3. Struggling for Survival

Chapter 2: Soviet Union
Part 3: The Spread of Nuclear Contamination over Sweden

What will become of the traditional nomadic way of life of the Lapps, now that they are being so severely affected by cesium contamination? We visited the office of the Lapp Association of Sweden, in Umea, and spoke to the secretary, a tall, striking man by the name of Bror Saitton, about the Lapps' future prospects. He showed us a map of the contaminated areas and explained the current situation. "We've been trying to do whatever we can to protect the traditional way of life of the Lapp people, but Chernobyl has thrown all our work into chaos," he told us.

The total number of Lapps, spread over the wide area known as Lapland, which encompasses parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Soviet Union, is estimated to be fifty-eight thousand. However, not all of these people are engaged in the traditional pursuits of fishing and herding reindeer. For example, in Sweden, of a total Lapp population of seventeen thousand, only eight hundred households or approximately twenty-five hundred people are leading a nomadic life. The Lapps who live the way their ancestors did are in fact a minority within a minority, as the majority leave Lapland and go to live in the cities. Saitton is emphatic that everything possible must be done to prevent the old ways from dying out. Since Chernobyl, Saitton and the other five staff have been working ceaselessly on the problems faced by that minority of eight hundred households.

First of all, they visited the Lapps and surveyed the damage done to them and their livestock by cesium contamination. The results of this survey were then used to negotiate for compensation from the government. Logically, the association ought to have applied to the Soviet government for compensation, but, according to Saitton, they could see no practical means of doing so, and so in the end the Lapps had no choice but to take their claims to their own government. Their demands for compensation covered not only the loss of income from reindeer meat, but also the cost of buying feed for the reindeer from safe areas to reduce the chances of contamination. Saitton knows, however, having spent ten years living the nomadic life-style himself, that this is in reality only a stopgap measure. As he explains:

"Lapps live a nomadic existence and so depend totally on the natural environment for sustenance. The grass and moss the reindeer graze on, the water; these are what matter the most. All of these have been affected by cesium contamination and they will continue to be for the next twenty or thirty years. This destruction of the environment could well lead to the destruction of Lapp culture."

When Saitton left his Lapland home to go and work as a public servant in the city, his father advised him never to lose sight of his Lapp background. These words were later to convince him to take on the task of helping his people. In the three years since the accident at Chernobyl, he has come to feel that things will never be the same for the Lapps. For Saitton, a major problem caused by the contamination is how to continue teaching the Lapp culture. Until recently there were seven boarding schools in Lapland specifically for Lapps. These schools have a history going back ninety years and include many of the items that form the basis of the Lapp culture, such as language, customs, and reindeer husbandry in their curricula. They are now facing the worst crisis since their establishment. One of the schools was forced to close in 1988 due to a falling roll; the six remaining schools have a total roll of 133 pupils, only half that of ten years ago.

"The rolls were gradually dropping before the accident at Chernobyl, but now many parents are so uncertain about the future of the traditional Lapp life-style that they are thinking twice about sending their children to Lapp schools. If only Chernobyl had never happened...," Saitton said with a sigh. The prospect of fighting against cesium-137 for the next twenty or thirty years has, naturally, very little appeal.