Two men walking in mountains with reindeer

Two Sámi men walking in the mountains. Photo: Håkan Hjort / Getty Images .

In December 2020, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued a legal opinion (in Swedish) that found the Swedish government had violated (on several counts) the rights of the Sámi people. This legal opinion came seven years after the Vapsten Reindeer Herding Community first brought their claim to the committee.

Focusing on the permit-granting process regarding the opening of three new mines, the opinion concluded that Swedish law discriminates against the Sámi people, as legislation does not adequately secure their rights as indigenous people. Nor does legislation currently enable the international standard of free, prior and informed consent to be adhered to in the permit-granting process for mining concessions (2018, Allard) . The UN Committee recommended Sweden amend its legislation “to reflect the status of the Sámi as indigenous peoples.”

An enduring fight

CERD’s legal opinion is the latest in a long line of critiques made by several UN bodies concerning Sweden’s failure to uphold the rights of the Sámi people. Most notably, the shortcomings of Swedish law in protecting Sámi people’s human rights were mentioned consecutively in the past three Universal Periodic Reviews .

Despite this pressure, the Swedish government does not mention the rights of the Sámi people in its newly launched investigation into the permit-granting processes and the Mineral Act, which has been commissioned to ensure sustainable mineral and metal supply in Sweden (directive in Swedish) .

Indigenous peoples have long been responsible users, protectors and stewards of land. This stems specifically from their relationship with the land, which they rely on to survive and is integral to their social and cultural freedoms. Like indigenous communities across the globe, the Sámi have confronted both businesses and the government as part of their efforts to protect their land from further ruin. Often, their claims are seen as subjective and easily dismissed. To substantiate their claims empirically, researchers from four Swedish institutes have investigated the impacts of land-use change on Sámi existence and their avenues for influencing such changes.

Aerial view or over 3000 reindeer running in a tundra. Big herd of reindeer scattered running all in a same direction taking a slight turn to the right

Reindeer herds moving across the tundra. Photo: Geoffrey Reynaud / Getty Images .

Competing land-use and inadequate legal protection

New research from Luleå University of Technology and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences shows that Sámi communities have few opportunities to affect the permit-granting process. The researchers found that unlike in Finland and Norway, there is no codified legal duty for the Swedish government to consult with Sámi communities prior to granting mining concessions, effectively leaving communities with only legal avenues for input or redress.

With increasing applications for mining permits, Sámi communities have limited time, resources and legal capacity to deal with the overflow of cases. This also begs the question of what role the Swedish government plays in reconciling mining interests with the Sámi people’s fundamental rights.

As part of the research, a systematic legal review was conducted, and it revealed a significant gap in laws protecting Sámi rights at both national and international levels. On the international level, Sweden has not ratified ILO 169 (the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention), effectively shirking responsibilities to uphold the rights of indigenous people in the country and in turn barring the Sami people from finding protection through the convention.

Predicted encroachment on reindeer grazing lands for Vilhemina Norra Sameby due to land-use change

Predicted encroachment on reindeer grazing lands for Vilhemina Norra Sameby due to land-use change. Red crosses: mines; red arrows: wind turbines; black lines: roads; barred lines: railways. Sandström, Skarin, Buhot. from Klöcker Larsen, 2016.

In national law, the only legislation that refers to the Sámi people is the Reindeer Husbandry Act, which applies to Sámi people who herd reindeer and are members of a Sámi village. The act does not provide legal protection to the Sámi peoples’ cultural or social rights, which, as mentioned, are closely intertwined with the land and are integral to indigenous peoples’ survival. While grazing rights are mentioned in national level legislation, these rights are not reflected in sectoral legislation on mining and the environment. These legal gaps make avenues for contestation by Sámi communities sparse and contingent on the few areas currently covered by law.

While Sweden champions human rights abroad, funding development projects and organizations that work to further human rights, it is questionable why such protection is still lacking at home.

Disregarding traditional knowledge

In partnership with the research taking place in LTU and SLU, Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm University have examined the cumulative effects of land-use change in Sámi areas. Three case studies (Vilhelmina Södra, Kaunisvaara and Stihke) compared predicted impacts with the actual impacts of three mines in northern Sweden, one of which was closed three decades ago.

The researchers discovered that the predicted impacts were grossly underestimated and that, despite the mine’s closure, Sámi communities have continued to feel the effects several years later. This research is the first empirical investigation into the long-term effects of mining on Sámi communities. The findings echo what Sámi communities have been stating for decades and effectively challenges the long-standing political solution of coexistence.

Mine in northern Sweden. Photo: Mats Berg / SEI.

The myth of coexistence

Coexistence has long been the solution offered in cases of competing land use between the Sámi and the expansion of several business enterprises (not just mineral extraction industries) in northern Sweden. The Sámi have offered compelling evidence that the impacts predicted by state-recruited experts have been grossly underestimated and that land-use change gravely affects migration patterns of the reindeer to the extent that coexistence would be near impossible.

Despite the unwavering efforts of the Sámi to make decision makers aware of the real impacts, by highlighting centuries of close observations of both their herds and the landscape, traditional Sámi knowledge has been met with disinterest.  

While the Swedish government reiterates the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s slogan “Leave no one behind” at conventions and summits, Swedish legislation impedes the agenda’s aspirations to “realize the human rights of all” and “ensure lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources”( ). Achieving climate goals should and not cannot come at the expense of destroying communities and cultures that practice sustainable ways of living. Justice is integral to tackling climate challenges.

For the Sámi people, justice means gaining equal standing before the law, their inclusion in decision-making processes and respect for their lived experiences, traditional knowledge and cultural sovereignty.