Gaia’s Francesca Price writes for Langscape about the Swedish fisherman fighting to have their traditional knowledge recognised.

We Feed the World is an international photographic initiative that brings together a unique collaboration of world renowned photographers, NGO’s and civil society groups to celebrate the role of small family farmers in feeding 70 percent of the world’s population. Through a series of international exhibitions, a book and poster campaign, it seeks to reach out to a global mainstream audience and replace the narrative of the poor, family farmer with a clearer understanding of their resilience, their diversity and their overwhelming success, despite the many challenges they face. It also aims to highlight the many benefits that agroecology offers our troubled planet from cooling the climate to restoring biodiversity.

In May 2016, We Feed the World, visited Kustringen in the far north of Sweden. This is a collection of three fishing villages at the mouth of the Kalix River, who have fished with nets in shallow waters and traded their catch with each other for hundreds of years.

However, this is all having to change as the Swedish authorities, acting on new European Union (EU) legislation, hves banned net fishing in depths less than three meters or any form of commerce outside that regulated by law. For the communities of the north, who speak a traditional Swedish dialect with roots in Old Norse, this is a great blow – taking away a traditional source of both food and income but also alienating them from customs and traditions that have been a part of the way they have lived for many generations.

The communties are now coming together to demand that the Swedish authorities recognize their role in stewarding the landscape and successfully maintaining fish supplies in the area for hundreds of years. This achievement is based on an indigenous knowledge that goes back as least as far as the 14th century. However, it is a knowledge not easily expressed in language, and finding the right words, in standard Swedish, is proving difficult.

One of the village elders, Peder Nilsson, has spent the last three winters trying to quantify the local know-how, but says: “It’s not easy to put in words the difference between our local knowledge and scientific knowledge”.

To facilitate communication of that Indigenous knowledge through visual rather than verbal means, our photographer Clare Benson spent a day with Peder and other local fishermen on the ice in the Bay of Skärsfjärden, documenting their traditional way of fishing.

Lutakärsgrund, a fishing camp in the outer archipelago in the bay of Skärsfjärden. The local dialect, Kalix, is barely understood by anyone else. All the place names are connected to nature and give a description of what is growing in that place or how that place can be used for certain activities. While Swedish have one word for ice, the people here have at least 22 depending on its quality and what is happening to it!

Fishermen like Joakim Boström and his father Hasse Boström have set nets in small holes to fish for pike, perch, and burbot for many generations. Most families in the area have multiple sources of income including fishing and they trade fish for other foodstuffs like beef or reindeer meat and skins.

New EU legislation forbids fishing with nets in shallow waters in order to protect endangered species such as Havsoring or Seat Trout. However, this doesn’t take into account the many plentiful species that inhabit the shallow waters and have been fished by local people for centuries. Kustringen is working for a more locally influenced management plan which is based on ecological principles rather than geographic ones.

Joakim learnt from his grandfather the best locations to fish, the best methods for fishing and the signs and symbols that can be seen in nature. He is angry that the “3-meter rule” has criminalised his ancestral traditions. “Today it is impossible for me to hand over this knowledge and teach future generatons the important knowledge connected to fishing. How do I explain to my child that it is illegal to fish? How shall I act when future generations want to put their nets down where my grandfather taught me to fish?” he says.

When together, the fishermen speak in their local dialect. This is an idiom rich in words for natural phenomena like snyreingen, which describes the ring around the moon predicting snow or illverskrokan, which names the special clouds which indicates the onset of bad weather. However, despite this richness there are no words for “helicopter” or “computer” and for these more modern words the villagers must switch to standard Swedish.

Peder’s horses are brought in for the night at his homestead on the island of Brudholmen which means “Island of Brides”. His relatives have lived here since at least, 1573, when the first names are recorded in the church books. He and the other villagers have spent the winter trying to find language to express the ancestral knowledge they share. Their last hope of preserving their culture lies in convincing the Swedish authorities of the ecological value of this indignenous and ancient wisdom.

Read the full article and view the accompanying images by photographer Clare Benson in Langscape Magazine.