Indigenous People at the Forefront of Environmental Destruction

A Look at the Arctic Sami

By Aada Orava, GLOBUS correspondent

‘I don’t think that there has been a single time in the history of this country when a Sami was given a microphone in front of such a big crowd, so here it comes’. With this powerful remark, the Sami activist Ásllat-Mihku Ilmára Mika Petra, aka Petra Laiti, started her speech at the 2018 Climate March in Helsinki, Finland. She was preparing the audience to hear of the imbalance between the political influence and visibility of the Sami compared to the severe impact of environmental destruction and climate change on their traditional livelihood and survival.

The Sami are Europe’s only indigenous people whose homeland stretches across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The total Sami population is estimated around 50 000 – 100 000 and the traditional livelihood of the Sami is closely connected to reindeer husbandry, salmon fishing, gathering, ptarmigan trapping and Sami handicraft. 

It is exactly these traditional livelihoods that environmental destruction is threatening in various ways. Firstly, the natural habitat that the Sami lifestyle depends on for survival, specifically snowbeds, snow patches and mountain birch forests, is compromised by the impacts of climate change. Secondly, since the environment is also an important cultural landscape, changes in it also risk eroding cultural meanings, stories, memories and traditional knowledge that comes with them. Thirdly, as the environment makes the practice of traditional Sami livelihoods more difficult, there is in turn a loss of terminology and practical traditional knowledge. As Professor Jouni Jaakkola from the University of Oulu summarises, “the people who live in harmony with the nature and contribute only little to climate change may be the population that suffers the most from the adverse effects of climate change.”

The lack of real political influence and power of the Sami compounds the struggles they are facing. In all three Nordic countries – Sweden, Norway and Finland – a Sami Parliament has been established with the task of maintaining the linguistic and cultural autonomy of the Sami. But these Parliaments do not claim the right to much else other than voicing their opinion – meaning that the national governments are not actually obliged to consider the Sami stance on matters than concern them. Not only is this a breach of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which guarantees indigenous people’s rights to self-determination and autonomy in their local and internal affairs, but it also leads to further threats to the Sami way of life. 

For example, in Norway, mining companies have been allowed to dig mines on Sami land, and then to dump the toxic mineral waste in the fjords, some of the most important bodies of water in the Arctic region for salmon fishing. Furthermore, the government is planning on setting up a huge wind park in the reindeer territory, threatening Sami traditional culture and livelihood. Economists have criticised the plan to construct the windfarm, labelling it as redundant (Norway already produces more energy than it uses) and Aili Keskitalo, the President of the Norwegian Sami Parliament, has quipped that Norway’s response to climate change might be causing more problems for the Sami than the actual phenomenon itself.

Similarly, in Sweden, the country is on course to triple its mining production. Even though the official government website advertises the initiative as a sustainable one, the Sami people have reason for concern. Many of the locations for interest are located on Sami land, and the establishment of more and more mines will leave less land for reindeer herding and diminish the size of the natural environment still left intact.

Unfortunately, the struggle of the Sami is not a unique fight. All over the world, indigenous groups are having their livelihoods and entire survival compromised by the impacts of environmental destruction and governments that are either unequipped or unwilling to protect their rights. In Russia, it is the Khanty fighting to protect their sacred lake Ilmor from oil drilling; in Canada, it is the Beaver Lake Cree Nation pushing back against the oil industry who are looking to take advantage of the Alberta tar sands. This just to name a few groups in the Northern Hemisphere alone.

The Sami struggle is just one example of the way in which climate change and environmental destruction often hits indigenous groups the hardest. There is a serious need for real effective dialogue between governments and indigenous peoples if there is to be any hope of change. Often, there is a lack of understanding and expertise on the side of the government and the general population, so what is needed first and foremost is knowledge and awareness. Considering the urgency of the climate crisis, however, the process that has taken place so far in the destruction of indigenous culture and livelihoods might already be irreversible. 

Header image: Photo by Warren Sammut on Unsplash

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