Photo: Carl-Johan Utsi

Most people in Sweden know that hydropower accounts for a large part of the country’s total electricity generation (about 45%). What is less known is that 80% of large-scale hydroelectric power generation is located in Sápmi – that is, on traditional Sámi lands.

The expansion of hydropower was carried out during the first half of the twentieth century as part of the colonization of Sápmi, in a process over which the Sámi had little say – if any at all. Hydropower has caused major damage to reindeer husbandry as well as Sámi land use and culture overall – damage that was often not foreseen or taken into account.

Impacts of hydropower expansion in Sápmi

Historical studies have documented the consequences of the hydropower expansion, such as loss of culturally important sites, drenching of reindeer pastures and destroyed fisheries. In a new study, which will shortly be released by our colleagues at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), we also show how hydropower has far reaching consequences for reindeer husbandry in the present, for example by fragmenting pastures and obstructing migration routes.

Unresolved issues

In line with an increasing mobilization within the Sámi population and growing recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples (think of the Swedish Supreme Court’s noted judgment where Girjas reindeer herding district won against the state on rights to hunting and fishing) there are many unresolved issues that the Swedish state and hydropower companies must address. How do we deal with both past and ongoing inequalities linked to hydropower? How much harm have Sámi people suffered because of hydropower? How can compensation agreements be renegotiated? And, in a broader perspective, how can the governance of hydropower be decolonized to ensure Sámi have influence on issues that affect them?

Window of opportunity to address injustices

Right now, and in coming years, there may be specific opportunities to address some of these issues. From 1 January 2019, new regulations have applied to hydropower, with the aim of securing modern environmental permits according to Sweden’s Environmental Code, and thus the rules that follow from EU law. Among other things, a review of existing hydropower plants will take place in accordance with the new regulations. This should provide authorities and companies with the opportunity to focus on at least some of the injustices and damages that the Sámi have suffered as a result of the hydro-projects.

Key legal findings

In light of this, SEI, as part of the CO-LAND research project, commissioned a legal pilot study by Front Advokater aimed at exploring opportunities for Sámi reindeer herding districts to exercise their land rights with respect to hydropower, with a particular focus on the environmental permit review that will soon take place. The result was a report on protecting Sami livelihoods from impacts of the hydropower industry by Camilla Wikland, Lisa Länta and Amanda Mikaelsdotter.

The study (in Swedish) deserves to be read in its entirety, but some overall conclusions from the report stand out:

  • Sámi reindeer herding districts should be able to argue for significant changes during the review process. This is because most permits do not contain modern environmental clauses and usually completely ignore the harm inflicted on reindeer husbandry.
  • In the many cases where hydropower companies and Sámi villages have signed private agreements on compensation, it can be argued that the agreements no longer apply. This is because such agreements contravene, among other things, the new requirements of the Environmental Code.
  • On the other hand, the legislation as well as the national plan for the review process contains extensive restrictions that can make it difficult for Sámi reindeer herding districts to have their rights claims heard. One of the main limitations is that reindeer herding districts can be completely forgotten by authorities and companies when a permit review takes place. This is because there is no explicit requirement placed on public authorities or companies to involve reindeer herding districts.

Promising opportunities for redress

While the report from Front Advokater is a pilot study and more thorough legal analyses must be made, including for each individual hydro-project, it is nevertheless promising that despite the limitations of the forthcoming government review it can still offer a window of opportunity to begin addressing the injustices that surround hydropower.

Finally, if these opportunities are to be taken advantage of, openness on the part of the state and companies is essential. And perhaps most importantly, proactive work is required from the Sámi reindeer herding districts themselves.