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Protecting the rights of Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen

By Roger Kalla - posted Thursday, 10 March 2005

The latest Greenpeace campaign to protect the reindeer and the reindeer herders of the Arctic poses an interesting ethical dilemma for people that aim to protect the rights of the animals and the environment.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has previously come down hard on the multinational reindeer farming industry that “profits from the breeding and killing of animals”. Twelve months ago PETA threatened UK department store chain John Lewis, saying that if they continued to sell reindeer furs for rugs or traditional handicraft with any reindeer content, they would take direct action by showing graphic images of the slaughter of reindeers. PETA also claimed that the captive breeding and slaughtering of reindeer is “not ethical” and also interestingly enough “not environmental”.

This puts the views of one environmental organisation, Greenpeace, in direct opposition to the views of another, PETA, on reindeer herding and its environmental effects. They both can't be right or can they? Does Greenpeace condone the large scale farming of domesticated animals? Will PETA now target Greenpeace in the Arctic?


I grew up above the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden where the aborigines of the Arctic, the Sámi people, still herd the reindeer, the domesticated relative of the Caribou in Arctic Canada.

The Sámi are a proud people and are doing remarkably well in keeping their traditions and cultural inheritance alive. The extensive farming of the domesticated reindeer is central to their cultural traditions. The Sámi language has some 400 words for reindeer and products derived from various parts of the animal. Real life reindeer are not treated like Santa's pets or pampered cart horses but as farm animals that eventually will be slaughtered and the products from the reindeer carcass utilised for human benefit. Not much different from Australian sheep in other words.

The once nomadic Sámi people have settled down in the towns, which have sprung up in the Arctic, and only a small proportion of them still herd their reindeer. The Sámi who do still keep up the traditional life, use all the modern technologies, such as snow mobiles, helicopters, and mobile phones to herd their reindeer. However, most Sámi would now frequent the same supermarkets as the rest of us and consume their fish and chicken in the form of ready-cooked deep-frozen blocks produced by multinational food companies.

Although the Scandinavian countries are considered to be beacons of egalitarianism there are conflicts between the Sámi minority and the Swedish and Finnish speaking majority that colonised Lapland (the northern most part of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Finland) in the Middle Ages.

The Sámi have retained the “right to herd” on all crown land above the Arctic Circle. Farmers from the south do not receive any subsidies if they sow fields of crops above the Arctic Circle. This policy has been efficient and has ensured farming land has been kept separate from land dedicated to extensive reindeer grazing.

However, the utilisation of Lapland’s rich natural resources (for example the environmentally friendly hydroelectric power from the major rivers, the underground iron ore deposits and the timber from the pine forests) for the benefit of the majority of Swedes and Finns, causes conflict between the different users of the Arctic lands.


Conflicts arise when pro-development forces clash with environmental forces. One of the objections most often cited against development is the potential damage any large scale harvesting of a natural resource in the Arctic could do to the existing use of the land for reindeer grazing.

Greenpeace has now entered into the fray in order to protect the forests that feed the reindeer in Lapland. Pictures of Santa Claus’ reindeer in the snow makes for a “feel good” story and the weblog of freezing Greenpeace campaigners makes for amusing reading, especially for a native Laplander like me who is used to camping out in winter time in -40C just for the “hell” of it.

“Don’t hurt Santa’s reindeers” is the underlying message of the latest Greenpeace global campaign to save the Arctic forests and the Sámi way of life. It is an easy sell to a global audience. However I and many Australians like me, would probably be interested in hearing PETA’s views on Greenpeace’s stated campaign goals to protect the breeding and use of reindeer by the Sámi. Moreover could Greenpeace enlighten us on the difference between the animal husbandry practices used by Australian sheep farmers and those used by Sámi reindeer herders - for the benefit of the Australian and global audience - on their web site? If Greenpeace condones responsible animal husbandry practices of one it should do it for the other.

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About the Author

Dr Roger Kalla is the Director of his own Company, Korn Technologies, and a stakeholder in Australia’s agricultural biotechnology future. He is also a keen part time nordic skier and an avid reader of science fiction novels since his mispent youth in Arctic Sweden. Roger is a proud member of the Full Montes bike riding club of Ivanhoe East.

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