Northern Europe’s indigenous Arctic people battle to maintain traditions as their culture and age-old way of life is increasingly threatened by climate change and globalisation.
Between 80,000 and 100,000 Sámi are spread over Europe’s Arctic region, on the northern territories of Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Russian Kola peninsula. Most of Europe’s largest indigenous community have lived in their traditional area, the Sápmi, for over eight thousand years.
However, the story of the Sámi is one of constant struggles for their rights. Since the 15th century, when they were first taxed in hides and furs from hunting, the Sámi have faced persecution: from Christianisation attempts in the 17th century, borders restricting the people’s seasonal movements in the 19th century, to assimilation attempts through schooling and language policy of which some lasted until after the Second World War.
The adoption of various international treaties by the EU – such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the latest EU Council Conclusions on Indigenous Peoples (2017) – has brought considerable progress in the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in Europe’s north.
However, the Council of Europe and European human rights organisations have repeatedly condemned the lack of local representation of the Sámi in national governance decisions.
But while the persecution of rights to culture and language have gradually ceased, the Sámi face other threats to their existence: climate change and land exploitation.
According to Aili Keskitalo, leader of the Sámi Parliament in Norway, traditional lifestyles in Europe’s northern region are under rapidly growing pressure from climate change. Despite globalisation, reindeer husbandry and fishing are still a very common form of traditional Arctic livelihood and the most important industries.
Every year, their reindeer migrate on a long hike along their pastures from the interior, where they spend the winter, to the North Sea, and, after slumbering through the constant darkness of the Arctic winter, back again.
Warmer summers change the landscape and reindeer herding communities experience troubles as repeated rainfalls in wintertime create ice layers barring their animals’ access to food. Climate change also makes the Arctic region, which holds major reserves of natural resources such as raw materials, gas and oil, more accessible for industrial exploitation.
In Finland, ownership and use of land remain unresolved as the Finnish government seems reluctant to protect Sámi territory and has not ratified the ILO Convention 169 – a major international agreement recognising the rights of indigenous peoples. The land, crucial for the grazing and migrating of Sami reindeer herds, is open to exploitation.
Mining companies in Sweden and new infrastructure projects from Kirkenes, Norway to the Finnish city Rovaniemi create unnatural barriers and cause the shrinking of their herding lands. In recent years, reindeer herders in Norway’s high north have been protesting against a new power lines through their grazing grounds.
Coupled with environmental damage, this threatens the continuation of this way of life that embodies a significant part of Sámi culture and identity.
“Unfortunately, some decision-makers have an impression that the Sámi areas are without people and that they simply can invite the whole world to come and take what they want,” Keskitalo told reporters on the sidelines of an Arctic conference in January.
“Time is running out for the world, we cannot continue as before. Everyone must reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible everywhere,” she urged, reminding policy-makers to fulfill their climate pledges.
“Some leaders like Trump think of climate change as it will affect in one or two decades, the ignorance is unbelievable,” a Sámi reindeer herder told EURACTIV during a recent trip to the region.
Nature and landscape is inherent in Sámi lifestyle and identity. In yoik singing, ancient, improvised lilting melodies with or without lyrics, they try to capture the environment they hold dear. A Sámi child gets its first yoik when it is born, they are taught more songs as they grow up.
“You would not sing your own yoik, you listen to others. Except maybe, you are a certain president,” the Sámi said.
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Edited by Benjamin Fox