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'Sweden forces Saami reindeer herding communities to give up rights' Saami Council Press Release
Written by Saami Council   
Saturday, 09 April 2011 17:34
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Sweden is placing inhuman pressure on three Saami reindeer herding communities in Härjedalen county to sign an agreement forcing the indigenous reindeer herders to resign inherent rights to lands they inherited from their forefathers and wish to pass on to future generations.  If the agreement is signed, the Saami’s future possibility to pursue reindeer husbandry in the area rests in the hands of the Swedish state and the land-owners.  So far, the state’s and the land-owners’ actions have demonstrated little desire to cater for continued sustainable Saami reindeer husbandry in Härjedalen.


The background of the agreement is a lawsuit where about 780 Swedish land-owners sued the reindeer herding communities, claiming that no grazing-rights exist on land to which the Swedish population holds title.  The lawsuit ended in 2004, with Swedish courts holding that the Saami had not been able to prove their right to pasture in Härjedalen.  A significant factor in the lawsuit was hence Swedish law’s demand that Saami communities prove their traditional presence in an area.  This is difficult for an oral indigenous culture aspiring to leave no traces on the land.  The Saami is officially recognized as the indigenous people of Northern Sweden.  Yet in land-disputes between Swedish and Saami parties, Sweden maintains that the presumption shall be that the Saami have no right to land.  In other words, despite Sweden’s formal recognition of the Saami as indigenous, in practice, in law-suits, Sweden has “transformed” the Saami into the intruding population having to prove its right to exist.


- It is remarkable that still in 2011, a colonizing power tells the indigenous population that it must prove its right to exist on its traditional land before the courts of the colonizer, says Mattias Åhrén, Head of the Saami Council’s Human Rights Unit.  - This discriminatory and insulting policy appears more like a remnant from the early 1900s than modern law, he continues.


The United Nations has repeatedly criticised Sweden for placing the entire burden of proof in land rights dispute on the Saami.  Most recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in a report on the status of the Saami people of January 2011, has called on Sweden to introduce non-discriminatory rules of evidence offering the Saami a fair trial.  Sweden has ignored the international criticism.  Instead, Sweden is forcing the Saami in Härjedalen to sign a document where they give up claims to their traditional land.


Sweden is pushing for an agreement between the land-owners and the reindeer herders pursuant to which the reindeer herding communities are to lease grazing-rights in Härjedalen.  The communities have insisted on a provision in the agreement clarifying that it has no implications as to existence of Saami customary rights to the land, one way or the other.  The legitimate plea has been outright rejected.  Instead, Sweden has taken a number of actions to push through the agreement.  The local governmental authority – Länsstyrelsen – has declared that if the Saami communities do not sign the agreement, their herds will be decreased, with force if necessary.  A similar message was given as late as April 4 by a representative of the government’s agriculture authority (Jordbruksverket).  Such action would drive several reindeer herders out of a livelihood constituting the backbone of their cultural identity and which has been pursued on their traditional land since time immemorial.  Further, Sweden has funded SEK 15 million (roughly EUR 1,6 million) which will be made available retroactively to the land-owners once an agreement is reached.  What is more, Sweden has taken SEK 750,000 (roughly EUR 80,000) from a fund which proceeds origins from forests on Saami land and which hence belong to the Saami.  This money will be used to cover half of the reindeer herding communities’ future lease fees.  With such sums in front of them, land-owners have naturally become interested in an agreement.  Members of the Saami communities, in particular children and the youth, have been subject to harassment.  Swedish authorities have taken no action to stop the harassment.


It is far from necessary for Sweden to force the reindeer herders to sign an agreement declining their rights.  It would cost Sweden approximately SEK 270,000 (roughly EUR 29,000) annually to expropriate reindeer grazing rights for the Saami communities.  This is clearly a marginal sum for the state, in particular given that (i) the reindeer herders’ cultural identity is at stake, (ii) the Saami culture has an inherent right to continuously exist in Härjedalen, and (iii) Sweden ultimately is responsible for the situation at hand.


The European Union has over the years sponsored non-Saami interests in Härjedalen with several millions, mainly tourist projects.  These EU-sponsored activities have not benefitted the Saami.  On the contrary, they often compete with and take land from the reindeer herding communities.


- The EU is interested in a good relationship with the Saami as it seeks observatory status in the Arctic Council, Mattias Åhrén notes.  – The Saami Council is of course always interested in cooperation, in particular with potential key partners as the EU.  At the same time, however, we do believe that if EU is genuinely serious in its aspiration to have a partnership with the Saami, it should put its money were the mouth is.  A good start for this partnership would be if the EU either convinced Sweden to expropriate the grazing rights in favour of the reindeer herding communities, or, alternatively, covered these cost itself.  The expense would be marginal, compared with the amount the EU has already provided to Swedish activities competing with the Saami communities, concludes Åhrén.




For further information, contact Mattias Åhrén, Head of the Saami Council’s Human Rights Unit, mobile phone no. +47 47 37 91 61


Download press release here

Land rights, Mattias Åhrén, Saami Council, Sweden
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