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A successful Saami-led, salmon rewilding project on the Näätämö river in Arctic Finland illustrates the success of partnership between Indigenous knowledge and western science on environmental questions, say the authors of a recent paper, but outdated perceptions and prejudices means these kinds of partnerships elsewhere still too often fail.

“(Scientists and policy makers) still struggle with ways of knowing that are beyond what science is able to capture,” said Tero Mustonen, a geographer and one of the paper’s authors, in a phone interview with Eye on the Arctic from Finland.

“The argument is often that Indigenous knowledge can’t be measured and reproduced like scientific data can, but the limits of science are also real,” he said, pointing out that a scientific presence most parts of the Arctic, outside of Russia, rarely goes back more than 100 years, compared to the thousands of years of knowledge available to traditional knowledge holders.

“That doesn’t mean science is invalid, but because of that, (the scientific community) has a very hard time stomaching what comes forward from Indigenous communities where their observations capture both the seen and the unseen in the landscape, the profound cycles of nature, and the way the complexities of Indigenous knowledge is contextualised and embedded in things like local languages and place names,” said Mustonen, also the president of Snowchange Cooperative, an NGO based in Finland and made up of a network of local groups and Indigenous peoples around the world, that also participated in the project. “But if (a researcher) can stomach that, and if the relationship between the scientists and the community is good, very high quality science can happen.” What’s happening to the salmon on the Näätämö River?

The article, “How Traditional Knowledge Comes to Matter in Atlantic Salmon Governance in Norway and Finland,” was published in December in Arctic, a journal from the Arctic Institute of North America.

In it, the authors examine cooperation projects between scientists and Saami communities and explore what made the Näätämö river co-management project considered a success. A map showing the Näätämö river, an important spawning waterway for Atlantic salmon. (Johanna Roto/Courtesy Snowchange Coopeartive)

The Saami are Indigenous reindeer herders whose traditional lands span the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and western Russia.

The role of fishing in Saami culture is a key part of the culture, says Pauliina Feodoroff, a Saami leader of the Näätämö river project, because even as the number of Saami families engaged in traditional reindeer herding decline, almost all Saami families still fish. “Fishing is not only providing the food and handicraft materials and the sense of self-sufficiency, but it also the way of living that still brings the traditional laws concerning the land use and family areas to this day,” Feodoroff said in an email interview with Eye on the Arctic.

The Näätämö river is located in Finnish Lapland and empties out into the Varanger Fjord in Norway.

The river is an important waterway for Atlantic salmon, but their habitat has been negatively impacted by mining, development and climate change, and the Saami of the area, known as Skolt Saami, have noticed ever dwindling salmon numbers over several years. Vladimir Feodoroff, a Skolt Saami knowledge holder, and Rimma Poptpot, a Khanty knowledge holder from Siberia, eat whitefish on Lake Sevettijärvi during the 2014 Festival of Northern Fishing Traditions in Arctic Finland. (Chris McNeave/Courtesy Snowchange)

You should always thank the river and lake for the salmon says Vladimir Feodoroff a Skolt Sámi Elder, in emailed comment. “I remember Grandmother Anna saying this, because I used to fish on the Näätämö river with her,” Feodoroff said. “We discussed the salmon. She […]

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