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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Sami rights to culture and natural resources

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Sami rights to culture and natural resources, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 20 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In January 2011, James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, issued his report on the human rights situation of the Sami indigenous people living in the Sápmi region of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. A semi-nomadic people, who rely on reindeer herding, hunting, gathering and fishing, the Sami are united by a common identity and linguistic and cultural bonds.

Reviewing the situation of Sami in the Nordic countries, the Special Rapporteur concluded that they do not have to deal with many of the socio-economic concerns that commonly face indigenous peoples throughout the world, such as serious health problems, extreme poverty or hunger. In particular, the governments of Norway, Sweden and Finland each pay a relatively high level of attention to indigenous issues, at least in comparison to other countries. However, more remains to be done to ensure that Sami people can pursue their right to self-determination and their right to natural resources.

The Sami population is estimated to be between 70,000 and 100,000 in northern Europe, with about 2,000 living in the Russian Kola Peninsula. Of the three Nordic countries, Finland hosts the smallest Sami population of about 9,000. The first elected Sami body within any of the Nordic states was the Sami Delegation (Sámi Parlamenta) in Finland, established in 1972, and now replaced by the Finnish Sami Parliament (Sámediggi). There are now Sami parliaments in all three Nordic countries, with varying degrees of authority, as well as the regional Sami Parliamentary Council.


Sami are recognized as indigenous people by the Constitution of Finland, which also stipulates their right to cultural autonomy within their homeland, noting that 'in their native region, the Sami have linguistic and cultural self-government'. However, large-scale natural resource exploitation and development projects threaten the traditional way of living for the reindeer-herding community. In February 2011, the world's fourth largest mining company, Anglo-American, conducted exploratory drilling in a Sami reindeer-herding area, and found large deposits of nickel, copper and gold. The Canadian mining company First Quantum is also conducting exploratory drilling in the region.

The expansion of mining activities could make reindeer herding increasingly difficult in Finland. Relevant legislation does not acknowledge or grant any special land rights to the Sami community or acknowledge any exclusive rights for Sami people to pursue their traditional livelihoods. Furthermore, unlike in Norway and Sweden, reindeer husbandry is not reserved for Sami in Finland, but is open to any citizen of the EU.

The Finnish Sami Parliament lacks specific decision-making powers regarding the use of lands or access to water and natural resources in Sami territory. The state is the legal owner of 90 per cent of the land designated as Sami homeland. There is at least a measure of protection, however. The Finnish Reindeer Husbandry Act of 1990 affirms that state authorities should consult with representatives of Sami reindeer-herding cooperatives when planning measures on state land that will have a substantial effect on reindeer herding.

Finland has ratified all major UN human rights treaties, including the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and voted in favour of adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, the country has not ratified the International Labour Organization Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169 (ILO 169), which would grant Sami stronger land rights as it recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to land and natural resources as central to their material and cultural survival.


On 1 January 2011, the Swedish Constitution was amended to explicitly recognize Sami as a people. This was pursuant to a long-standing request of Sami to be distinguished from other minority groups in Sweden. Nonetheless, the UN Special Rapporteur heavily criticized Sweden in his 2011 report for its failure to tackle the most pressing issues for Sami, in particular those related to land and resource rights. Like Finland, Sweden has not yet ratified the ILO 169.

The Swedish Sami Parliament's powers are limited to monitoring the issues related to Sami culture. It has limited opportunity to participate in decision-making processes when it comes to issues about land and natural resources. In Sweden, 3,000 Sami practise reindeer herding, managing approximately 250,000 reindeer in areas scattered across the northern 40 per cent of the country. The 1971 Reindeer Grazing Act allows Sami to use land and water for themselves and for their stock, but only within certain geographic areas defined by the law. Reindeer-herding rights in Sweden are exclusive and limited to those Sami who live within designated communities, called samebyar, and practise reindeer herding as their principal livelihood. But specific reindeer-grazing areas have not been demarcated and Swedish courts put the burden of proof on Sami to demonstrate land use. Sami are required to prove long-term use of the area claimed, despite the fact Sami leave few if any physical marks on the land they use.

'It is remarkable that still in 2011, a colonizing power tells the indigenous population that it must prove its right to exist on its traditional land before the courts of the colonizer', said Mattias Åhrén, head of the Sami Council's human rights unit, commenting on a case in which three Sami reindeer-herding communities in the Härjedalen region were being pushed by the state to sign a tenancy fee agreement, forcing them to pay grazing fees to local land-owners. This follows a lawsuit in 2004, when majority land-owners in Härjedalen successfully claimed that no grazing rights existed for Sami on land to which they hold title. In a positive development during April 2011, however, Sweden's Supreme Court ruled that customary land use, showing due consideration to reindeer-herding practices, as opposed to Swedish property law, should determine access.

The development of renewable resources, such as wind turbines and hydroelectric dams, is also increasingly encroaching on reindeer-grazing lands in Sweden. Over 2,000 wind turbines have been planned in reindeer-herding areas. In March, Lars-Anders Baer, a reindeer herder and a former president of the Swedish Sami Parliament, called recent developments 'windmill colonialism'. He was specifically reacting to the Markbygden wind farm project, which the Swedish Sami Parliament has criticized regarding the lack of proper consultation, disrespect of their rights and the fact that they were not offered fair compensation for the loss of land and livelihoods. With more than 1,100 wind turbines planned, Markbygden will be Europe's largest land-based wind-power park and will be built in the municipality of Piteå, where the Sami community of Östra Kikkejaur has its winter reindeer-herding pastures.

Sami in Sweden are also not protected from expanding mining projects, as existing mining laws do not contain provisions to safeguard the rights of Sami people. In Kiruna town, Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB company has plans to relocate half the town in order to accommodate the expansion of an existing iron ore mine into reindeer-herding lands and vital reindeer migration paths, without consulting the Sami community.


The Sami National Day on 6 February, commemorating the first Sami congress held in Trondheim, Norway in 1917, is celebrated in all four countries where Sami live today. Norway was the first Nordic country to ratify the ILO 169 and voted in favour of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Norway has also recognized and apologized for the discrimination and imposed assimilation that Sami people suffered, including the prohibition of their languages under the 'Norwegianization' policies enforced in the past.

The Finnmark Act of 2005 was an important step forward for Norwegian Sami's right to self-determination and control over natural resources. Although the legislation was a compromise between Sami and majority interests, and has therefore met with some criticism, it recognizes that Sami and others have acquired rights to land and resources through long-term customary use. The Act transferred 95 per cent of the land in the Finnmark region to the Finnmark Estate, the board of which comprises local government officials and Norwegian Sami Parliament representatives. Concern has been expressed that the Act does not go far enough to protect the rights of particularly vulnerable indigenous communities, such as the East Sami people.

The right of access to marine resources is a particular worry for Norwegian Sami, due in part to the industrialization of Norwegian fisheries. This has led to diminished local control as well as environmental problems. Also, regulation of stock is decided centrally, without taking into account customary decision-making or local knowledge.

The Norwegian Mineral Act requires that the Sami way of life be safeguarded and that the Norwegian Sami Parliament should have an opportunity to comment when permits are being considered. However, Sami representatives have criticized the limited scope of the consultation process as well as the fact that it is limited to Finnmark and does not extend to traditional lands elsewhere.


In Russia, the Sami language is endangered, partly due to the comparatively small size of the community. Sami arrived at the Kola Peninsula some 5,000 years ago, but the traditional way of life for the Sami in Russia has been slowly fading away, as they have been pushed back from tundra grazing lands by a steady expansion of industry, forestry and mining, and by urbanization. During the Cold War, Sami reindeer herders were pushed back from a 200-mile exclusion zone along the border, and Sami fishermen were forced away from the shore of the Barents Sea, as the Soviet military built a network of secret navy installations there. Further threats have emerged as the mineral riches of the Kola Peninsula and its geographical location on the shores of the Barents Sea have made it attractive to the oil and gas, and other extractive industries. Sami also complain that tourism companies keep them from practising their traditional fishing by the Voronya River and Lovozero Lake.

The Shtokman oil field is one controversial project under development that will potentially have a grave impact, not just on the Sami but on other communities living on the Kola Peninsula. One of the largest explored natural gas fields in the world, the shelf deposit lies in the Russian part of the Barents Sea, some 600 km from Murmansk town, a large regional centre on the Kola Peninsula where the Russian part of the Sápmi region lies.

The Shtokman Development AG has plans to extract gas from the sea and transport some to Murmansk; but, from 2016, the majority of the gas will be piped to Europe across the Baltic Sea via the Nord Stream pipeline. Shtokman Development AG is a joint project of Gazprom, Total SA and Statoil ASA. According to the Shtokman company, gas supply in the Barents Sea is enough to meet global demand for a year. A civil society expert group organized by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) conducted an investigation into the Shtokman project and in February 2011 concluded that environmental damage could be great should development of the field proceed. While large-scale investment in the Shtokman project could improve conditions in Teriberka town, where unemployment is high and living standards are desperately low, experts warn that its environmental impact could have tragic consequences for natural ecosystems in the region and further curtail the traditional way of living of the Sami.

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