Protecting the rights of the Saami people

Protecting the rights of the Saami people
For the Saami people specifically, the main issue is the survival of the traditional livelihoods like reindeer herding, fjord fishing, and hunting, as they form the basis for the survival of the Saami culture, language, and identity © Heather Sunderland

SciTech Europa Quarterly spoke to Dr Vigdis Nygaard following the Arctic Frontiers event in Tromsø, Norway, about some of the challenges facing the Saami people in the Arctic region.

The Saami people live in four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and their total population is thought to be at around 80,000, about half of whom live in Norway. As increasing amounts of attention is paid to the Arctic region in terms of industrial development and the exploitation of natural resources such as oil and gas, the Saami people and their traditional ways of life are under threat.

SciTech Europa Quarterly spoke to Dr Vigdis Nygaard after the Arctic Frontiers event to discuss some of these challenges and what needs to be in place to better protect the interests and ways of life of indigenous people.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the indigenous people of the North in light of the continued (industrial) development in the Arctic region?

There are many different indigenous people in different states, which means that there really is no single answer here. Although one of the most important challenges across the board is the ability to have a say and to be able to implement the concept of free, prior and informed consent, which is, unfortunately, not the case in many Arctic countries.
It is also important for the many international conventions designed to help protect the rights and interests of indigenous populations to be signed and implemented, because this then commits the nation states to protecting their own indigenous people.

Finally, with regard to industrial processes, it is very important for indigenous people to have a say and, indeed, to be able to say no to developments incompatible with future traditional livelihoods. Again, a right to veto is not in place in national law at the moment.
When industrial development is decided upon and the project moves forwards, it is also very important to be prepared for what kind of co-existence will need to happen between the indigenous people and this new development. Can the industry, for instance, reduce the activity during the reindeer calving season?

Deciding on who the beneficiaries will be from this development is also important; essentially, this means deciding who will see a share of the profits, as there are no instruments in national law in the Nordic nations for securing a share for the indigenous people .

Regarding the Saami people specifically, the main issue is the survival of the traditional livelihoods like reindeer herding, fjord fishing, and hunting, as they form the basis for the survival of the Saami culture, language, and identity. Future reindeer herding is dependent on access to land, and therefore on how the land is protected in national policies.

The traditional livelihoods, however, are really on the margin now, with a limited number of Saami people having reindeer herding and fishing as their main source of income. That is because most Saami people now have other lifemodes which are disconnected from the Saami traditional livelihoods and their traditional land.

However, the Saami Parliament in Norway, which represents the whole Saami population, often support the reindeer herders when in conflict with industrial developments, but there are other Saami people as well who have other livelihoodss, whether they be traditional (such a fjord fishing) or more modern professions. It is important that these different Saami interests are balanced when it is understood that the Parliament is able to influence industrial policy, because many of the Saami people may actually welcome some industrial development as it will offer employment opportunities and the survival of Saami villages.

Those living a traditional Saami way of life certainly encounter challenges not only as a result of new industrial developments but also because of the way in which national policy is reducing the number of reindeer, for example. The main problem is that they compete with other interests which are laying claim to the land – additional industrial developments as well as new infrastructure projects and the construction of cabins, and so on. These developments can affect the reindeer herders quite significantly as they trek over long distances and can thus find some of their routes being blocked.

A proposed copper mine in Kvalsund, Norway, which has been being planned for almost 10 years, has been objected to by the Saami Parliament, which they have the right to do. However, each time the Saami Parliament objects in the different stages of the licencing process, they are over-ruled by the Norwegian government.

This copper mine is a very good example of how different Saami interests come into play: it is the Saami reindeer herders who stand to be affected most by the mine, as they may not be able to continue their activities in this area once it is operational. Saami fishermen will be affected because the deposits from the mine will go into the fjords and ruin the fish stock. Yet, most of the Saami people in the area are not fishermen and they don’t herd reindeer; they just want work and they would therefore welcome the mine. Representing a single population with many voices is thus no easy thing; what Saami interests should be protected and represented?

What roll can foreign policy play in helping to protect the rights of indigenous people?

There needs to be more awareness about the traditional life of indigenous people and, of course, more pressure needs to be placed on countries to comply with international laws – such as signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and others.
It is also important to ensure that organisations such as the International Council of Mining and Metals are looked to for support. Indeed, this particular organisation has developed guidelines for how to operate in indigenous areas and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also has developed some guidelines. Such codes of conduct on how to operate in indigenous areas can perhaps come to act as a way to put pressure on industry itself to be more aware of the indigenous people and the rights they have in the laws of specific countries.

How can it be ensured that indigenous population benefit from industrial development projects?

According to the World Health Organizaiton (WHO), there are an estimated 370 million indigenous peoples living in more than 70 countries worldwide. These people represent a rich diversity of languages, traditions, cultures, religions, and histories. However, despite this richness, these peoples continue to be among the world’s most marginalised.
The very diversity of the world’s indigenous peoples means that no official definition of ‘indigenous’ has not been adopted by the UN system. Rather, the WHO says, a modern and inclusive understanding of ‘indigenous’ has been developed and includes peoples who:

  • Maintain distinct languages, cultures and beliefs.
  • Have strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources.
  • Demonstrate historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies.
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.
  • Have distinct social, economic or political systems.
  • Form non-dominant groups of society; and
  • Identify themselves and are recognized and accepted by their community as indigenous.

According to the United Nations (UN), governments must do much more to provide the enabling conditions required for indigenous peoples, local communities, smallholders and their organizations to restore degraded landscapes and achieve climate change mitigation and adaptation in practice.

The UN’s according to UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) the issue of indigenous rights to land and territories is been ‘critical’ for the success of climate change initiatives.

Speaking in 2016, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said that very few countries have so far made a clear commitment to a requirement in the Paris Climate Change Agreement that countries undertaking climate change activities should ensure the rights of indigenous peoples.

She also highlighted the large number of violent deaths of people protecting their forests and rights to land in 2015 – the deadliest year for environmental defenders on record.
“It’s a dire situation in terms of respect for the rights of indigenous peoples,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

This situation is one that is share by indigenous peoples around the world and it is thus a more global approach but one that is implemented at the national level that is needed in order to ensure that the rights of indigenous people are adequately represented and protected.

The Saami people in the Nordic countries don’t own land as some other indigenous people do in other countries like Canada and Australia, and there is nothing in place for that to change. As such, it is very difficult for them to be able to receive any kind of financial benefit from any industrial activities in the region – such as Impact and Benefit Agreements (IBAs).

In the Nordic region, companies undertaking the development projects are taxed, and this money therefore goes to the state. The money only indirectly reaches the Saami people through the provisions of the general welfare system and can finance Saami institutions, but there is no direct link between industry profits and actual money reaching the Saami people.

In other regions, such as the USA and Canada, things are very different: some indigenous people are able to control their land and resources within self-governing territories through agreements with federal and provincial governments. They are therefore able to establish IBAs and benefit directly with the industries – although how much money they actually receive is often not disclosed.

In Norway, the law makes it very difficult for the indigenous people to receive any money directly from industry, and voluntary payments are rare. Indeed, in some cases such payments may also be viewed as a kind of corruption, or as a paid social licence to operate.

In light of this, it is clear that other measures need to be implemented, and in Norway the Saami Parliament is hoping for an amendment in the Norwegian Mineral Act so that more of this money actually goes back to the Saami people. But again, this is very difficult to achieve, not least because which Saami people are to receive the money would need to be decided upon – is it those who live close to the development? Is it the reindeer herders who trek by but live elsewhere?

Is there a sense that the situation of northern indigenous populations is comparable to that of others elsewhere in the world – Australia, for instance? Could information sharing between populations help across the board?

The different indigenous people around the world do indeed have a lot in common. From being marginalised for so long, you find a lot of strength in a common past. But there are so many different populations in so many different national settings that the differences between them are also pronounced.

It is also a question of the different political institutions that are in place for each. In Norway, for instance, the Saami Parliament has a very strong position. And, of course, Norway has just one Saami population, while other countries have many more, meaning that they often don’t have a common body to represent different indigenous groups.

Thus, while there may be many similarities with indigenous populations elsewhere which could enable a comparison and one population may indeed be able to learn from another, they are also very different and so you have to take into account the specific local or national traits that differ.

Do you feel that progress is being made in terms of the protection of indigenous rights?

Yes, progress is indeed being made; more knowledge now exists when it comes to the challenges being faced by indigenous populations around the world, and with modern interconnectivity also comes the ability to share this knowledge to a much greater extent than ever before.

However, the businesses looking to develop Arctic resources have a lot of money and therefore a lot of influence, and this should be seen in the context of national policy being designed to help develop industrial capacity. Indeed, this is therefore a question of national interests to develop industries in the north by governments who are, at the same time, supposed to protect the interests of the indigenous people. And it is clear that these two objectives clash and, in many instances, the national interests are seen as being more important than indigenous ones.

Dr Vigdis Nygaard

This article will appear in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 26, which will be published in March, 2018

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