The EU’s last indigenous peoples fight for self-determination and land rights
A serious man dressed in gákti, a traditional Sami (also Sámi or Saami) costume, speaks on a video on Facebook.
“This is a call for help,” he starts. “The governments of Finland and Norway are trying to make salmon fishing illegal for the Sami and give new fishing rights to rich people who have built cabins on our homeland. This is theft in broad daylight. We are being denied the right to our culture, and access to one of the key sources of food in the Arctic.”
The man speaking is Aslak Holmberg, vice president of the Sami Council that represents the interests of indigenous Sami people in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. He is also a fisherman from Nuorgam in the northernmost county of the Finnish state, Ohcejohka (Utsjoki in Finnish).
“I have fished salmon as long as I can remember with my father and I have learned more from it than I can explain about subsistance, nature, language, culture.”
The video was published in March, days before the Finnish government entered an agreement with Norway that dramatically changes the fishing rights in the border river, Deatnu (Teno in Finnish, Tana in Norwegian).
Permits have to be purchased online and for specific times and days; every person fishing has to buy their own permit; and the tributaries that were previously exclusively for locals are opened up to anyone to buy fishing rights.
The agreement is Norway and Finland’s attempt to protect the salmon as Deatnu hosts one of the most diverse salmon populations in the entire world. But the locals highlight that fishing rights for traditional techniques deployed by the Sami have been disproportionately reduced – by 80 per cent, whereas leisure fishing has seen a cut of 30-40 per cent.
“They say they are protecting the salmon from us. From us?! Who are the most dependant on it. This derogatory, paternalistic attitude towards indigenous peoples is common throughout the world and it still seems to be fully acceptable in Norway and Finland,” Holmberg states. “They are ready to sacrifice the entire Sami salmon fishing culture. This agreement is the clearest of violations of indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, and even consultation.”
Europe’s only indigenous people
Between 75,000 to 100,000 Sami people live in the Arctic region of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia. The majority live in Norway and Sweden with approximately 10 per cent in Finland and around 2,000 in the Russian Federation. They are an indigenous community whose lives are entwined with their homeland, Sápmi (commonly known in English as Lapland). Reindeer husbandry is perhaps the most famous of the traditional Arctic livelihoods, but fishing is another essential part of Sami life.
Like indigenous peoples world over, the Sami have faced incursion, colonisation and extractive industries since they were taxed in hides and furs from hunting from the 15th century.
In Norway, schooling in Sami language was prohibited from the late 19th century until after the Second World War. Many Sami were also forced to adopt a Norwegian name as a prerequisite for owning land.
In Sweden and Finland, these policies were not official, but many older Sami still speak of the shame that was attached to their language and culture.
In these countries too, many indigenous children were sent to boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language.
The rights to culture and language are now guaranteed in all of the states where Sami populations live except Russia, but conflicts around fishing and land rights highlight the different understandings of what Western states and indigenous peoples mean by ‘culture’.
“Traditional livelihoods and utilisation of our lands, waters – including sea waters – and natural resources constitutes the fundament of Saami culture and identity,” states a declaration of the Saami Conference, the highest body of the Saami Council.
The interests of the Sami are represented by Sami Parliaments in Finland, Sweden and Norway as well as the Council stretching across all the states. However, their power is only advisory.
“They can listen, but they don’t hear”
Climate change also brings new challenges for the Sami. Warmer summers enable southern species to migrate further north, and unpredictable winters affect the traditional livelihoods that rely on seasonal patterns, such as reindeer herding. But it also makes the Arctic region more accessible for industry.
Recent years have seen a mining boom in the Arctic region. A still ongoing dispute over reindeer grazing lands in relation to an iron ore mine in Kallok, Sweden, made international headlines in 2013.
The Arctic region also holds major reserves of uranium, gold, diamonds, zinc, platinum and nickel, as well as gas and oil.
The Swedish Sami Parliament’s response to the interest in extraction has been clear: “While waiting for the ratification and implementation in Swedish legislation of ILO [Convention] 169 (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989) and the Nordic Sami Covenant, the Swedish Sami Parliament would like a moratorium on all exploitation in Sápmi.
All natural resources above and below ground within the traditional Sami land areas belong to the Sami people. This is clarified in, among others, Article 26 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
In another development, Finland is planning a railway line to the Arctic Sea.
Heikki Paltto, a reindeer herder and vice president of the Finnish Sami Parliament tells Equal Times of his concerns with initiatives like the railway:
“Indigenous people and reindeer husbandry should be taken into account when big projects are planned. They should at least assess the impact. Usually in issues and legislation concerning the Sami our views have not been taken into account greatly.
“They can listen, but they don’t necessarily hear. They always say they have the best intentions, but Finland does not really respect our human rights.”
If they did, Paltto says, the Deatnu fishing agreement would have not “gone the way it did”. Finland also updated its legislation on forest administration last year, and a clause on not weakening Sami culture was left out of the final version of the legislation.
Finland and Sweden, like Russia, have not ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169.
Anni Ahlakorpi, a local councillor in Ohcejohka, describes Holmberg’s video on the fishing agreement a “wake-up call”.
She does not even want to describe the new arrangements as an ‘agreement’: “We did not agree. Everyone here was against it, the municipality of Utsjoki was against it, the local businesses were against it, the Sami Parliament, the fishing districts were against it so it is misleading to call it an agreement.”
She has joined the movement that is now known as Ellos Deatnu! (Long Live River Deatnu!). It has declared a moratorium on the island of Čearretsuolu in the river where locals are actively disobeying the new legislation.
The movement has galvanised the local community. In late July, over 700 people attended a benefit concert in Ohcejohka, a town that only has a population of 400 and a centre with one supermarket, one bar and a petrol station. But Ahlakorpi sees Ellos Deatnu! as a continuum of previous movements in Sápmi, such as the resistance to the Kallok mine.
Ellos Deatnu! has also written to the governments of Finland and Norway, asking them to provide evidence they have the rights to the river.
“If they could show a letter, statement or agreement where the locals have given the rights to the state, please show us. As far as we know no-one at the local level has ever signed a paper to give the ownership of the river to the national states,” Ahlakorpi explains.
As Paltto says, speaking in his home surrounded by a deep wilderness that is a national park but also his reindeers’ grazing areas: “Our parents have lived here for a long time and they have always told us these are our lands.
“We have grown up with that and that is natural for us. And we of course want to protect them. That is where the conflict comes from.”
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