A conversation between Saami youth climate activist and Belgian royalty

26 October 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Climate Crisis: There's No Going Back. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Indigenous climate activist MARTINA FJÄLLBERG and Belgium’s PRINCESS ESMERALDA may be from different countries, backgrounds and generations, but they have one thing in common: their passion for protecting the environment.

Listen to the full interview

As a Saami reindeer herder from a village in northern Sweden, 22-year-old Martina Fjällberg has seen how climate change is threatening her community’s way of life. To help put an end to the climate crisis and fight to protect her culture, she’s studying biology and geoscience at Umeå University in northern Sweden. She is also vice-president in the Saami youth organisation Sáminuorr. She was the guest editor of The Circle’s recent Youth in Action issue.

In addition to being a member of Belgium’s royal family, Princess Esmeralda is a passionate campaigner for the environment and Indigenous rights, and has had a successful career as a journalist, writer and documentary maker.

As part of a recent episode of WWF International’s podcast, Forces of Nature, the two women spoke to each other about the challenges many Indigenous People face in getting their views on environmental matters heard. Here’s part of that conversation.

Esmeralda: What changes have you noticed as a result of climate change, especially in reindeer herding?

Martina: One of the changes my father says he has noticed the most is that you can’t plan the reindeer herding as you used to. Back in the day, you could anticipate the weather. You could see that tomorrow is going to be like this, and the next week it’s going to be like that. But now the weather is shifting so much because of climate change. We can’t plan the same way we once did.

Esmeralda: Do you think Indigenous People—who are really on the ground and so much in contact with nature and with the animals’ behaviours—have observations that would be different from those of non-Indigenous people?

Martina: Yeah, I definitely think so, because it’s real to us in a way that it isn’t to a lot of other people—because our culture and our lives and everything are so deeply connected to nature. When nature changes, our culture also changes in some ways. As an example, in Saami culture, we have over 200 words for snow. But because of the changing climate, maybe 50 of these types of snow don’t exist anymore. Without them, we are also losing the words for them. In that way, we are losing language because of climate change. And we then lose culture. So, it’s so much more than just losing ice. And reindeer herding is one of the big things
that is really affected.

Esmeralda: Despite that, we might say that science has not recognized Indigenous knowledge. Did you feel that you had to go to university to become, let’s say, legitimate in your actions to protect nature and stop climate change?

Martina: In Sweden, at least, it seems like you have to be a professor or a researcher or scientist to be able to say, “this is a fact” or “this is something that’s changing.” As Indigenous People in Sweden, I don’t feel we are taken as seriously as scientists or professors because we are not educated in the same formal way. I chose to go to university and get a degree so I can be more
respected in Sweden—so that when I say, “I see this change in our culture, I see this change in reindeer herding, and this is real,” I will be taken seriously.

In Saami culture, we have over 200 words for snow. But because of the changing climate, maybe 50 of these types of snow don't exist anymore. Without them, we are also losing the words for them.

Esmeralda: Do you think getting a degree will change your perspective or your voice?

Martina: I think it will help me connect my background as a reindeer herder and Indigenous person with the more science-based world. I can be like a bridge between those two worlds in Sweden so that more people understand the link between Indigenous knowledge of nature and some things that are actually more scientific. Indigenous People have known these things for centuries
because when you live with nature, you understand it in a different way. And that knowledge is something that really should be taken seriously and considered in all these different reports and studies.

Esmeralda: Conservation has not always worked (together) with Indigenous People, and sometimes there has been confrontation. I would like to know what your point of view is. What do you think is the best way to work on conservation projects?

Martina: I think the biggest thing when doing conservation work in an area is to include the Indigenous People who live there. They are the ones who should be leading the work, in a way, because they are the ones who know nature the best. Include the Indigenous People in a way that isn’t just about listening, but also letting us lead and make decisions. Otherwise, we’re still left on the side.