Still proud – portrait interview with Samwel Naikada

Samwel Naikada. Photo Håkan Lindgren
Samwel Naikada. Photo Håkan Lindgren

The modern way of life is gradually taking over in Samwel Ole Naikada’s Maasai village. But he will never let go of the Maasai legacy of protecting forests and wildlife. When he leaves Kenya for global climate negotiations the traditions go with him.

TEXT  Mats Hellmark

This is an English translation of an interview published in the magazine Sveriges Natur #5/14

PDF version here: Fortfarande stolt – porträttintervju med massajen Samwel Naikada

Extended Swedish version here


We meet with Samwel Naikada in the small town Kilgoris where he studies. A tall, cool guy who sort of surfs on top of the messy street life. Over lunch the photographer Håkan asks that particular question you should never put to a pastoralist, whether Sami in Sweden or Maasai in Kenya or Tanzania: “How many animals do you own?”

Samwel smiles and explains that this is like asking someone how much money he has in the bank. In fact, it’s far more than that. Even the very word Maasai is connected to the animals, cattle stands for life itself.

After a visit to the grocery store, shopping for European stomachs, Samwel folds his tall self into the car he has borrowed from his children’s school teacher and we head south. The first part is decent dirt road, the rains haven’t started yet. Every now and then we meet donkey carts loaded with charcoal for cooking, a sight that Samwel disapproves of. Charcoal burning threatens forests across Africa, but in Maasai areas this hasn’t been a problem.

– For us it is a taboo, a curse. Whoever does it will turn as black as coal himself, it is said. But now the traditions are dwindling, people care less and less …

The village Olkirreruki. Photo Mats Hellmark
The village Olkirreruki. Photo Mats Hellmark

The last miles are completely off road, we bump through bush landscape, follow narrow cattle trails and pass a broken fence that was demolished by elephants a few days earlier. A herd of zebras disperse in front of the car just as we are about to enter Samwel’s boma (fenced area for livestock and houses).

– They feel safer close to houses since there is less risk of lions here, Samwel says.

The day before a cheetah killed a small antelope at the closest waterhole, and a few days earlier a jackal stole a baby goat. Samwel’s village Olkirreruki is situated right next to the great forest Nyakweri which in turn adjoins the Maasai Mara National Park. No wonder there is an abundance of wildlife nearby, and that Samwel got hooked on nature conservation already as a child.

– You could say that I was an activist from the start. I hated when trees were felled, and when poachers hunted in the woods.

He reported them regularly to the National Park Rangers, and eventually the boy who was so good at speaking English started to get odd jobs for the conservancy.

Håkan and I move into one of the family’s huts, next to the cow enclosure and the small house for the goats, made with interlaced branches. The hut has walls made of dried cow dung just like the others, but is more modern with its square shape, small window-openings and corrugated tin roofs instead of straw. Since a few weeks back there is also a solar panel on the roof that powers small lamps and a device for charging mobiles (previously the family had to walk eight kilometers to a larger village for charging in shops with electricity).

Samwel shifts quilted jacket and jeans to traditional Shuka (blanket to wrap around the upper body) and long rod. This is the way he feels most comfortable, and the animals are most at ease with people who dresses traditionally.

– Still I rarely wear Shuka when I go to town, everybody keeps asking what we are celebrating…

Children from the village. Photo Mats Hellmark
Children from the village. Photo Mats Hellmark

But for the longer trips, to the large cities where the climate negotiations take place, he always brings it. Even if the weather is a bit too cold, like in Copenhagen 2009. Samwel has represented indigenous people in four global climate negotiations. Clothes that stand out make it easier to get attention.

– We often need to make a lot of fuss to be listened to, to make our views part of the process.

Cooperating with indigenous people from different parts of the world is rewarding, and Samwel sees many similarities in attitude and culture. But the general result of the negotiations is disappointing. Top players like the US push their own agendas and fight to minimize their efforts. The indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable and affected, but get little sympathy. Samwel has also been working with biodiversity issues under the frame of the Convention for Biological Diversity and he feels the Nagoya Protocol takes better account of the rights of indigenous people.

Samwel specializes in forestry issues. He has presented the local conservancy project Dupoto Forest and Wildlife Association at several workshops, one of them in Copenhagen.

– I was participating in the panel discussion along with Wangari Maathai and several Kenyan parliamentarians. At first the people from the government did not want to cooperate, they saw us almost as rivals. But that has changed, in Durban we negotiated out of a common position.

Our arrival is a big event in Olkirreruki where cars (and white people as well) are rare sights. Samwel’s six children are overjoyed as Håkan takes snapshots and show them on the camera screen. Their grandfather Tubula Ole Naikada comes to greet us. He is in his eighties (year of birth unknown), but is still out herding animals every day.

When he was young the local Maasai still lived as nomads. The animals could graze where the grass was greenest. The rains were also longer, the drought periods shorter.

Tubula Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samwel Naikada’s father Tubula Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

– After independence 1963 the land was subdivided, agriculture became more frequent and national parks formed closed areas. We could not move as we used to. Life became more difficult, says Tubula.

The traditional diet is almost entirely based on milk. Meat is uncommon, Tubula ate it almost only during the period when he was a warrior, Moran. The Morans also prepared and ate herbs that made them brave. Hunting dangerous animals were part of the rites. Tubula has killed two lions and one elephant. And several men.

– I liked to fight …

His son Samwel has undergone the rituals that mark the end of the warrior period and initiate for life as an elder, but just as ceremony. He has never lived the warrior’s life, which lasts for several years.

– To get a good life today young people need education and jobs. There is neither time nor possibilities for pursuing the old way of living all the way.

For his own part, he broke the traditional bonds by eloping from the wedding his father had negotiated for him in order to continue studying in town. He became the first in the area with high school exams (today it is common) and the last few years he has taken up studies again at university level in Kilgoris.

His wife Diana (who is actually the sister of the girl he ran away from) takes responsibility for livestock and family when he is in Kilgoris.

– It works out fine. There are mobile phones…

Nevertheless, preserving the culture is important to Samwel. One suggestion he has put forward is creating a local training center where elders can pass on knowledge to the young Maasai.

– Maasai pastoralism is in harmony with nature, as long as there is enough land for the grazing. The hunting is generally not done for meat but regarded as rites of initiation. The clans have totem animals, a factor that contributes to the will to protect nature. And forests have always been important, for medicine, for the holy sites and for water supply.

The forests are used, but sustainably. When roots or branches are harvested it is important to cover bare areas to ensure survival of the trees. For firewood only dry branches are used.

Early next day Samwel and two young guides accompany us into Nyakweri forest. We are a bit tired as the dogs have been chasing hyenas around the huts during the night, but it is a great experience to walk under the canopy of trees and listen to all the stories. A glade has just been visited by elephant mothers who gather particularly nutritious roots for their kids.

Walking safaris are a way to raise money for the Dupoto organization that Samwel heads. The word Dupoto means benefit: income from ecotourism will ensure the survival of the forest. A large dam has been built (the village can now manage two years of drought without shortage of water), 40 beehives have been set up and Dupoto pays for expansion of the local school.

Samwel Naikadas mother Resiato NolkiPali Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samwel Naikada’s mother Resiato NolkiPali Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

Dupoto has given the villagers a positive view of protected areas. This has not always been the case. Although the national park Maasai Mara attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, the revenue only marginally benefits local communities. Instead the possibility for grazing is limited and wildlife from the park cause property damage and human injuries and deaths every year.

– The parks protect wildlife but are not helpful to the locals. There are provisions for compensation, but they do not function as they are supposed to, Samwel says.

The Dupoto project has also had conflicts. A British-owned tobacco company was starting up large plantations adjacent to the forest six years ago. Bribery and harassments fragmented the local society for some time.

– I called around to authorities and made a row about it. It took six months of struggle, but finally the Kenyan Environmental Protection Agency said no to the farms. The company really hated me and tried to get at me personally.

But threats do not discourage a Maasai, Samwel concludes.

– We don’t give in, we are still a proud people …

Samwel’s milestones

1993 Samwel escapes from the wedding to be able to study for a high school exam (the first in the area). It takes several months before he comes home to meet his father again.

1997 Forming Dupoto Wildlife and Forest Association to protect the Nyakweri forest with its rich flora and fauna.

1998 Moves to Nairobi for tourism education. He works there for a few years but is longing to go back home.

2004 Working on conservation projects in Kilgoris and the areas surrounding Nyakweri forest.

2008 First time Samwel participates in global climate negotiations (Póznan). He has also been to Copenhagen in 2009, Cancún in 2010 and Durban in 2011. “For indigenous people it is important to make a lot of fuss if you are to be heard”, he says.

2012 Begins to study at university level again to gain formal qualification for higher conservation jobs.

Samel Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samel Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

Indigenous Information Network is the Kenyan NGO Samwel collaborates with to build a climatically sustainable community in Narok District. IIN has also made it possible for him to participate in the climate negotiations, in part supported by Swedish aid money.

Read more about Dupoto Wildlife & Forestry Association and guided walks in the Nyakweri forest here

Threatened South African grasslands

This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 4 2009. You can read the Swedish version here

Natural forests aren’t the only landscapes being taken over by timber plantations. South Africa’s biologically diverse native grasslands are being rapidly replaced by water-intensive monocultures including eucalyptus and tropical pine – trees used for paper pulp exports.

The view from God's Window: timber plantations instead of grasslands.
The view from God’s Window: timber plantations instead of grasslands. Photo Mats Hellmark

We’re standing at God’s Window, a popular lookout point just at the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment in northeastern South Africa. Below us, a 700-meter cliff plunges into a dark sea of foliage. Mile upon mile of forest fans out ahead, stretching all the way to Kruger National Park on the border with Mozambique.

“The problem is that these aren’t forests. They’re gigantic monocultures of foreign origin,” explains Philip Owen, coordinator for Geasphere, an environmental organization supported by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

When Europeans first arrived here on the low plains, the landscape beneath us was dominated by grassland and savannah, with native forests limited to the river valleys. Today only remnants of this original ecosystem survive.

“Many people see grasslands as uniform landscapes, when they actually contain an enormous range of diversity – 82 plant species per square kilometer and an abundance of insects, birds and small mammals. Only one out of six plant species are grass, whereas most are resilient perennials. In some cases they can survive for thousands of years in one location.”

Over sixty percent of South Africa’s grasslands have disappeared and can never be restored. Here in the Mpumalanga province, the process has continued unabated for generations – so long, in fact, that many today regard Australian eucalyptus and tropical Mexican pines as native tree species. The first of these were planted one hundred years ago as a source of timber for the mining industry.

Timber plantations now cover 1.5 million hectares in South Africa, including 600,000 in Mpumalanga. The road stretching from God’s Window to the capitol of the province, Nelspruit, has the feeling of a forest in northern Sweden. But the perfectly aligned tree rows and exhausted, grayish soil tell another story altogether.

The soil here lacks the microorganisms necessary for pine and eucalyptus leaves to decompose. The canopy above blocks out all light, while the roots stretch all the way down to the water table below.

“These pines absorb 25 liters of water per day, while eucalyptus can consume up to 600. This is significantly more than any of the native tree species,” says Philip Owen.

Philip started Geasphere in 1999 after a large summit on South Africa’s water crisis. In many respects, the damage in Mpumalanga has been done. The plantations are here, and the lack of available land limits their expansion. But Geasphere’s efforts reach far beyond Mpumalanga, spreading information and influence to the neighboring countries of Mozambique and Swaziland, where exotic tree species are rapidly taking root. In tiny Swaziland, they now cover a full ten percent of the country’s area.

“Development is crucial to southern Africa, but additional timber plantations aren’t the right model. They don’t provide a lot of jobs or income, and they drastically impact water access, biological diversity and social structures.”

Philip Owen is particularly upset that over 80 percent of South Africa’s timber plantations have received FSC-certification for responsible forestry. To consumers in the north, this picture is misleading. After all, it is here in industrialized countries that most of the timber is consumed.

Ngodwana, a papermill west of Nelspruit, produces 500,000 tons of paper pulp every year, mainly for export. Photo Mats Hellmark

West of Nelspruit lies South Africa’s largest papermill, Ngodwana. As we drive into the valley, the air is heavy with the stench of sulphate. A yellowish haze of smog surrounds us long before the smokestacks rise on the horizon.

“The water flow is regarded as sufficient for diluting waste to an ‘acceptable’ level. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that periods of drought are becoming longer, and water flow is diminishing.”

The mill produces 500,000 tons of paper pulp annually, most of which is exported. Demand is high, and the mill’s owner, the multinational Sappi group, plans to increase production by 70 percent. Additional raw materials will be supplied in part by converting plantations from pine to eucalyptus, which offers more rapid growth at the expense of increased water consumption. As production increases, staff levels will remain the same.

As South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, struggles for equality between blacks and whites, the working environment here seems to be frozen in time. The black workers live down in the valley, where we visit Bhamgee, a chaotic shantytown lacking so much as roads and basic conveniences. What was once a small village has now grown to accommodate the arrival of prostitutes, who have made their way to the valley at the prospect of a large population of millworkers and transport drivers. Prostitution, hiv and AIDS are now endemic to the area.

Further up the mountainside, higher-ranking employees live in gated communities. As white visitors, we pass by the armed, black security guard without a problem, despite the fact that we have no official reason for our visit. Only white employees can be seen outside the luxury villas, often with two cars parked in the driveway. Green parks separate the houses. It gives the impression of an affluent Swedish neighborhood.

Philip Owen was raised under apartheid. He describes his school years in Nelspruit as a form of brainwashing quite different from his experiences at home, where racial lines were often less clear. At Geasphere, whites and blacks work side-by-side. Thirty kilometers away, at Philip’s home, I meet Thelma Nkosi and December Ndlovu, both of whom work for the organization.

“The plantations have many negative social effects, and the lack of water affects women most of all. They’re forced to walk much further to collect water and wood,” explains Thelma.

Life has also become less secure. It is dangerous to pass the plantations, where rapists and criminals often hide. The trees cause erosion, soil depletion and threaten the food supply. The effects are also cultural.

“Our identity is threatened when ritual sites are forced out by plantations. Ancestors’ burial places become inaccessible, trees with traditional functions disappear and initiations, among other rites, can no longer take place,” explains December.

These experiences in Mpumalanga are important for less wealthy countries such as Mozambique and Angola.

“They’re crying out for investments because it’s easy to buy the timber companies’ propaganda. The drawbacks aren’t noticeable until later on,” says Thelma.

Philip’s environmental activism was sparked when timber plantations were established on the mountain above Sudwalaskraal. Here Philip lives on the family farm, which was purchased by his grandfather in the 1960s, and is now divided among relatives. The mountainside is covered by native rainforest, the cliffs pocked with three-billion-year-old limestone caves that were inhabited by humans (homo habilis) as long as 1.8 million years ago. The Sudwala caves are historical and geological wonders that attract throngs of visitors each year.

The effects of the plantations were clearly evident. Today, the caves have dried out and are now watered by hose. The springs that supported the rainforest have disappeared during the dry season.

Biologically diverse, open grasslands still exist at the top of the mountain rising above the Sudwala caves. Photo Mats Hellmark

We hike to the remaining grassland at the top of the mountain. The sunset offers a glimpse of the native landscape’s original, sweeping beauty. Philip’s wife, Elsmarie, points out rare herbs, grass species and snakes’ dens, along with the small pine seedlings that constantly creep in from the dark wall of the plantation on the opposite side of the mountain.

“It’s an ongoing battle to prevent the spread of non-native species. In South Africa, as much acreage is covered by tree plantations as by trees that have spread uncontrolled. Pines can be cut down, but to remove eucalyptus you have to poison the roots,” explains Philip.

Portions of blackened grasslands have recently been burned. This needs to happen on a regular basis in order to maintain biodiversity, but when the fires encounter timber plantations the results can be devastating.

“We’ve recently had severe forest fires that have killed many people. Previously, native trees would store humidity and act as buffers, but now it’s too dry. The heat is so extreme that the soil’s surface is baked into a hard crust. Rainwater runs off and evaporates instead of seeping into the earth.”

The next day we follow December to his hometown, Bushbuck Ridge, where the contrast to the white farms is drastic. Here, one million people live in a sprawling shantytown, often without water or electricity. December supports his family by washing cars in an open shed beside his house.

More than 80 percent of South Africans rely on traditional medicines rather than Western techniques. As the grasslands disappear it becomes increasingly difficult for practitioners to find their raw materials. December takes us to Hilda Calinah Manyike, a trained nganga, or herbal healer. She holds an official license for collecting herbs in national parks and preserves. Her reception hut contains a small pharmacy.

“Before, it was easier to find all the herbs I needed. Now I have to travel long distances to find them, and some are no longer there at all.”

Nowadays, Hilda finds it impossible to cure certain ailments such as asthma. Instead, she is forced to send patients to a Western doctor – if they can afford it.

Bushbuck Ridge borders Kruger National Park to the east. Within the park’s fences live the same huge animals that once wandered across the low plains and surrounding savannahs.

Within the park’s fences live the same huge animals that once wandered across the low plains and surrounding savannahs. Photo Mats Hellmark

As we pass through the gate we are forced to brake for a passing herd of elephants. Gnus, giraffes, zebras and a variety of antelope meander along both sides of the road. Here, too, we see baboons, which the forestry companies exterminate in the plantations.

We spend the night inside the park. In the darkness I hear elephants crashing about like pieces of enormous lumber machinery. At dawn, a lion roars.

“The biological diversity of these grasslands has supported human life for thousands of years. In the past one hundred years, it’s been completely transformed,” says Philip, who wants to see a global awakening.

“Grasslands like the North American prairie, the Hungarian puszta and the Russian steppes are the most threatened of all types of vegetation. 80 percent are already gone, and beyond restoration.”

Text Mats Hellmark, Translation Grant Baldridge

Kokerboom – thirsty giants predict climate change

Kokerboom trees are adapted to desert climates, but the water shortage in the wake of climate change makes stocks dwindle.

This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 2 2014.

Kokerboom forest near Nieuwoudtville. The strange trees are threatened by climate change. Photo Mats Hellmark

You might expect specialized desert plants to withstand a warmer and drier climate better than others. But it is not necessarily so. The researchers see the strange kokerboom tree as one of the most obvious examples of how the lack of water in South Africa today is threatening unique plants and ecosystems.

Last autumn we visited the area around the small town Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape for an article about Rooibos tea and Climate (published in issue 5/ 13). One evening we drove through the desolate magnificent landscape to see South Africa’s southernmost kokerboomforest . Though forest … as Scandinavian you find it hard to think of the large succulents spread out unevenly over the rocky mountainside, or forming a crooked parade along a narrow ridge against the sharp blue sky, as a forest.

In Latin the name of the plant is aloe dichotoma, in English they are called quiver trees. The name derives from the San peoples’ usage of branches as quivers for their arrows. The thick stems and starpatterned canopy looks dramatic in golden and brown tones. Up close the size impresses. Some of the trees are ten metres tall and up 250 years old.

Scientists at the South African Institute for Biodiversity notice an increased mortality in the northern range of the trees, a trend which agrees well with the climate change predictions . But persistent giants will not move so easily, and now stocks are going down. A trend the quiver trees share with many of the species in the dry Karoo vegetation type. 40 percent of them are endemic (found only here).

Plants are affected, but South Africa’s growing water stress is already causing trouble also for people. Especially the poorest. Read more about the effects of the water shortage in the large township of Kayelitsha here.

Text and photos Mats Hellmark

Kokerboom forest near Nieuwoudtville. The strange trees are threatened by climate change. Photo Mats Hellmark
Kokerboom forest near Nieuwoudtville. The strange trees are threatened by climate change. Photo Mats Hellmark


Water shortage South Africa’s climate challenge

This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 2 2014. You can read the Swedish version here.

Water shortage will become South Africa’s major climate challenge. In the townships it is already a common problem. Leaking pipes gives exorbitant bills and for indebted households access to water is cut.

Water shortage is already a climate issue in townships like Kayelitsha in South Africa. Photo Mats Hellmark

Driving along the seaside road eastwards from Cape Town we see a landscape of corrugated roofs, television antennas and poles with tangled power lines spread inland. Kayelitsha is one of South Africa ‘s large townships, perhaps the largest. It is difficult to calculate the population of suburbs that grow uncontrollably, but a few years old official figures estimated the population to be over 400,000.

Within Kayelitsha the housing ranges from middle class type small terraced house in the old parts to informal slum shacks on the outer edges. The district Makhaza lies somewhere in between the extremes. Here the SSNC partner organization EMG (Environmental Monitoring Group) is working with water problems at the local level in partnership with a women’s group that started out as a network for backyard farming.

A meeting is taking place in the assembly hall which is located next to the small wetland the project has restored: from highly polluted security risk to a park-like resource for biodiversity, recreation, and water. We plunge straight into heated discussions in Xhosa, a local language with many clicks. Most people who live in Kayelitsha belong to the ethnic group Xhosa and have their roots in the countryside east of Cape town. They talk about farming with compost, leaking pipes and the current situation in the ongoing dialogue with local water authorities.

One of the younger women, Khunjulwa Mtyhida, invites us to visit her little house. The toilet is outside in the front yard and when she opens the door, the floor is partially covered by water.

– There are always leaks. The wires are bad and I can not afford a plumber, she says.

She has no idea of how much water disappears down into the sewers every day. But the bills indicate an excessive consumption for a household of two persons. She and her husband have never been able to pay the debt, which was already high when they moved in 2003 (it came with the house). The latest bill lies unopened on the kitchen table. When she opens the envelope, the sum amounts to 53,889 rand (more than 31 000 SEK).

– It is not uncommon with unpaid bills of 200 000 rand, sums households where many are unemployed can never repay, says Taryn Pereira, who is working with water issues in EMG .

To completely turn off the water would create chaos. The authorities’ approach towards indebted households has instead been to fix the leaks and install so-called Water Managing Devices (WMD): meters that limit the asset to the free minimum allocation of 350 liters per day. Since the leaks often return the water access may be cut off from early in the day, especially in larger households.

Those who are without water may have to walk for miles to public faucets and chemical toilets found in the more informal parts of Kayelitsha. Others go out into the bush to defecate, something that is both unhygienic and poses a risk to women, who may be subjected to rapes.

– Our goal has been to get the authoritities to fix the leaks and reduce the bills without forcing the households to install WMDs. It has been a long battle. The officials are mostly engineers who are not so good at ”soft” social issues, instead they prefer technical solutions. But now we are approaching an agreement. We want the authorities to train local people who can fix the pipes. The pipes are so bad that they will require continued maintenance.

The water problems are partly inherited from the apartheid system. The houses and the infrastructure was built for black workers and as a consequence held low standard. Not paying water bills was a way to protest against oppression, but the accumulated debts followed suit into the new South Africa.

– The culture of not paying is becoming outdated, many people I talk to want to get rid of their debts now. But so far local authorities have not been very accommodating, says Taryn .

Khunjulwas neighbour and fellow fighter in the backyard network, Victoria Taho, 81 has managed to get rid of her debts.

– The water is very expensive, but my last bill was not higher than 90 rand , she says as she proudly displays her crops: lush spinach and carrots behind the house.

Age is no obstacle, as long as you are systematic, prepare the soil well and water the plants with rain water, she says.

ACCORDING TO A REPORT from the South African Water Research Commission from 2012 more than a third of the country’s fresh water is lost before it reaches its destination, mostly because of the leaks. For a country that already counts among the 30 driest in the world this is a serious flaw.

– All climate scientists and policymakers agree that water will become South Africa’s biggest problems associated with climate change. Dry periods will increase and it will be a challenge to balance demand, says Taryn Pereira.

A first hint of the future problems was felt in 2009 when the south coast was hit by the worst drought in recorded history. Since measures to conserve water and improve the efficiency had not been a priority the situation turned critical in many places.

– With state emergency money a number of large and expensive plant for seawater desalination were built. They consume a lot of energy when they run and thus contribute to climate change. The water they produce is too expensive and creates pollutants that harm the marine environment, says Pereira.

In Cape Town, the authorities want to raise the price of water, and additionally differentiate the tariff so that large consumers will pay a lower price per unit. In a country where status is displayed with pools and multiple bathrooms the idea that the rich should pay less for their water than those who only have a tap in the yard available, is a provocation.

– We think it is reasonable that people pay for water, if it is completely free the waste may increase. However, the levels should be fair and not the highest for the poorest, says Taryn Pereira.

Text and photo Mats Hellmark

To the top with a smile – interview with Emelie Forsberg

PORTRAIT: Emelie Forsberg is the runner girl who showed up as a rookie and won everything that was possible to win in one of the world’s toughest sports. Yet it is not the victories that drives her, but the urge to be moving in nature.

TEXT by Mats Hellmark, editor at Sveriges Natur
PHOTOS by Thron Ullberg

This is a rough English translation of my interview with Swedish Trail Running Champion Emelie Forsberg, published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur. The Swedish version and one of the images is available on this link

Treadmills and asphalt are not to Emelie Forsberg’s liking. If you are to run, you should do it outside, in nature, she thinks. Preferably up and down the wildest mountain sides.

No wonder she has settled here, I think, when we board the car ferry from Tromsø. Since 2013 Emelie’s home is the mountainous Norwegian peninsula Lyngen, with some of the region’s sharpest peaks just around the corner from her house. Insanely beautiful, but hardly possible to take on without ropes and proper climbing equipment. Or?

A pair of good running shoes is quite enough. Or a pair of skis like these ones, says Emelie.

We are standing in the entryway of the house that she rents together with her boyfriend and elite training partner Kilian Jornet, pondering over skis and boots that weighs almost nothing. The sport is called ski mountaineering, and Emelie is among the world’s best in this field as well.

You put skins on the skis and trample off uphill, she explains. At the top you remove the skins and head off down the gutters at full speed.

– I’ve never actually had a fall during racing. It’s all about being comfortable with what you do, even if you’re tired.

To Emelie ski mountaineering is an everyday activity during wintertime: she can’t run when the snow is deep, and it stays that way for a long time this far north of the Arctic Circle. As she doesn’t consider the road an option she won’t have many running days in her body before the season’s first races.

That alone makes her a bit of an exception among the world’s best in trail running (running on small nature trails) and skyrunning (mountain running). In Sweden these are sports that are upcoming, but still has some way to go before reaching the popularity they have in many other parts the world. In the Alps mountain races attract large audiences and Emelie is a celebrity who is met with cheers and applause everywhere.

When she broke through in 2012, it was as a sensation: without coaching and with few previous qualifications she left the rivals behind in race after race. She is particularly fast going downhill, Emelie has a somewhat magical ability to just let go and let her feet find their own path. (Watch video clip of a downhill race) A World Cup victory and 20 podium finishes in 21 races was the improbable outcome of the season.

Last year was even more successful: finishing first in almost every race, including double victories in the European Championships in the Dolomites. The grand final of the season was a race that is considered one of the world’s most difficult: Diagonale des Fous, the Diagonal of fools, is set on the island of La Réunion, east of Madagascar, and winds over high mountains and through rainforests for a distance of more than 160 km. The race goes on for two nights. Although she had a tough time she finished second.

BUT IT’S NOT just the medals that makes her special. It is the way she wins them: with a constant smile. It is easy to see how much she enjoys running.

– Many people say oh, you started racing and won at once. But I had prepared myself with other sports and spent much time in mountainous terrain. I actually don’t think so much about trail running as a sport. To me it is a way of moving in nature the way people have done as long as we have existed as a species, and as other animals do: lightly and quickly, without leaving a footprint.

The forests were the playroom for Emelie when she grew up; she was always on the go in the nature surrounding her home in the Swedish coastal town of Härnösand.

– Me and my sister always went by ourselves to friends, never got driven in a car. When you spend a lot of time outside as a child you begin to enjoy it. Many kids never experience this freedom to move today. I think that is a pity. You have to be in nature to develop a love for it, to start caring.

When she started school different sports became new “playrooms”: orienteering, soccer, skiing, rock climbing, basketball. But trail running ended up as number one.

– Partially because it’s so simple. Anyone can do it, there are no fixed standards except those we create ourselves.

How important is the experiencing of nature to you, compared to winning the races?

– 90-10 maybe. You get to experience so much out in nature, such a respect and understanding. That’s what really drives me. That feeling is so great to share with the others who are competing.

INTERVIEWING EMELIE feels different compared to talking to other sport stars. It may have to do with the sport itself: those who have read Born to Run, the “bible” of ultra- and skyrunning already know that a strong sense of community, freedom and love of nature is prevalent, often more so than fighting for positions and kilometer times.

But Emelie has a directness and a way of thinking slightly outside the box that feels unique even in this context. Just consider the way she won her first mountain marathon in 2010, competing as an unknown exerciser. In the middle of the race she paused for a long coffee break with homemade chocolate cake.

Emelie likes food and pastries and finds it difficult understanding athletes who starve themselves to gain seconds. A specialized running reporter once described Emelie Forsberg’s sursprising formula for success as happiness, non-existent training plan and lots of cinnamon buns.

– Haha, yes, I like bread and baking. I have taken a baking course on Saltå mill and worked as a baker at Storulvåns mountain lodge using a lot of locally grown and organic ingredients. You have to give the baking process time and the ingredients should be the best.

One example of good ingredients is crowberry, which she picks in large amounts in the mountains of Lyngen and uses for juice and bread. A smart way to get vitamins without using too much imported fruit during winter. She prefers organic food, but thinks Norwegian stores are not as good as Swedish supplying it. The prices are also higher.

When she moved to Tromsø in 2011, she first lived in a community with other young people in the city centre. To make ends meet they collected food in waste containers outside the grocery stores.

– We actually got a lot of our food from the containers. Fine food, but with a short shelf life. Sometimes we even got whole Skrei-cods. I think it’s a pity that Swedish stores let so much edible food go to waste instead of giving it away. It is such a waste of resources.

Emelie believes in simplicity, to choose your own way. Scandinavians should be able to make a free choice of life style, she thinks. Maybe work less and avoid getting caught up in the rat race in order to fulfill expectations of high status and buying expensive objects. Emelie herself is not a big time consumer. She rarely buys new clothes, mostly uses sportswear.

– I train a lot but actually don’t take showers so very often either, she says with a giggle.

THINKING SUSTAINABLY has been a habit all the way from childhood. Emelie’s father died when she was a newborn and the early years was a hard period for her mother who worked, studied and cared for two small children.

At school there was a lot of talk about recycling and environmental issues. The Forsberg sisters were much influenced and brought the ideas back home.

– It was our initiative to live more consciously and sustainably. Mom also took to the ideas and made it a way of living in our family.

Environmental issues were also crucial for her choice of profession. She started to train for forester in Umeå, but discovered that the education did not match her ideals. In addition, she did not like to live in a big city. After an interruption of studies she started studying to become biologist, an education she expects to revive and finish, perhaps this autumn.

But for the moment she has full focus on the running. She is a member of Salomon’s international team, she organizes training trips to the Swedish mountains, she is writing for a running magazine and is a frequent blogger.

In the blog she writes about running, but also about living in harmony with nature, about time and about ecology. For the most part, the response is positive, but she has also received some negative comments about the climatic effects of her flights to competitions around the world.

– Right now I live to compete and be a public figure. I know it is not sustainable in the long run, and try to minimize travel and adapt my everyday life. But I think that everything has its time. If I could live on my salary and just keep moving in these mountains, that would be satisfying enough …

Mats Hellmark mats.hellmark(at)

Trail Running: Running on nature trails and over untrodden ground.
Skyrunning: Running at over 2000 meters altitude and with a slope of more than 30 percent.
Ultra Running: Running distances longer than the marathon (42 km).

• Read Emelie’s blog and recipes in English on
• Read Emelie’s blog in Swedish for the magazine Runner’s World.

Born in Härnösand, Sweden. Growing up with the forest as a playroom. She tries many sports, for a while basket ball was number one.
Working during the summer at the mountain lodge in Jotunheimen, Norway. Starting to study to become a forester in Umeå.
Work at mountain lodges in Jotunheimen and Storulvån, as a baker.
Studies biology. Runs her first mountain marathon in Vålådalen, Sweden. She won, in spite of a long coffee break with chocolate cake …
Moving to Tromsø, Norway, for studies and for the amazing scenery.
Breakthrough year when Emelie starts competing for real and wins most of the races, including the World Championships in Skyrunning.
Almost exclusively victories in the races, including two European Championship golds in Italy. Campaigning for the Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation (Håll Sverige Rent) concerning ”allemansrätten”, the special Swedish system of rules that allow citizens to roam freely in nature.

Two instagram-images I took during Thron Ullberg’s photo session with Emelie:

thron 1

thron 2

Some of Thron’s shots from the magazine are published here