Scandinavian welfare state bureaucracies, by tensions and misunderstandings between Sami groups with very different experiences of radioactivity, by long-term threats to a Sami reindeer economy increasingly dependent on an outside market. It is only on the basis of a many-leveled understanding of complex threats to Sami people in the aftermath of Chernobyl that we can begin to consider practical attempts to counter both immediate and long-term dangers.

The Radioactive Fallout Situation

While direct contact with contaminated air last spring was not seen as posing immediate dangers to human health, the concentration of radioactivity in plants and animals that feed on them posed serious problems of widespread contamination of food - milk, sheep and cows, fish, wild game, berries and especially reindeer. Lichen, the main reindeer grazing food, is a biologically remarkable "radioactive sponge." With no underground root system, it must take all its nutrients from the air and thus incorporates airborne contamination to a much greater degree than other vegetation. The absorption of the major Chernobyl pollutant, cesium 137 (with a half-life of 30 years), by the slow-growing northern lichen has meant serious long-term contamination of many northern Scandinavian pasturelands and of the deer grazing them. In some areas, deer are many times more radioactive than is considered safe for domestic consumption or is legally allowable for market sale. Scientists express a cautious hope that in the most contaminated areas of central Sweden and Norway radioactivity levels will drop to "safe" levels in 20 to 30 years.

A bequerel is a new unit of radioactive measurement, representing one nuclear disintegration per second. In November, the Swedish government radioactivity level for salable foodstuffs was 300 bequerels/kilo, while the Norwegian limit was set at a much higher 6,000 bqs/kilo. These differences are important, but they appear less striking in comparison to contamination levels in the hardest hit areas of central Sweden and Norway. In November, deer radioactivity north of Snasa, Norway, averaged about 70,000 bq/kilo, with a few deer as high as 137,000 bq/kilo. Contamination levels gradually decrease to the north. Deer from the Vilhelmina area in northern Sweden averaged 12,000 bq/kilo after November slaughters. During the same period over two-thirds of deer slaughtered in Kautokeino, Norway, were under the 6,000 bq/kilo limit and could be sold. Reindeer pastures in Finland were affected only very slightly by Chernobyl fallout and there are no restrictions on the sale of Finnish deer.

There is little scientific agreement about potential long-term dangers to Sami health drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated foods. There is already some - much debated - evidence of increased incidence of leukemia and stomach cancer among Sami as a result of eating radioactive deer meat, contaminated in the 1960s from atmospheric nuclear testing in the Soviet Union. Reindeer radio-activity levels from this period were at the low end of the current radiation spectrum - about 4,000-5,000 bq/kilo. Analysts stress, however, the extreme difficulty of isolating dietary risk factors from other "lifestyle risks," especially in a population as small as the Sami's (generally estimated to be between 70,000 and 100,000).

The crucial point here is that there is neither any agreed-upon "safe" level of radioactive exposure nor any consensus on potential health dangers. The uncertainty of "risk assessments" on the basis of partial and conflicting information has beset Sami from the first harrowing weeks last summer when news of extensive Chernobyl contamination first appeared. Sami homes were inundated with a flood of contamination of pastures and reindeer, and various scientific and government guidelines for responding to the disaster. There were newspaper articles, television and radio programs with widely varying information about "safe" levels of radioactive consumption, usually scaled down for pregnant women and children.

Some families kept three separate food compartments in their freezer sheds - relatively uncontaminated reindeer meat bought from outside for the children, moderately contaminated meat for the middle-aged, and the most radioactive deer for the old people.

Bequerel became a household word, though there was much misinformation about what radioactivity is and how it spreads. People feared seeing radioactive surveillance helicopters landing near their homes, in places where children may have just been playing. Rumors spread about unimaginably high bequerel levels requiring the immediate slaughter of whole herds; others predicted the birth of genetic monstrosities during the coming spring's calving period. Some pregnant women sought abortions; others agonized over the future of their children.

A mother of two children, Britt-Inger Gustaffson-Blind of Sansa, Norway, recalled the initial confusion and fear. "I remember lying in bed, unable to get any kind of clear picture of what was happening. I began to think of our deer and who would be affected by their loss - not just my man and my children, but our old parents and other relatives dependent on people in the reindeer work. Then the Sami doing handicrafts and those in the reindeer administration and the teachers at the Sami school and the people at the Sami cultural center. The webs of people I knew just got wider and more tangled, and my heart grew heavier and heavier."

Herders' immediate, most easily articulated fears centered on simple economic survival in a business with no market for its products. In early August, the Swedish and Norwegian governments promised to compensate herders for deer they could not sell legally. At this time there were a few mass slaughters of deer which were piled in mounds and pushed by tractors into large pits by those who feared that state compensation would be only a temporary measure. However, both Swedish and Norwegian governments continued to promise that compensation programs would be maintained for as long as it took for herding to return to "normal" and counseled herders to go back to work and continue to slaughter deer "as usual."

In practice, this meant that slaughtered deer, normally staple food on the tables of Sami families or luxury food on northern European tables, now were bought by the state. Meat was dyed blue to mark it unfit for human consumption and sold as fodder for fox and mink in northern fur-breeding farms, or simply buried in large pits - essentially nuclear waste disposal sites - in uninhabited areas. Sami herders began to face the everyday difficulties of going about "work as usual" in a transformed world, in order to maintain their herds for an uncertain future.

A Sense of Dislocation

The situation of Scandinavia's native Sami minority is in certain important respects very different from that of many indigenous peoples, whose physical survival is threatened by the neglect or outright hostility of national governments. No Sami family in the modern Scandinavian welfare state fear starvation as a result of Chernobyl contamination of its herds. But present threats to Sami culture are serious and far-reaching, even if sometimes difficult to apprehend and untangle.

People in the most contaminated areas express feelings of profound dislocation, a sense that "things have split apart" in the aftermath of Chernobyl in ways that go far beyond the immediate sense of economic threats. "One of the worst things is the pretending," said Ivar Toven, a South Sami herder from Snasa, Norway.

We know that the work of our hands just ends in animals being thrown into the ground. But the only ways we know how to handle the deer are the careful ways our fathers taught us and that we hope to teach our children. So we pretend and we hope. What else can we do 7 This is the life I know.

His wife, Sig-Britt Toven, went on.

It seems sometimes that things have become strange and make-believe. You see with your eyes the same mountains and lakes, the same herds, but you know there is something dangerous, something invisible, that can harm your children, that you can't see or touch or smell. Your hands keep doing the work, but your head worries about the future.

Nora-Marie Bransfjell, a teacher at the South Sami school in Snasa, wonders how the inner lives of children are fragmented by fears of contamination in the environment and worries about an uncertain future.

When the children returned to school in September, they spoke only of "bequerels". They asked each other, "Did you eat fish from the lakes before you knew? Did you walk in the rain last spring?" They would open their lunchboxes and say, "I can eat this meat. My father bought it in the north, so it has only 300 bequerels." But by December I noticed that hardly anyone spoke anymore of Chernobyl. "Do you think about it?" I asked. A nine-year-old girl replied. "No it's like war. You know it's real, but far away. You can't see it, and you try not to think of it coming to you and your family."

Gerd Persson, mother of a South Sami herding family in Valsjöyn, Sweden, describes the importance of connections between people and their deer in terms that are foreign to Westerners:

This is not just a matter of economic, but of who we are, how we live, how we are connected to our deer and each other. Now we must buy everything. Thread, material, food, shoes are now all different things, when they used to be parts of one thing.

She speaks of the central importance to South Sami culture of traditions surrounding niestti, the taking of provisions from one's own herd.

Our men care for the deer and know them. When deer are slaughtered, it is done with respect. We women know how to care for the meat, to use every bit, the blood, the head, even the feet in soup. We know how to make thread from sinew and how to prepare the skin and furs for clothing and shoes. The work of our hands puts food on our tables and clothing on our backs. We give our food to our guests and send dried meat to our children when they are away in school. Even if there comes a time when we can eat the deer again, it may be too late to pass the knowledge of how to take and use niestti on to our children.

Political Tensions

Only about ten percent of Scandinavia's approximately 70,000 Sami presently herd the land's 500,000 reindeer. In Sweden and Norway, official government census figures designate as Sami only those whose families live by full-time reindeer herding, an occupation legislatively prohibited to others. Nevertheless, threats to the reindeer economy culture, at both herders and nonherders alike.

Reindeer have been important since prehistoric times, when Sami hunters stalked wild northern deer. In the 16th century some groups of mountain Sami in the northwestern mountainous tundra regions developed extensive pastoral nomadic lifestyles, migrating over hundreds of miles with domesticated reindeer herds somethings numbering in the thousands. While pastoralism spread throughout most of the Sami region in the following centuries, groups of South Sami in central Norwegian and Swedish regions and Eastern Sami in what is now Finland and the Soviet Union developed a more intensive form of pastoralism, with smaller herds, more limited migrations and greater reliance on auxiliary occupations, such as fishing and berry-picking. These historical divisions between North and South/Eastern Sami have persisted into the present day period of more sedentary "reindeer ranching" in which the sale of deer on a Western European market has become increasingly important, in some areas even overshadowing the importance of production for domestic consumption.

Tensions between North and South Sami have been exacerbated and ones created in the wake of disparate regional experiences of Chernobyl contamination. Various scientific proposals for reducing deer contamination levels - from rounding up deer and feeding them with uncontaminated fodder brought from outside to relocating herds in relatively uncontaminated pasture areas - have been implemented on a fairly small scale, but they are limited by cost, availability of land and the biology of reindeer, which do not tolerate long confinement in corrals. Radioactivity reduction programs are most feasible for northern herders with deer only slightly above government limits, but they promise little change for southern Sami in the most heavily contaminated areas.

Many northern Sami tend to play down the seriousness of Chernobyl contamination, suggesting that the dramatic story of radioactivity threats to Sami culture has been irresponsibly overplayed by the media. Leif Halonen, director of the Sami Research Institute in Kautokeino, Norway, also notes that the wrong sort of media attention may do more harm than good to Sami people, struggling to allay consumer fears and rebuild a solid European market for reindeer meat that falls within legal limits.

In contrast, many southern Sami express anger at what they see as neglect of the plight of Sami in very contaminated areas. South Sami in the worst contaminated central regions represent a minority within a Sami minority. Their small numbers (approximately 2,000) and distinctive Sami dialect placed them in a vulnerable position even before the Chernobyl disaster. Over 50 percent of South Sami are directly involved in reindeer herding, practiced on a much smaller scale and in less mechanized ways than the more extensive and commercialized "reindeer ranching" of the north. Some express fears that their distinctive South Sami way of life may be seen by others as expendable.

Most Sami politicians - those who represent "the Sami people" at the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and who deal officially with Scandinavian authorities through the pan-Scandinavian Nordic Sami Council or though the various national Sami organizations - are North Sami, with their own experience and understanding of problems caused by Chernobyl fallout. As one politician noted, "It's simply pragmatic political sense to rebuild the reindeer economy as best we can, not just for the narrow economic good of any one group, but for the good of Sami culture as a whole."

Herding has provided many Sami with both a powerful focus for ethnic identity and a secure livelihood, allowing young people to stay in northern areas where there is little alternative year-round cash employment. Without a strong local economy, young people will be forced to leave the villages for work or remain in Sami areas dependent on welfare supplemented by short-term or seasonal employment. Economically, reindeer are important not only to their owners, but also to those Sami involved in the production of bone, antler and hide handicrafts and those deriving a livelihood from a growing northern Scandinavian tourist industry.

Because reindeer herding figures so prominently in state visions of northern economic development and expanded tourism, a strong market for reindeer products has given Sami an economic base from which to gain political leverage in national governments. This Sami political influence has been aimed at establishing some measure of local self-government in Sami areas, at resisting the incursions of development interests (hydroelectric power, mining, the timber industry tourism) and at promoting Sami cultural programs such as bilingual Sami national language education in the schools, instruction in Sami handicrafts and pan-Scandinavian Sami political and cultural meetings. All this may be threatened, some suggest, by an overemphasis on the very serious contamination problems of a relatively small number of Sami in central Scandinavian areas.

Chernobyl contamination thus has created and exacerbated tensions within Sami society - between North and South, between politicians and "ordinary people," between herders and nonherders (frequently dependent on the reindeer economy for their own economic well-being, but now finding it difficult or impossible to get state compensation for Chernobyl-related losses). Moreover, present Sami dependence on state compensation from quite different Swedish and Norwegian government bureaucracies has intensified divisions between Sami in Norway, Sweden and Findland, despite a Nordic Sami Council political program celebrating Sami as one people, whose social bonds shall not be broken by national boundaries.

Dangers of Welfare State Dependency

Many Sami worry about long-term dependence on state compensation. "We have only promises of continuing support now," one Swedish Sami herder observed in December. "But what happens if, five or ten years from now, people in the government start to think that it's too expensive to hold up an economy with no market for its products?" In January, Bajane Ornstedt from the Swedish Ministry of Agriculture, a member of the Swedish government's Reindeer Radioactivity Commission, affirmed the commitment of the Swedish state to compensate Sami for Chernobyl-related losses. "The government will continue to fund research aimed at ameliorating contamination problems and to pay herders the going market price for any deer above the contamination limit, for as long as such measures are needed." In April government officials announced that the previous legal limit of 300 bq/kilo for all foodstuffs on the market would be lifted altogether, except in the case of reindeer meat, which may now be sold if contamination levels are under 1,500 bq/kilo. This change is a response, officials note, to current scientific reassessments of safe radioactive consumption levels and to Sami requests to reevaluate the very low 300 bq limit. (During the 1960s, as previous noted, Sami in many areas regularly sold deer in the 4,00-5,000 bq/kilo range.)

The complex debates surrounding the new legal limit have not yet been studied adequately, but there are justifiable fears that the higher limits will result in greater consumer unwillingness to buy reindeer meat at questionably high contamination levels and will ultimately put many Sami out of work - particularly those practicing "unrationalized" small-scale herding. For decades before Chernobyl, Scandinavian states attempted to make the reindeer industry more profitable through reorganization of herding according to Western scientific and economically rational guidelines on selective breeding, slaughter decisions, pasture use and labor allocation. This process was widely seen as requiring significant reductions (according to some economic analysts up to one third) in the existing number of herders, particularly among the more tradition-bound, less commercially oriented groups. In light of such pre-Chernobyl policies, present shifts in government regulation or radiation levels and in state compensation commitments may be questioned. Are state officials using a tragic accident to their own advantage to hasten rationalization programs and phase out unprofitable sectors of the reindeer economy?

Perhaps even more troubling are speculations that phase-out programs may be linked intentionally to the weakening of both local Sami self-government and pan-Scandinavian political solidarity. (Recall that in Norway and Sweden, only those who live by full-time reindeer herding are legally designated as Sami.) Concerted Sami political strength has proved troublesome to state planning in the past, particularly in demonstrations against northern hydroelectric developments that would destroy important pasture areas. Ironically, it is likely that the near future will require stronger resistance, as Sweden - in response to a public outcry against nuclear power following the Chernobyl accident - promises to phase out its 12 nuclear reactors by the year 2010. Unfortunately for Sami, the most likely energy alternative for Sweden will be massive hydroelectric development in Sami herding regions.

Early last fall there was talk of organized Sami demands for compensation directly form the Soviet Union - a strategy that, even if unsuccessful, would have helped to establish the Sami right to compensation. Pal Doj, a South Sami journalist from Ostersund, Sweden, maintains, "The Sami organizations should have started a real political fight with the Soviets and taken advantage of every bit of media attention focused on us, Instead, the Scandinavian governments said, Don't worry, well take care or everything for you! "Swedish and Norwegian governments may thus have weakened international Sami solidarity, increased dependency on nationally bounded bureaucracies and posed threats to Sami culture.

"We Are Still Here"

It is importance to stress that its is simply too early to lay out the consequences of the Chernobyl accident for Sami people in any definitive way. Oversimplified stories of the Sami as members of an ancient culture, continuing virtually unchanged for thousands of years until falling victim overnight to the nuclear age, obscure the real concerns of Sami people today, struggling maintain a living culture rather than an ossified museum piece. Sami, especially in the most contaminated southern areas, who hear over and over again about the possible "death of Sami culture" as a result of Chernobyl, may lose morale as they face the difficult problems of moving into a future whose form is still undetermined.

Threats to the stability of external economic and political structures, particularly in the most contaminated central Scandinavian regions, have brought a number of impassioned South Sami women outside the domestic sphere and into politics, as women form informal networks to discuss the effects of Chernobyl not only on the Sami reindeer economy and political situation, but also on men's morale, the roles of women in family life and the physical and psychological health of their children.

Gerd Persson, a South Sami mother and reindeer man's wife, had never been involved in politics until last fall, when she campaigned for and received a position on the "Reindeer Radioactivity Commission," an influential advisory organ to the Swedish government.

I know where I stand...I am not a politician, and I am not afraid to say what I think. Chernobyl is not the only difficulty Sami people have had to face. We have had colonization, forced Christianity, the taking of our lands by development interests and the taking of our children by boarding schools. But we are still here because we know where we can draw our strength to fight - from our grounding in our place, to our deer, in our families and our connections to one another. Anything that breaks these apart is what we have to fight against.

Even in the light of the resiliency and creative strength of Sami people throughout a long history of environmental and social threats from outside, it is clear that Chernobyl radioactive fallout poses serious threats to health, economic well-being, social community and cultural identity. The Sami case makes painfully clear the international dimensions and dangers of nuclear technology and the impossibility of predicting the complex global consequences of nuclear accidents as they transform the substance of people's bodies and environments and the meaningful orders of their lives.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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