• Indigenous peoples in Sápmi

    Indigenous peoples in Sápmi

    The Sámi people are the indigenous people of the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula and large parts of the Kola Peninsula and live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. They number between 50,000 and 100,000.

Indigenous World 2020: Sápmi

Sápmi is the Sámi people’s own name for their traditional territory. The Sámi people are the Indigenous people of the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula and large parts of the Kola Peninsula and live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. There is no reliable information on the population of Sámi people; it is, however estimated that they number between 50,000-100,000.

Around 20,000 live in Sweden, which is approximately 0.22% of Sweden’s total population of around nine million. The north-western part of the Swedish territory is the Sámi people’s traditional territory. The Sámi reindeer herders, small farmers, hunters, gatherers, and fishers traditionally use these lands. Around 50-65,000 live in Norway, between 1.06% and 1.38%  of the total Norwegian population of approximately 4.7 million. Around 8,000 live in Finland, which is approximately 0.16% of the total Finnish population of around five million. Around 2,000 live in Russia, which is a very small proportion of the total population of Russia.

Politically, the Sámi people are represented by three Sámi parliaments, one in Sweden, one in Norway and one in Finland, whereas on the Russian side they are organised into NGOs. In 2000, the three Sámi parliaments established a joint council of representatives called the Sámi Parliamentary Council. The Sámi Parliamentary Council is not to be confused with the Sámi Council, which is a central Sámi NGO representing large national Sámi associations (NGOs) in all four countries. There are also other important Sámi institutions, both regional and local, inter alia, the Sámi University of Applied Sciences, which is a research and higher education institution dedicated to the Sámi society’s needs and where the Sámi language is mainly used throughout the academic system. Sweden, Norway and Finland voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007, while Russia abstained.

Impacts of climate change on Sámi culture

Impacts of climate change on the livelihoods and cultures of the Sámi Indigenous people are at the core of the daily challenges of the Sámi people. Research results indicate that climate change deeply affects the environment, livelihoods and culture of Sámi people.1 As the Arctic region warms twice as fast as the global average, many changes are already visible, particularly for those Sámi families that keep the traditional livelihoods of the Sámi people alive. The Sámi, like all other Arctic Indigenous Peoples, experience environmental, health, social, cultural and economic impacts and consequences of climate change. This includes state policy developments to mitigate climate change that challenge Sámi self-determination, traditional governance structures, local autonomous communities, and affects Sámi livelihoods, language and culture. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) and the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) include multi-disciplinary findings of the impact of climate change in the Arctic that are also relevant in a Sámi context.2 The Saami Council has developed their own Arctic Strategy and, unlike national Arctic strategies largely targeted at the protection of the national sovereign interests, the Sámi Arctic Strategy is people-centered.3

Nordic states want to be in the frontline of developing renewable energy sources in order to address global climate change and to fulfil their commitments under the Paris Agreement. But unfortunately for the Sámi people, this includes the state adopting measures that give concessions or permits for the establishment of a large number of wind power industrial sites in Sámi traditional areas, adding pressure to already pressured Sámi livelihoods that rely on the same lands and resources for their subsistance.

In September 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, conducted an official visit to Norway and identified several pressing challenges with regard to Norway’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of its Indigenous Sámi people.4 The Special Rapporteur met representatives of the Sámi Parliament and concerned members of the Sámi communities in Kárášjohka and Guovdageaidnu. In Finnmark County he found that the cumulative development of mines, wind farms, hydroelectric power plants, roads and power lines have resulted in loss and fragmentation of pasture lands and constituted serious threats to the sustainability of Sámi reindeer husbandry. Mr. Boyd endorsed Sámi concerns regarding the proposed Davvi wind farm, the NUSSIR copper mine approved in a National Salmon Fjord and the re-opening of the gold mine at Biedjovággi in Guovdageaidnu Sámi municipality. The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report on the findings of his visit to Norway to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020.

Renewable energy projects on Sámi lands

The implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement could have provided a good opportunity for Nordic states to highlight and support traditional Sámi livelihoods like Sámi reindeer herding and Sea Sámi traditional fishing as examples of sustainable Indigenous industry. Instead, the “green energy” policies provide for the massive establishment of mega wind energy industri al sites on reindeer grazing lands, without the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the affected Sámi rights holders. One of the biggest wind turbine sites is established in the middle of the lands used and occupied by the South Sámi reindeer herders in Fovsen Njaarke sijte (reindeer herding community).5 Fosen Vind and Statkraft, the owners of this project, have been strongly criticised by both the local Sámi reindeer herding families and a national campaign opposing the destruction of vulnerable ecosystems and nature by the construction of mega wind industry sites (Fosen for folket). The request from the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) for interim measures from 2018 (see The Indigenous World 2019) was not implemented. Instead, Norway’s Petroleum and Energy Ministry stated that it would proceed with the wind park, which is being developed by the Fosen Vind consortium – owned by Statkraft (the Norwegian State Energy Company) and Nordic Wind Power, a consortium of European investors including Credit Suisse and BKW Energy. The South Sámi families and the Society for Threatened Peoples called on Statkraft, Credit Suisse and BKW Energy to stop the project, withdraw the investment and to commit to the principle of FPIC in all future investments.6 The South Sámi families affected by the project have taken the case to courts, arguing that this project is not in compliance with international human rights standards. The case is still pending in the courts, but all the necessary concessions have already been granted and the construction of the wind turbines was concluded in 2019, before the courts finished their decision assessing the rights of the Sámi. This project comes on top of a large number of other projects that have a negative cumulative effect for the reindeer herding communities, Sámi culture and the traditional use of important grazing lands for the reindeer owned by South Sámi who have rights according to both the Constitutional amendment paragraph 118, customary law and the 2007 Reindeer Herding Act.

Another example of an establishment of a major industrial wind turbine site, without the FPIC of the Sámi people, can be found in Troms and Finnmark county, on the island of Kvaløya near the Tromsø city centre.7 Both the local inhabitants and Sámi families who are affected by this multi-national mega wind turbine industry, owned by the German company Prime Capital, strongly oppose the establishment of this industrial site in the middle of the lands they rely on for the survival of their reindeer and their culture.8 Siemens Financial Services have also invested in this project. However, protests have so far not led to authorities stopping or downscaling the construction of this mega wind industry site.

Sámi rights to manage hunting and fishing

In September 2019 the Supreme Court of Sweden started assessing the Girjas Case after the state appealed the decision from the Regional Court of Umeå where Girjas Sámi village/association and the Swedish Sámi National Union (SSR) won their case against the Swedish state on the rights to manage hunting and fishing within the areas traditionally used and occupied by the Girjas Sámi village (see also The Indigenous World 2018). The Girjas Case is important as it challenges the right of the Swedish state to manage the fishing and hunting rights within the Sámi villages in Sweden.9 In 2018, the Gällivare District Court awarded the Girjas Sámi village in Norrbotten County the right to control hunting and fishing permits on their reindeer herding land, lands which are owned by the Swedish state.10 The Office of the Chancellor of Justice, on behalf of the Swedish state, appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the state owns the land and therefore must have a decisive influence on hunting and fishing.11 During court proceedings in the Girjas Case in the Supreme Court, the Chancellor of Justice stated, among other things, that “the fact that the Sámi enjoy legal status as an Indigenous People has no relevance to this case”. Furthermore, the Chancellor of Justice stated that “Sweden has no international obligations to recognise any special rights for the Sámi as an Indigenous People”. These statements caused reactions not only from Sámi representatives, but also national organisations like Civil Rights Defenders.12 The Sámi are constitutionally recognised as a people in Sweden, and the authorities in Sweden have also recognised Sámi as an Indigenous People, supporting the UNDRIP and stating that it is applicable for the Indigenous Sámi.

Repatriation of Sámi human remains

In August 2019, 25 Sámi human remains were returned and reburied in a graveyeard in Northern Sweden.13 The repatriation ceremony happened on International Indigenous Peoples Day on 9 August. The human skulls were excavated at an old burial site in Lycksele in the 1950s and taken to the National History Museum in Stockholm at a time when racial biology was still practised in Sweden.14 This ceremony was a result of the decision made by the Sámi Parliament of Sweden regarding repatriation of all Sámi remains held in museums. According to the Sámi Parliament’s Ethical Council there are still Sámi human remains in 11 state-owned museums in Sweden. The issue of removal of Sámi human remains has caused trauma for many Sámi families and Sámi communities because it echoes centuries of wrong doings of the past, including colonisation, discrimination, repression and human rights violations, and forced conversion to Christianity. Sweden’s national heritage office is due to present a report on the issue in 2020, with recommendations for museums working with human remains.

Sámi self-determination, Truth and Reconciliation

In February 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee found in two landmark cases15 that Finland violated the Sámi peoples’ right to internal self-determination and their political rights in two complaints submitted against Finland by the President of the Sámi Parliament of Finland, and by 25 members of the Sámi people.16 The complainers claimed their right to effectively participate in public affairs was violated by the electoral roll call being extended to 97 new non-Sámi electors. The committee noted that the Sámi Parliament ensures an internal self-determination process that is necessary for the continued viability and welfare of the Indigenous community as a whole. As such, the electoral process to elect members of the Sámi Parliament must ensure the effective participation of those concerned in the internal self-determination process, in this case, the Sámi Indigenous People, the committee said in its decision. The Human Rights Committee found that Finland has improperly intervened in the complainers’ rights to political participation regarding their specific rights as an Indigenous People. It has requested Finland to review the Sámi Parliament Act so that the criteria for eligibility to vote in Sámi Parliament elections are defined and applied in a manner that respects the right of the Sámi people to exercise their right to internal self-determination in accordance with articles 25 (the right to participate in public life) and 27 (minority rights) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Finland ratified in 1975. The Sámi Parliament Act review process is still not determined by the Finnish government and will be one of the most pressing issues to push for the new elected members of the Sámi Parliament in Finland after their elections in 2019.

The Draft Nordic Sámi Convention is still not ready to be ratified by Finland, Norway and Sweden, as the governments of these three Nordic countries are still considering proposals tabled by the Sámi Parliaments for some additional amendments of the Draft Sámi Convention.17 In April 2019, the proposal for adopting a separate chapter on consultations in the Sámi act was discussed in the Standing Committee of Local Government and Public Administration of the Norwegian Parliament.18 Instead of passing the proposal for adoption in the Parliament, the proposal was returned to the government for further public hearings. This proposal aims at strengthening national, regional and local authorities’ duty to consult the Sámi Parliament and other Sámi representatives in matters that will affect Sámi directly, incorporating ILO Convention 169 into national legislation.19 Public hearings are planned for early 2020.

Some progress has been made in matters relating to reconciliation and public investigations of discrimination and oppression of the Sámi people in Finland. After four years of negotiations and consultations with the Sámi Parliament in Finland, hearings, and a number of meetings with Sámi representatives and experts, the Finnish government agreed to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the Sámi people in Finland.20 The Finnish government has prepared the commission’s mandate throughout 2019 together with the Sámi Parliament and the Skolt Sámi village meetings. The Finnish government held a total of 29 TRC hearings across the Sámi region and in various Finnish cities in 2018. A total of 300 Sámi people took part in these talks in person or via email, representing some 2.5% of Finland’s Sámi minority. In Norway there is an ongoing TRC process that includes the Indigenous Sámi people, the Kven minority of Norway and the Norwegian Finns.21 The government of Sweden and the Sámi Parliament in Sweden have also consulted on the establishment of a TRC in Sweden, and in June 2019 the Sámi Parliament in Sweden handed over their political request for the establishment of an independent TRC.22 Some have raised the question about why there is a need for three separate truth commissions dealing with the Sámi people’s colonial past when the Sámi are in fact one people living in four states.23


Laila Susanne Vars is an Indigenous Sámi lawyer who holds a PhD in international law from the Arctic University of Tromsø. She is from Guovdageaidnu, North Sámi territory in Sápmi/Norway. She is member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) representing the Arctic region and she is also the Rector (President) of the Sámi University of Applied Sciences (www.samas.no)


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is from the Peruvian Amazon inside the Wampis territory, taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2020 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here

Notes and references

  1. Research project Adaptation of Saami people to the climate change (SAAMI) carried out by CERH, University of Oulu, Finland https://www.oulu.fi/cerh/ node/197606 and also https://www.oulu.fi/cerh/saami
  2. Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) (2004), Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group, Arctic Science Committee (IASC).
  3. Saami Council. “The Sámi Arctic Strategy: Securing enduring influence for the Sámi people in the Arctic through partnerships, education and advocacy”. September 2019: http://www.saamicouncil.net/fileadmin/user_upload/ Documents/Eara_dokumeanttat/FINAL_Saami-Arctic-Strategy_with_pdf
  4. “Norway must resolve climate change and human rights paradox, UN expert says”. 23 September 2019: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/ Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25038&LangID=E
  5. For more about the impacts of wind energy industry, see Indigenous World 2019 57.
  6. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “Norway to build wind farm despite UN calls to suspend project over concerns of impact on indigenous herders’ livelihoods”. Accessed 4 March 2020: https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/norway-to-build-wind-farm-despite-un-calls-to-suspend-project-over- concerns-of-impact-on-Indigenous-herders%E2%80%99-livelihoods-0
  7. ”Risten (40) lenket seg for å berge reindriften”. TV2, 7 November 2018: https:// tv2.no/a/10198339/
  8. “– Dette er et reinbeitedistrikt. Det kan ikke folk se bort fra”. NRK, 18 March 2019: https://www.nrk.no/tromsogfinnmark/_-dette-er-et-reinbeitedistrikt.-det-kan- ikke-folk-se-bort-fra-1.14451906
  9. “Nu har rättegången startat i HD”. Sveriges Radio, 2 September 2019: https://se/artikel/7291428
  10. “Sami group wins case for rights to hunt, fish”. Sveriges Radio, 3 February 2016: https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=6359789 Niklas Lind, the Judge in Gällivare district court stated: “The Girjas Sami association, in relation to the state, has the exclusive right for small game and fishing within the Girjas Sameby area. And that the state shall not grant hunting and fishing permits in the area. And that the Girjas Sami association is entitled, without the state’s consent, to grant permits for hunting small game and for fishing.”
  11. Civil Rights Defenders. “Civil Rights Defenders Criticises the Swedish Government’s Statements in the Girjas Case”. 11 September 2019: https://crd. org/2019/09/11/civil-rights-defenders-criticises-statements-made-by-the- swedish-government-in-the-girjas-case/?fbclid=IwAR2rY2BFxLFm9n07ErdGO Mkr9T4ekDgqa6RSElw0FlEIYReBirlmzb2uXW8
  12. Ibid
  13. “Swedish museum to return exhumed skulls of 25 Sami people”. The Guardian, 7 August 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/07/swedish- museum-to-return-exhumed-skulls-of-25-sami-people
  14. “Twenty-five Indigenous Sami remains returned by museum are reburied in northern Sweden”. Radio Canada – Eye on the Arctic, 9 August 2019: https:// rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2019/08/09/sami-sweden-reburial-north- lycksele-colonialism-saami/
  15. Communication No. 2668/2015 Tiina Sanila Aikio vs. Finland, CCPR/C/124/D/2668/2015, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/ treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CCPR/C/124/ D/2668/2015&Lang=en and Communication No. 2950/2017, Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi et al. (represented by the Sámi Árvvut Organization) https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download. aspx?symbolno=CCPR/C/124/D/2950/2017&Lang=en.
  16. “UN human rights experts find Finland violated Sámi political rights to Sámi Parliament representation”. 4 February 2019: https://www.ohchr.org/en/ NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24137&LangID=E
  17. For more about the Nordic Sámi Convention, see Indigenous World 2019, p. 54 and 60, and Indigenous World 2018, p. 30-32.
  18. Endringer i sameloven mv. (konsultasjoner). Prop. 116 L (2017-2018), Innst. 253 L (2018-2019). Accessed 4 March 2020: https://www.stortinget.no/ no/Saker-og-publikasjoner/Saker/Sak/?p=73214
  19. For more about the amendments of the Sámi Act, see Indigenous World 2019, 55.
  20. Petit, Franck “Finland to set up Truth Commission for The Sami People”. JusticeInfo.Net, 6 September 2019: https://www.justiceinfo.net/en/truth-commissions/42324-finland-to-set-up-truth-commission-for-the- sami-people.html and “Finnish gov agrees to formation of Sámi Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. Radio Canada – Eye on the Arctic, 14 November 2019: https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2019/11/14/sami-finland-truth- reconciliation-Indigenous/
  21. https://uit.no/kommisjonen_en The Commission shall complete its work by 1 September 2022 and deliver its report to the Presidium of the Storting (Norwegian Parliament).
  22. Hartley, Emma “Sami desire for truth and reconciliation process”. 1 October 2016: https://www.politico.eu/article/sami-reconciliation-process-sweden- minority-multiculturalism-human-rights-discrimination/ See also Sametinget – “Hemställan om sanningskommission inlämna”. Accessed 4 March 2020: https://www.sametinget.se/129187,
  23. Östling, Bengt “Statlig samekommission för sanning och försoning men blir det också konsekvenser?”. Yle, 18 November 2019: https://svenska.yle.fi/ artikel/2019/11/17/statlig-samekommission-for-sanning-och-forsoning-men- blir-det-ocksa-konsekvenser 

Tags: Land rights, Business and Human Rights , Climate, Cultural Integrity



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