Can Europe Make It?

Norway's Sami people fight for their land as reconciliation commission delves into their past

'Today we must apologize for the injustice the Norwegian state has previously inflicted on the Sami people through a harsh Norwegianisation policy'

Irene Peroni
27 September 2021, 1.09pm
Activists at the Repparfjord camp wait for visitors.
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Photograph. Irene Peroni. All rights reserved.

Do you remember James Cameron’s hugely successful blockbuster movie Avatar, in which a blue-skinned tribe of peaceful, extra-terrestrial humanoids, the Na’vi, fight the destruction brought about by humans who invade their planet Pandora wreaking havoc in the most sacred parts of their forest to extract a precious mineral?

“If you have to go four and a half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well (…), that's the wonder of cinema right there, that's the magic,” Cameron said at the Golden Globesawards.

He could not have been more right. Too bad the magic of cinema sometimes distracts us from an equally cynical and sometimes more hypocritical reality, which most of the time offers no catharsis, no happy ending.

The idea that natives are the true guardians of nature because they own, as a prominent UN representative put it, “the traditional knowledge of their ancestors”, is indeed a principle enshrined in documents such as the ILO Indigenous and tribal peoples’ convention (1989) and the UN Declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples (2007). Even the Paris Agreement (2015) “recognizes the need to strengthen knowledge, technologies, practices and efforts of local communities and indigenous peoples related to addressing and responding to climate change”.

The ILO convention states very clearly that “measures should be taken to safeguard their rights to use lands to which (they) have traditionally had access for their subsistence and traditional activities. Particular attention shall be paid to the situation of nomadic people and shifting cultivators in that respect”.

The Sami of Europe

So how come that mainland Europe’s only indigenous peoples, who also happen to be half-nomads, the Sámi of northern Scandinavia, are fighting like David versus Goliath against governments and multinational companies to save their traditional livelihood, namely reindeer husbandry?

Just two brief examples of what the outgoing president of Norway’s Sami Parliament, Aili Keskitalo, has often described as “green colonialism”:

– In the northernmost part of Norway, a Sámi community is fighting against a soon-to-be-opened “zero-emission” copper mine set to become one of the largest in Europe. The mine is to be dug on grazing land and will greatly affect Sámi families who have been using it for many centuries, possibly thousands of years.

– An international wind power consortium called “Fosen Vind” has set up 80 wind turbines in an area used as winter pastures by the southern Sámi. The consortium, founded by Credit Suisse, has appealed a Norwegian court’s ruling that sets at 90m NOK (10m USD) the compensation the Sámi are entitled to on losing that territory. The Norwegian government is siding with Fosen Vind in court.

What on Earth happened to article 108 of the Norwegian Constitution, saying that “the authorities of the State shall create conditions enabling the Sámi people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life”?

The Sámi have not given up their fight – rather the opposite. The new generations are proud of their identity: they keenly study the language they did not learn from their parents, whose own parents had concealed their origins and mingled with ethnic Norwegians after having been discriminated against for generations. Unsurprisingly, they wanted to give their children a better future, even though it meant living in self-denial.

In 1997, King Harald of Norway apologized in front of the Sami Parliament for the treatment they had been subjected to.

“The Norwegian state is founded on the territory of two peoples – Norwegians and Sami,” he said. “Sami history is closely intertwined with Norwegian history. Today we must apologize for the injustice the Norwegian state has previously inflicted on the Sami people through a harsh Norwegianisation policy.”

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is currently investigating the past wrongs inflicted upon the natives, to lay the foundations for “greater equality between the majority and minority population”. A final report should be ready by the autumn of 2022.

But how palatable is the concept of reconciliation if the land of their ancestors, that territory King Harald mentioned in his speech, is quietly being taken away bit by bit under the green flag of meeting climate targets?

This piece was originally published in the September issue of Splinters.

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