• 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.

The Indigenous World 2024: 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 they live in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. Traditionally, livelihoods such as reindeer herding, fishing, hunting, gathering, agriculture, and handicrafts are central to Sámi culture.

There is no reliable information on the population of the Sámi people; they are, however, estimated to number between 50,000-100,000.

Around 20,000 live in Sweden, which is approximately 0.19% of Sweden’s total population of approximately 10.5 million. Some 50-65,000 live in Norway, between 0.91% and 1.18% of the total Norwegian population of approximately 5.5 million. Around 8,000 live in Finland, which is approximately 0.15% of the total Finnish population of around 5.5 million. And some 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, while on the Russian side they are organized into non-governmental organizations (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 Saami Council, which is a central Sámi NGO representing nine 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 UN on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007, while the Russian Federation abstained. However, in 2014, the Russian Federation voted in favour of the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, which is considered an acknowledgement of the declaration. Norway ratified ILO Convention 169 in 1990, and there have been discussions in Sweden and Finland, without these resulting in ratification of the Convention. The Sámi people are acknowledged as either a people or an Indigenous people, or both, in the constitutions of Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

The green shift and critical raw materials

Climate change is already causing significant negative effects in the Arctic, occurring at a magnitude and pace unprecedented in recent history, and at least three times faster than projected for other world regions.[1] The consequences are higher temperatures and precipitation, permafrost thaw, changes in snow cover, loss of sea and land ice, extreme weather events, declining biodiversity, and northward shifts of species on land and in freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Simultaneously, there is an increased global interest in natural resource development on Sámi land, inter alia, wind power, hydropower, and extractive industries such as mining. These projects are often in direct conflict with Sámi livelihoods and in areas essential for the existence of Sámi culture. It means the Sámi people are not only highly affected by climate change itself but also by land encroachments justified by governments and companies with the urgent need for the green transition.[2] From the perspective of Indigenous Peoples, this is often referred to as green colonialism.[3]

It has been pointed out that the Sámi people carry a double burden, a paradox highlighted by Sámi representatives.[4] On the one hand, the Sámi are among the people most affected by climate change. On the other, they are also expected to carry the burden of mitigation and to allow land encroachments onto their remaining and already limited land.

The European Union (EU) Critical Raw Materials Act, adopted by the European Parliament on 7 December 2023, aims to secure essential mineral supplies crucial for the EU’s green and digital transitions.[5] It seeks to position Europe as a manufacturing hub for green technologies such as electric vehicles and wind turbines. By identifying 34 critical raw materials, with 17 labelled as “strategic” due to global supply imbalances, the legislation aims to safeguard against potential disruptions to the EU economy.[6]

Of interest to Indigenous Peoples was the fact that an early version included a reference to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). However, the text was considerably weakened in the end.[7]

The Act poses a risk of accelerating mineral extraction in Sápmi, potentially worsening existing injustices in mining-affected regions such as the Kiruna area in Sweden. LKAB, a mining company based in Sweden, is already operating extensively in the Kiruna region. In January 2023, they announced a new discovery, revealing deposits of rare earth elements and further exacerbating the situation for reindeer husbandry.[8] The plans to expand mining activities in this area have already sparked strong reactions from the Sámi community.

The Fosen case

The Fosen case is a conflict centred around the Storheia and Roan wind power plants on the Fosen peninsula in Norway, where they form the main parts of the largest onshore wind power project in Europe. Storheia and Roan are located within the winter pastures of the Sámi reindeer husbandry district of Fovsen-Njaarke, and its two communities, the Nord-Fosen siida (Northern group) and the Sør-Fosen sijte (Southern group).

In 2010, the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate decided to grant licences for the two wind power facilities and the construction of power lines. Approval was also given for the expropriation of land and rights. In 2013, the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy made a decision to uphold both the licence decisions and expropriation permits with minor adjustments.[9]

These decisions to permit the wind power facilities were challenged in court by the reindeer husbandry district claiming the licences were invalid and citing violations of Article 27 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Nevertheless, the wind companies were granted permission to commence construction. Roan’s 71 turbines were commissioned in 2019, and Storheia’s 80 turbines began operating in 2020. In all, a total of 159 km of wide roads were built across the winter grazing lands of the reindeer husbandry district.

In 2021, the case reached the Supreme Court of Norway, which considered the case in its grand chamber and unanimously determined that the wind power facilities violated the reindeer herders’ rights to practice their culture according to Article 27 of the ICCPR. In the judgement, emphasis was placed on the vulnerability of the Southern Sámi culture. The decisions regarding the licences and expropriation permits were consequently ruled invalid.[10]

It was undisputed that Sámi reindeer husbandry enjoys protection under Article 27. The Supreme Court based its decision on the Court of Appeal's conclusion that the winter pastures at Storheia and Roan were, in practice, lost and that the wind power facilities were threatening the existence of reindeer husbandry on Fosen unless remedial measures were implemented.

The Supreme Court stated that, as a starting point, there should be no allowance for a proportionality assessment to balance the minority's interests against other interests of society. This is a natural consequence of the justification for minority protection, as it would otherwise be minimally effective if the majority population were able to limit this based on an assessment of its legitimate needs. Nonetheless, in the view of the Supreme Court, a balance might be granted if Article 27 were to come into conflict with other fundamental rights, such as the right to a clean and healthy environment. This was not, however, applicable in the Fosen case, given the availability of alternative sites for wind power facilities.

Regarding potential remedial measures, such as providing substantial compensation for the winter feeding of enclosed reindeer, the Court held the view that interference itself might be incompatible with the reindeer herders' right to enjoy their own culture under Article 27 of the ICCPR, as winter feeding deviates from the cultural practice.

After the judgement, there was no follow-up by the Government of Norway, leading to frustration in Sámi society. Five hundred days after the judgement, in February 2023, Sámi and Norwegian youth occupied the lobby of the offices of the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy. The police forcibly removed them during the night some days later. This escalated the protest, with a week of extensive demonstrations and civil disobedience, including blocking entrances to various ministries.[11]

The protests led to a dual outcome: a public apology from the government to the reindeer herders of Fosen on 2 March – one week after the protests started – and the government finally admitting an ongoing violation of human rights. In the aftermath, the government decided to facilitate mediation between the reindeer husbandry district and the wind companies, even though the Supreme Court had concluded that the State's own licensing decision was invalid.

A new round of protests and civil disobedience ensued in October 2023, marking 700 days since the judgement. This time, there were also protests in the Norwegian Parliament building and outside the building of the State-owned energy company, Statkraft. The protests came to an end after His Majesty King Harald accepted an audience with the youth who had organized the demonstrations.[12]

In December 2023, the mediation resulted in a settlement for the Sør-Fosen sijte (Southern group). Upon implementation, the agreement will provide compensation for the environmental impacts resulting in the loss of winter grazing land for reindeer herding in Sør-Fosen. Key aspects of the mitigation measures include financial compensation, replacement grazing areas committed by the State, and granting the Sør-Fosen sijte the power to veto further licensing once the current 25-year concession period ends.[13]

The Nord-Fosen siida (Northern group) has demanded the demolition of parts of the wind power facilities but there has been no agreement on this in the mediation. All wind turbines in Fosen are still in operation, and the ongoing human rights violation is persisting almost 2.5 years after the Supreme Court decision. Furthermore, the government has not yet taken any active steps to prevent similar violations against the Sámi people in the future.

The Finnmark Act and the Karasjok Estate

The Finnmark Act of 2005 established a legal framework for settling land claims and delineating ownership and usage rights in Finnmark, Norway. This process involves addressing historical disputes and ensuring the recognition of the Sámi people’s rights to land and resources. The ongoing mapping of land rights in Finnmark is progressing at a steady albeit rather slow pace.

In April 2023, the Finnmark Land Tribunal issued a ruling concerning the Karasjok area.[14] This area is noteworthy as it represents the first region from the inner parts of Finnmark where the Sámi people are in a majority and where the Sámi culture has not been as severely impacted by the State's assimilation policies as in the coastal areas.

The case related to claims of collective property rights to land in Karasjok, which the Finnmark Estate[15] took over from Statskog SF, the Norwegian State-owned land and forest enterprise, in 2006. The dispute revolved around whether the property rights belong to the Finnmark Estate, to the local population in Karasjok, or solely to the Sámi population in Karasjok.

A majority (3-2) of the Finnmark Land Tribunal concluded that the property rights belong collectively to all individuals who are registered residents of Karasjok at any given time. These property rights were acquired through long-standing customary use and had not been forfeited. Additionally, a majority determined that the State had not acquired property rights to the area through a specific legal arrangement. The potential new property in Karasjok is often referred to as the Karasjok Estate. A minority on the Finnmark Land Tribunal held that the local population had not acquired property rights to the area.

A majority of the Finnmark Estate's Board has appealed the decision of the Finnmark Land Tribunal to the Supreme Court of Norway, which has accepted the case for consideration. The case will be heard in the first quarter of 2024.



Mr. Eirik Larsen (Lásse Ivvár Erke) is an Indigenous Sámi lawyer and holds the position of Head of the Human Rights Unit at the Saami Council. Alongside this role, he serves as a Member of the Sámi Parliament in Norway. Larsen previously served as an adviser to the two most recent presidents of the Sámi Parliament in Norway. He has also acted as an adviser to the Norwegian government on Sámi and Indigenous issues. His activism includes involvement in Sámi associations and engagement in land disputes concerning Sámi and Indigenous territories. For further information about the Saami Council see: www.saamicouncil.net


This article is part of the 38th 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 of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] "Climate Change in Sápmi – an overview and a Path Forward,” 35, Saami Council, https://www.saamicouncil.net/en/climate-change-in-sapmi

[2] The “green transition” refers to a significant and intentional shift in societies, economies, and industries towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.

[3] The term “green colonialism” was used by the former president of the Sámi Parliament in Norway Ms Aili Keskitalo as early as 2011. In 2023, the term was announced as the new word of the year by the Language Council of Sweden and the newspaper Språktidningen.

[4] Aili Keskitalo, The New Humanitarian, 3 February 2016, https://deeply.thenewhumanitarian.org/arctic/community/2016/02/03/qa-aili-keskitalo-on-saami-land-rights-in-norway?fbclid=IwAR2Qp0V_tckkVC8dGWZS3UR-XXs-GWDYfiTipZGG9IszaqTPIf5ewAjFF8M

[5] The European Parliament website, 12 December 2023, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20231208IPR15763/critical-raw-materials-plans-to-secure-the-eu-s-supply

[6] Sweden and Finland are members of the European Union. Norway’s relation to the EU is regulated by the European Economic Area Agreement.

[7] EU Parliament, adopted text Critical Raw Material Act: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2023-0454_EN.html. The act still awaits endorsement from the EU Council before it can come into force.

[8] LKAB website, 12 January 2023: https://lkab.com/en/press/europes-largest-deposit-of-rare-earth-metals-is-located-in-the-kiruna-area/

[9] Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, licences for Storheia and Roan, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/upload/oed/pdf_filer_2/fosen/vindkraft_og_kraftledninger_pa_fosen_klagesak.pdf

[10] Supreme Court of Norway, HR-2021-1975-S: https://www.domstol.no/globalassets/upload/hret/decisions-in-english-translation/hr-2021-1975-s.pdf

[11] Paddison, Laura. “Greta Thunberg has joined a protest against wind farms. Here’s why.” CNN, 2 March 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/01/europe/greta-thunberg-wind-farm-norway-sami-climate-intl/index.html

[12] To request an audience with the King is a Sami tradition when other avenues fail to yield results. In earlier times, this likely held even greater practical significance, as the King wielded more tangible power. In the Fosen protests, the meeting with His Majesty King Harald did not yield results in the actual matter at hand but it was nonetheless a recognition of the protests.

[13] Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, 19 December 2023: https://www.regjeringen.no/en/aktuelt/agreement-between-sor-fosen-sitje-and-fosen-vind/id3019277/

[14] The Finnmark Land Tribunal, Sak 21-086077TVI-UTMA, 21 April 2023, https://www.domstol.no/globalassets/domstolene/utmarksdomstolen-for-finnmark/dom-av-21.04.2023-rettet.pdf

[15] The Finnmark Estate is a landowner that currently manages the State's previously unregistered land in Finnmark. As of today, the property comprises approximately 95% of Finnmark county but the area will be reduced if the mapping process shows that others are the actual owners of specific areas.

Tags: Land rights, Youth, Business and Human Rights , Climate, Protest , Criminalisation



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