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An uncomfortable truce? Reindeer herding and the (other) interests in the Swedish North

Co-creation & Acceleration to reach the Sustainable Development Goals

An uncomfortable truce? Reindeer herding and the (other) interests in the Swedish North

reindeer on the road

By Tatiana Sokolova, PhD student in Environmental Studies at Södertörn University

The possibilities for the global society to make progress on Sustainable Development Goal 10 (Reduced inequalities) has been challenged repeatedly this year. Unsurprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic hit hardest against the most vulnerable layers of societies across the globe. In the summer, the traditional and social media were raging about the misuse of violence by law enforcement in the US, temporarily dimming even the Covid-19 news. Meanwhile, a more positive development towards Goal 10 went largely unnoticed: the Swedish Government published a press release which caught some of those interested in the indigenous issues by surprise. The Government has given the Sami Parliament in Sweden a grant to anchor the upcoming Truth Commission in the Sami society.

The indigenous people of Sweden, the Sami, like many other indigenous peoples around the world, have been subject to discrimination and injustice throughout history. One of the main occupations of the Sami, reindeer herding, has suffered from the encroachment of the Swedish settlers and various industries in the territories they traditionally used, for centuries. As the reindeer herding is coming close to the verge of extinction as a viable socio-economic and cultural practice, a welcome change seems to be coming for the Sami, as the Government is considering a reconciliatory step towards them.

‘We adapt… but is it good or bad?’

The intention of setting up the Commission was nowhere in sight in December 2012, when a research group set out to Abisko in the north of Sweden for a short study of the reindeer herding situation. We were an eclectic group of researchers and students from different countries, representing various academic disciplines and approaches, briefly coming together at Uppsala University to shape our research design.

What we discovered in those few forays into the ‘field’ during the short winter days, and long discussions in the polar darkness at the library of the Abisko Scientific Research Station, was that the days of reindeer herding as a viable economic activity are probably numbered. The two main reasons for that are climate change and the competition with other industries present in the North (energy production, forestry, and mining, to name a few). In the past it would imply a terrible blow on the Sami identity. Some time ago owning reindeer and taking part in reindeer herding was a requirement to be considered a Sami. Simply put, if you were not a reindeer herder, you were not a Sami – at least not in the eyes of the State. Today, this is no longer so. In order to vote in the Sami Parliament, one must be a Sami, and to be a Sami, one has to have had Sami as a language spoken in the family, and to identify themselves as Sami. But in any case, there is no denying that reindeer herding is more than an economic activity, but a lifestyle and a tradition deeply rooted in the Sami culture and history.

The title of the article which we published as a result of our exploratory trip begins with a quote from one of the Sami reindeer herders: ‘We adapt… but is it good or bad?’ Yes, the reindeer herders have been incredibly good at adapting their lifestyle and economy, since the first Swedish settlers arrived in the north of Sweden. But is adaptation always a good thing?

Those in our group who used the social-ecological systems (SES) perspective to analyse the situation raised this question in the form of asking how much disturbance and adaptation a system can take before it changes its identity. It was plain for them, as well as for the others who employed a political ecology framework of analysis, to see that reindeer herding as an socio-economic and cultural practice is heading towards collapse. However, the policy recommendations from these two subgroups of researchers were different. The systems scholars advocated for better or new institutions, which would allow for negotiations and conflict-solving. Those using a political ecology framework insisted on giving the reindeer herders stronger land rights.

 ‘Likely to create more conflicts than it solves…’

One tool for strengthening land rights is the ILO convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which secures the indigenous peoples’ rights to consultation and taking part in the decisions regarding the use of their traditional territories. On our trip to Norrbotten we learnt that consultations are held with the Sami, for example, when mining companies plan development of new mines, but, according to our informants, these consultations were often reduced to a formality. The Sami Parliament wants the ILO convention ratified. Even though, as they explain, the convention does not create any new land rights, only strengthens the existing ones, it seems to be an important legal tool for the reindeer herding and other Sami activities to be able to survive in the long run.

Paragraph 1 of the article 14 of the Convention reads:

‘The rights of ownership and possession of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally occupy shall be recognised. In addition, measures shall be taken in appropriate cases to safeguard the right of the peoples concerned to use lands not exclusively occupied by them, but to which they have traditionally had access for their subsistence and traditional activities. Particular attention shall be paid to the situation of nomadic peoples and shifting cultivators in this respect.’

Sweden has to date not ratified the Convention, and here is what the government said about it in 1997 in an official statement:

‘The greatest hindrance to the Swedish ratification has been the perception that Sweden does not fulfil the obligations under the Article 14 of the Convention’.

In the same statement, it is said that the Government has even studied the adjustment to the Article that Norway did before ratifying the convention, and has contacted ILO asking if such an adjustment can also be made in the Swedish case. ILO notified them that the Norwegian land use rights, which are similar to the Swedish legal conditions, ‘are not incompatible’ with the Convention.

But despite the consideration that the Government has given to the Convention, in 2015 the spokesperson from the Social Democratic Party was quoted saying that a ratification of ILO 169 would entail that Sweden would not be able to take advantage of the resources of the North.

In 2018 the Swedish Radio published an article summarising the findings from a questionnaire they sent to the eight parties in the Parliament, concerning the Sami and the national minorities. The Swedish Democrats were unequivocally against ratifying the Convention, and the Central Party said: ‘The ratification of the Convention in today’s situation is likely to create more conflicts than it solves’. However, most parties were actually in favour of it.

‘An apology would be nice…’

In 1998, the then Minister for Agriculture Annika Åhnberg asked for an apology from the Sami people; an imprudent step, given that this was not mandated by the government. She subsequently resigned, and although her resignation was not directly linked to her action, she did receive a lot of criticism internally before resigning. According to her, the criticism had to do with the Sami land rights.

The Sami are still waiting for an apology, the one which will lead to a ‘change of political course’. As a former chairperson of the Sami Parliament said, ‘an apology would look nice and land nicely’, and it would draw a line under the past injustices. The Sami watch the governments come and go, and hope that the Parliament, which has the decision right in Sweden, will express their opinion on this question.

The Truth Commission

What I find striking in the press release about the Truth Commission is the official acknowledgement of racist practices. It is an unusual step for Sweden, where we are struggling to build a multicultural society. The Swedish Minister for Culture Amanda Lind speaks of it as a chance to address the ‘great ignorance among the majority population about the Sami people’. The establishment of the Commission is welcomed by Amnesty International and by the Sami Parliament. It was at the latter’s request that the Commission is being established, and they have high hopes for it. They will submit their report to the Government about the Sami people’s vision for the Commission in 2021.

This is promising, given the tendency in Sweden to sweep conflicts under the carpet. We can hope that the other also very strong Swedish tendency, that of integrity and humility, will win.

What will happen next? Will Sweden offer an apology to the Sami, and how far will that apology stretch in terms of the political, legal, and economic status of the reindeer herding and other Sami occupations? Will Sweden ever ratify the ILO convention? Will reindeer herding simply die out as a way of life? Clearly, as our SES colleagues remark, there will have to be a ‘systemic shift’; the question is, what will the new social, cultural and ecological landscape of the Swedish North look like in the coming years.


One Response

  1. Rishabh Khanna says:

    Acknowledgment of the past is a step towards reconciliation, but Sweden needs to do a lot more. We need to learn from Australia in this regard.

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