In Depth

Sweden's Sami struggle over land rights

KIRUNA, Sweden (Reuters) - The indigenous Sami people in northern Sweden took a step toward self-determination in the New Year, when the government gave them full control of reindeer herding for the first time.

Nils Torbjorn Nutti, a Sami reindeer herder, feeds his herd in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden December 24, 2006. The indigenous Sami people in northern Sweden took a step towards self-determination on January 1 when the government gave them full control of reindeer herding for the first time. Picture taken December 24, 2006. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Now the people once known as Lapps face a far more crucial battle -- for rights to land they have used for millennia, a struggle that has raised complex questions about traditional land use and the north’s vast mineral wealth.

On January 1, the 31-member Sami parliament gained authority over such issues as Sami local borders, the distribution of a 100 million crown ($18.10 million) fund for fodder subsidies and compensation for losses to predators, and registration of the cuts in reindeers’ ears that show herd ownership.

These decisions were once made by non-Sami officials in county offices or in federal buildings a thousand kilometers to the south.

Lars-Nila Lasko, a Sami lawyer and rights advocate, is pleased the Sami parliament, until now just an advisory body, has jurisdiction over affairs so specific to Sami society.

However, he said Sweden must set out clearly to those Sami who live on herding, fishing and hunting what rights they have to the land they have walked for generations.

“We are coming into a time where the Swedish state must look into the Sami (land) rights,” said Lasko, who wears a Sami jacket and shirt bright with red, green, blue and yellow stripes that to a trained eye reveal surname, home region and dialect.

Peter Skold, director of Umea University’s Center for Sami Research, said that while an answer to the land rights question was far from straightforward, it was essential.


The Sami who herd Sweden’s 240,000 reindeer need access to large swaths of the north so they can move their animals to ensure a proper supply of food.

“Possibilities (for this) have been reduced year by year since the mid 19th century,” Skold said. “The Sami realize that if it doesn’t turn around, they will stand one day without any land rights at all.”

But he said the issue was unlikely to be resolved soon.

It has proven tough even to define “traditional” land, since until recent generations, Sami herders were nomads who followed their animals through the northlands of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia.

There are an estimated 70,000 Sami in these four countries, including about 20,000 in Sweden.

Many of the claims center on “tax lands” taken by the Swedish crown during the mid-1800s settlement of Lapland. The Sami Land Movement, which Lasko heads, argues this seizure violated the rights of Sami families who were then registered as tax-paying owners of much of that territory.

Last month, a claim for such land went to the European Court of Human Rights which Lasko hopes will force the Swedish government to set out clear guidelines at last.

Sweden’s attorney-general, Goran Lambertz, said the land in the extreme north might indeed belong to the Sami, not the state.

“When I last looked into the question, I found that there is reason to believe that they may be entitled to their land in the very north,” he told Reuters.

Lambertz said to gain those rights, the Sami would have to either sue the state or apply pressure to make “politicians take a closer look than they have until now”.


The state has been loath to rush the issue because of another complicating factor: the International Labour Organization convention on indigenous peoples.

Unlike Norway and despite Sami urging, Sweden has yet to ratify this convention, which requires signatory nations to recognize native groups’ rights to own lands they traditionally occupy, and use those they had access to in the past.

It also says native groups may have resource rights on traditional lands, which has worried Swedish mine agencies, said Magnus Kindbom, head of political staff at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Sweden’s northern mineral resources include an iron ore operation in Kiruna, the world’s biggest underground mine.

Skold said the concerns of mining agencies and private landowners about potentially dramatic consequences had led the Swedish government to repeatedly put ratification off.

“They have for a long time now bought time and they have initiated a number of governmental investigations,” he said.

Last September’s arrival of a new center-right government in Sweden may again delay answers.

“The new government now has taken over these issues,” said Kindbom, adding that it would need time to gather and examine information before making any decisions.

He said Norway, Sweden and Finland were studying a convention for the Sami, but warned that this was likely to face the same obstacles regarding ownership of land in Sweden.